The Blackwell Epiphany (2014)

Three-and-a-half years after the release of the last instalment, and two years after my corresponding review, Dave Gilbert has now released the newest episode of the Blackwell series. He can be excused for the long wait time, having been busy growing his family, adapting to changing times by preparing mobile versions of his games, and building his studio, Wadjet Eye, into a well-respected and trusted indie publisher. So trusted that I pre-ordered their last two games (this one and Primordia, 2012) without consideration to any reviews and will likely do so with the next one when it becomes available on GOG. Not that the early reviews would have dissuaded me, which were pretty glowing, promising the longest and most emotional series instalment.

As far as I can recall (unfortunately, The Blackwell Epiphany does not offer any kind of previously-on recap, perhaps so as not to bore people playing all five games in close succession), the ending to part 4 suggested the advent of a larger, more epic world. The main characters, medium Rosa Blackwell and her ghost sidekick Joey, were confronted with a shadowy conspiracy they intended to take down. There were also continued hints that Joey was withholding important information about his demise from Rosa, grounds for a future falling-out. The latter thread doesn’t really materialise: We do learn a few things about Joey’s past and how he was connected to previous game characters (whom I didn’t really remember, to be honest), and there’s an achievement promising “The hows and whys of Joey”, which however, I did not manage to get. But there’s nothing relationship-threatening there. I wonder whether this was something Gilbert planned but dropped, or whether I simply misinterpreted some dialogue two years ago.

The other implication, that Rosa would hunt down the members of the conspiracy, does not come to fruition at all. The game starts some time after the last one (there are conflicting pieces of evidence regarding the exact timeframe), with Rosa none the wiser regarding the evil cabal, but significantly more experienced in accepting restraining orders. It turns out that helping the dead cross over into the next world is an endeavour that is neither profitable nor prestigious. A cop unwittingly connected to her past helps her on occasion because he knows she gets results, somehow, but other than that, and Joey, she leads a very lonely and isolated life. The weather reflects that, with snow everywhere (and continual rain in the occasional flashbacks) and fitting melancholy music in the background.

Instead of upping the stakes, the game initially has a business-as-usual approach to the story, as does the gameplay: Rosa more or less stumbles across lost souls whom she has to convince of their deaths by way of genre-typical puzzles mainly involving talking to everyone about everything; other kinds of puzzles are rare (inventory puzzles, notebook puzzles) or non-existent (mazes, logic puzzles, minigames). The “spooks” Rosa encounters turn out to be connected both to each other and to a literally apocalyptic endgame for the series and its characters (as well as, technically, afore-mentioned conspiracy, but only very marginally). But as long as Rosa doesn’t know the latter (and she doesn’t find out until about the last third), the stakes remain fairly low.

If I’m honest, that is a bit of a disappointment, because I was looking forward to Rosa displaying a more proactive attitude. I don’t want to disparage Gilbert’s decision to go in a different direction too much, but after four games, the way Epiphany starts feels overly familiar, even a bit stolid. The status quo isn’t shaken up until the end. That said, there’s nothing wrong per se with business as usual, and the individual quests are fairly engaging, with one in particular quite emotionally involving. It continues to be great fun to have both Rosa and Joey describe the people and objects in their path and to use Joey to solve puzzles a human couldn’t, though the transfer of knowledge Joey acquires that way isn’t handled entirely consistently: Rosa often knows things she couldn’t without Joey explicitly telling her what he saw or heard.

Even once the scale is expanded and the fate of the entire world is at stake, Gilbert manages to keep the focus on the personal stories of his characters, both main and supporting, which grounds even the final plot development that seems to come out of nowhere, but gives closure to the various character arcs. Fittingly for a series finale, the dominant theme is the breaking of cycles characters are trapped in, including the unfortunate history of the Blackwell lineage and a familiar face logically and convincingly revealed to be villainous.

There’s little to say about the graphics that wasn’t said about previous Wadjet Eye games. I will admit to unreasonable expectations regarding the character animations in comparison to the still fresh in my mind Dragonsphere. But I’m guessing that despite the fact that there are 20 years between the two, the older game still had a bigger budget and more manpower behind it, so I’m not holding that against Gilbert. I did like that Rosa leaves bootprints in the snow. Speaking of comparisons to Dragonsphere, Wadjet Eye’s streak of consistently serviceable to good voice acting continues, with Joey’s voice a particular stand-out (Rosa’s sometimes seems to lack the proper emotional intensity, but is otherwise okay).

I wrote earlier that according to reviews, The Blackwell Epiphany is supposed to be the longest and most emotional game of the series. The former is certainly true; it took me a little less than six and a half hours, giving the entire series a “running time” of over 17 hours. I don’t know about the latter claim since it’s been too long since I played the other games. But I was certainly satisfied with both the ending and the corresponding journey.

(Sidenote: Two freeware parodies of Blackwell are also available. At about 30 minutes in total, they’re short, filthy, very offensive, and quite funny. Gilbert apparently doesn’t held them against their creator, Francisco Gonzalez, since he agreed to publish his first commercial game.)


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