STAFF REVIEW of Blackwood Crossing (Xbox One)

Sunday, April 9, 2017.
by Chad Goodmurphy

Blackwood Crossing Box art As gaming has matured, its developers have become much better at telling intricate storylines and dealing with mature subject matter, such as love, loss and the resulting grief. It could also be said that indie studios have been leading the way in this respect, as they never seem to fear pushing the envelope or delving deeper than their big budget peers. The result of this has been something special, as games like Fragments of Him, That Dragon, Cancer, and the recent release, Blackwood Crossing, have all done an excellent job of conveying raw human emotion through interactivity.

Lovingly crafted by PaperSeven, whose core team is made up of former Black Rock Studio (Pure, Split/Second) employees, Blackwood Crossing is a stunning debut that you may end up hearing a lot about. Ambitious in the way it approaches difficult subjects, and impressive in the way that it combines an emotion-filled storyline with interesting gameplay, it’s a downloadable title that needn’t be overlooked. Hell, it won’t surprise me if it ends up on some end of year lists as one of 2017’s best indies.

Presented in a way that puts its narrative first, Blackwood Crossing is a game about emotions. To be more specific, it’s about saying goodbye to and living without the people that you’ve loved the most. Difficult subject matter to say the least, but it’s handled with delicate care and a lot of skill.

You assume the first-person vantage point of a girl named Scarlett, who’s recently entered her teenage years and has discovered boys, nail polish and other such things for the first time. Joined by her younger brother, Finn, she’s there to help push things forward as the boy deals with his own worries, thoughts and examples of both grief and loneliness.

What you won’t know at first is that these two kids lost their parents when they were quite young and ended up being brought up by their grandparents. The two elders did a seemingly great job, allowing their kin to play, love and enjoy life, but it still wasn’t enough and issues persist even years later. It’s understandable, and part of what those of us who’ve lost the people we were closest to deal with everyday. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons as to why I bonded with this game so much, with the same being true of Fragments of Him.

Although I wish I could talk more about the storyline, the truth of the matter is that I can’t. If I were to say much more about the plot in Blackwood Crossing it would spoil everything for those who’ve yet to play it and I’d hate myself for that. Just know that what you're signing up for by buying and playing this game is something deep, with lots of layers and character.. It will make you sad, yes, but it will also make you happy and endear the heck out of you with its charm.

Now that the plot has been explained in limited detail, it’s time to talk about what kind of a game this is. At its roots, PaperSeven’s debut is most definitely an adventure game, although it’s got a bit of that walking sim/interactive movie DNA within it. Don’t let that scare you away though, because this isn’t a boring experience, nor is it too complex or obtuse. It’s accessible, but engaging, and it may have you in tears before the credits roll.

What some will see as a downside is that Blackwood Crossing is a relatively short game; however, while it does clock in at between two and a half to three and a half hours in length there’s a reason for this. If the game were much longer, its narrative would suffer, and frankly it wouldn’t be so good and such a meaningful game to play.

There are environments to explore, collectibles to find and puzzles to solve, all of which will take people varying amounts of time. As such, each person’s completion time will depend on their thoroughness and their puzzle solving abilities. Thankfully, though, the puzzles aren’t very obtuse and won’t have you smashing your controller in frustration. There’s a tiny bit of difficulty to them, sure, but nothing that the average person couldn’t solve with some thought and a bit of trial and error.

In fact, most of the puzzles in Blackwood Crossing are dialogue based. Additionally, most of the game takes place on a train that morphs and changes depending on Finn’s mood, or what he wants to show his sister. Outside of it, there are only a couple of locations: one being a treehouse and the other a small island.

While on the train you’ll come across several recurring characters, all of whom have played a large role in Finn’s life. Wearing intricate animal masks for reasons better left unsaid, their dialogue acts as both the clues and solutions to quite a few of the game’s puzzles.

Think of this as a match game exercise, where you’ll need to listen to and match the conversational dialogue of two characters before moving on to the next pair. For instance, the earliest version of this has you matching Finn’s former teacher and a schoolyard bully, then doing the same with similar family members. It’s simple on paper, and not all that difficult to execute, but it befits this style of game and its unique narrative. Additional puzzles will have you using the environment to your advantage, or using your memory to arrange made up words to form a password. Heck, you may just find yourself putting pen to paper in order to create bugs and draw faces.

As you progress through the game, more abilities and options will become available, including the ability to give things life by blowing on them. You’ll also be able to pull fire out of campfires and use it to solve puzzles, or pull on black energy that dissipates when light touches it. And, while all of this may not sound great on paper, it’s better in action and serves its purpose.

Not all things are perfect in the gameplay area though, but the issues I found are small and far from game breaking. There are only a couple to mention, that being some slight framerate hitches and the occasional input problem. In terms of the latter, I mean issues selecting certain items as a result of the game not highlighting them properly, or unnecessarily, requiring you to talk to Finn before you can grab them.

The above problems are thankfully minor and far from common, so they shouldn’t be detractors to those who plan to purchase this game. That said, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t mention them. The truth of the matter though is that a review can’t really do a game like Blackwood Crossing justice. Try as I may, I worry that my descriptors make it sound boring, when, in fact, it’s actually magical.

A lot of the above has to do with how the game looks, sounds and feels. PaperSeven’s art team has done a fantastic job of creating a wonderfully colourful world that mostly exists in a dreamscape. One that looks beautiful, and feels believable, despite being a bit supernatural in nature. What really stands out most, though, are the character models and their extremely impressive facial animations, especially Finn’s.

Of course, with a game such as this, where the narrative and its well-written and haunting dialogue are the focus, voice acting becomes ever important. Blackwood Crossing doesn’t falter, or even stumble here, because it couples its visceral world with fantastic voice acting that turns these digital characters into believable people. In fact, the voice acting is better here than it is in most games.

Needless to say, Blackwood Crossing is a gem, though a couple of slight problems cloud its shine just a bit. This truly is an impressive, memorable and spectacularly human game that does a better job than most of conveying real human emotions through interactive experiences. As such, it behooves you to check it out and give it a chance to warm your heart.

Overall: 8.5 / 10
Gameplay: 8.0 / 10
Visuals: 8.7 / 10
Sound: 8.8 / 10


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