Dead Man Living.
Death happens. It’s a sad fact of life that everyone dies. Sometimes it’s not pretty, sometimes it’s not right or just. Sometimes deaths can be seen a long time coming, and other times they sneak up on you. Some are coincidental, others are planned. Some deaths will shock you, while others will just leave you with a vague, almost non-definable feeling of dissatisfaction.
The Blackwell Epiphany has put me in an unusual position. I don’t mean a position like the one thrust upon series protagonist Rosangela Blackwell, forced into a life of finding ghosts and leading them to peace. Nor do I mean the position of Joey Mallone, Rosa’s sidekick in the form of a ghost from the 1920s. No, my position is a bit different. The Blackwell Epiphany is the fifth and final installment in a point-and-click adventure game series by Wadjet Eye Games, and as such, is partially driven by bringing closure to the series. As someone completely new to the Blackwell-verse, my duty is to judge this final chapter in a series both as its own beast, and as a conclusion to something I had never heard of until a few months ago. With all that taken into account, I want to take a moment before we hop in to stress what I really should stress in every review: make your own judgments on the game based on what I have written, not the score I have given. If you’re a fan of the series, you might have a very different reaction than someone coming in cold. That said, it’s time to get down and ghostly with The Blackwell Epiphany.
Rosa Blackwell is a Bestower, a sort of universe-designated guide for lost spirits. It was her aunts duty before hers, and her grandmothers before her aunt. Tethered along down the line of Blackwell Bestowers is Joey Mallone, a jazz-era gentleman enlisted in the mission of assisting Bestowers in their great, cosmic task. The pair has spent years together, their ghost-hunting leading them to a lot of dealings not only with the dead, but with the living. Rosa and Joey tread the streets of New York City, easing oblivious, confused spirits into the harsh reality of their death, and acting as the gateway for them to move on.
Rosa and Joey’s connection to the beyond once again leads them into a grander, more complex plot than either of them expect at first. The two witness something unprecedented; a ghost emerging from its body, only to be ripped in half. Joey, a fellow spook, is obviously quite shaken by this. Before passing, the spirit asks frantically for the Bestower. Rosa’s line of work isn’t exactly something you would know to search Craigslist for, and so the idea of her job being some kind of common knowledge is more than enough to pull her in as well. The story that unfolds will take them to every end of the city, dealing with a group of unique characters, both living and dead alike. The early hours of the story create a great sense of building, as players are pulled deeper in to a story about the price of happiness, the cost of living, and the truths behind death.
Throughout the game, the player is able to toggle at will between Joey and Rosa. Rosa, as a living person, can handle material objects, talk to people, and do a wide variety of things on her cell phone, including researching people and places, and connecting notes to try and reach conclusions about what to do next. Joey, on the other hand, is an expert at being dead. He can pass through doors and windows, making him a great asset for finding infor and clues Rosa can’t get to. He can interact with the physical realm by blowing on objects, and is usually the one to do most of the talking with the ghosts encountered through the game. The key is that both are needed to help a spirit pass on, as two parts of a conduit leading to the great beyond. The two are anchored to each other, and Joey can’t go past a certain range from Rosa’s location at a given time.
Gameplay is your standard point-and-click fare. Those familiar with Wadjet Eye’s recent adventure game Gemini Rue might have hoped for a return of that game’s pointer menu, which would give you a choice of several different basic interactions for anything you click on. Sadly, this doesn’t make a resurgence, leaving us instead with your regular old cursor. Interaction with the environment includes some amount of “use X on Y,” but never enough to get tiresome in the slightest. The game relies much more heavily on dialogue and observation, and you won’t be able to progress without paying close enough attention to both the characters you encounter and the world around you. Nothing is mechanically exceptional in any way, but it’s a great example of a game taking traditional controls and doing them very well. The ghosts in need of saving don’t realize they’re dead yet, and must be led to the conclusion themselves. This means players will spend their time hunting for clues, researching names, working with and against the police, and more, all in the name of helping the dead find peace.
The Blackwell Epiphany is also great at its worldbuilding. Although Epiphany is a (mostly) standalone adventure, callbacks are made to previous games. Rosa’s apartment walls are plastered with photos of her with her family, including what looks like artwork from earlier games in the series, as well as newspaper clippings related to characters from previous installments in the series. More important to that, though, is the game’s overall sense of size. If you’ve never been to New York City, let me share an important fact with you: New York City is, as many cities are, big. So how does one address this in an indie adventure game? Instead of keeping Rosa and Joey’s adventures restricted to a few city blocks, we get a simple list of locations in the city to visit. This not only provides a convenient way to avoid too much obnoxious backtracking, but also keeps away the feeling of “wow, what a small world it is that all these varied and interconnected people in a massive city all live within two blocks of each other. Hmm.”
Speaking of good ol’ NYC, the city and its inhabitants are stunning in Epiphany. The game sports some of the most gorgeous pixel art I’ve seen in ages, from characters to colors. The backgrounds look like pixelized paintings, from the streets of downtown to the realm of the beyond. There was a particular point where a character stood on a bridge, and I knew exactly what part of the city I was seeing simply by the view behind him. It’s a picture-perfect visualization of New York City, and this visual atmosphere is further aided by sound. The soundtrack of The Blackwell Epiphany holds a perfect blend of jazz-era groove, gritty tension, and some ethereal, supernatural pieces that are absolutely striking. Every bit of the game is dripping with mood, and gains absolutely perfect marks for its presentation.
You may notice that the one thing I’ve been dancing around here is the one thing Wadjet Eye’s adventure titles are most known for. What could that be, you ask? Why, the writing, of course. And the reason is that The Blackwell Epiphany‘s writing is both the best and the worst of the whole experience. The dialogue is fantastic, especially between the two lead characters. Joey is snarky and funny, but emotionally invested when dealing with every ghost he meets. Rosa is not quite the sassy brainiac, nor the the hardened ice queen-type. The two are extremely human characters, as are pretty much all of the folks, living or dead, you meet throughout your journey. Rosa and Joey can confer with each other on any of your notes, discuss what course of action to take next, or even shoot the breeze, and all of their dialogue is a real treat. The humanization of the characters of Epiphany is something I would go so far as to hold near the lofty heights of Telltale’s recent work with The Walking Dead.
As good as the characters and dialogue are, though, the overarching story unfortunately falls flat after about the halfway point. There’s a really good sense of buildup and mystery as you find clues that eventually lead you to the heart of what’s going on. But in the end, the “big twist” is something made blatantly obvious about a third of the way through the game, and while it still leads things in an interesting direction, it’s a bit of a letdown. Rosa and Joey get a really good conclusion, but even that is marred by the overall feeling of “this is it?” In the end, however, the story is really more about Rosa and Joey than anything else, this being their final outing. Luckily, the specter-saving duo gets a great and fitting payoff, including some closure that it’s not hard to tell has been a long time coming throughout the series. Like or dislike where the plot leads, Blackwell fans will pull a lot of satisfaction out of the end of the game.
The other issue with Epiphany’s story is its own disconnect in seriousness. The penchant for realism goes beyond character writing and into a lot of elements of the overall story. (as much as can be expected in a story about ghosts, anyway) Despite the sci-fi nature of it, the story goes out of its way to feel real most of the time. However, a couple developments later on in the game lack a lot of sense, and one major twist in particular feels downright silly, and in a way that just doesn’t fit what the player has come to expect by that point. Other things simply lack clarity and proper explanation, getting swept under the rug for the sake of upping the ante and raising the level of tension. It almost feels like some parts of the game were written or directed by a different person. It really saddens me to have to mark the game down a notch for these flaws in an otherwise great package.
The Blackwell Epiphany is no ghost, simply because of how much life it has. Despite some story flaws, the sheer amount of love and effort that has gone into making this game a suitable finale to a labor of love series is readily apparent, no matter how familiar you’ve been with the series. Epiphany has solid, tried-and-true mechanics, a pair of extremely loveable main characters, a great premise, and absolutely beautiful presentation. The overarching story is ultimately pretty strong, doing what it needs to do to weave together a series of lost souls with the ultimate fate of Rosa and Joey. Flaws are present, it’s true, but in the end, the game is a classic case of some errors in one area being redeemed by other areas. The game still isn’t perfect, but its top-notch presentation and thorough investigative gameplay earn it four wayward spooks out of five.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PC (reviewed) ; Publisher: Wadjet Eye Games; Developer: Wadjet Eye Games; Players: 1; Released: April 24th, 2014; ESRB: Not Yet Rated; MSRP: $14.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy of The Blackwell Epiphany provided by the publisher.