Black Mirror (Xbox One Review)
The Black Mirror series is one that will likely have passed by all but the most hardened of adventure game players. The original trilogy of games were released between 2003 and 2011 and spun the tale of the strange and unnatural evils that emanated from Black Mirror Castle: a towering Gothic keep in England, where the Gordon family had lived for generations. Within those dank halls, unspeakable practices and madness abounded from the hellmouth-like portal below the foundations.
Now, it should go without saying that this holds absolutely no connection to the highly popular Charlie Brooker created TV show of a same name. The original trilogy of games didn’t review brilliantly, yet they did have some success, and for that reason, (and one suspects for the amazing cash-in possibilities of the name) THQ Nordic have bought up the property and rebooted the franchise.
The 2017 Black Mirror is a clear reimagination of the original title, in both the outline and concept. But whereas the 2003 title was set in an 1980s English castle, this new game relocates the Gordon family, and the ancestral home to the heather-strewn moors of the Highlands of 1920s Scotland, where the youngest member of the Gordon family has returned from a youth spent living in India upon the tragic self-inflicted death of his father. However, upon arriving at the ancestral manor house, it becomes clear to David Gordon that not only is there far more to his father’s suicide than a simple case of good old fashioned madness, but the rest of the household have their own secrets they want kept quiet.
Whether it’s the sarcastically hostile butler, McKinnon, or David’s ageing grandmother Lady Margaret, everyone has something to hide: a fact they go to great lengths to make plain. And as the story unfolds, in part through David’s investigations and through unearthly visions he begins to have, a classic tale of Gothic horror in the traditional mode comes to gradual fruition. By the end there has a been murder, incest, black magic, class disputes and secret identities all at play. All the elements which would normally make up a fantastic horror adventure game. What lets it all down is the execution.
The story may indeed be richly interesting, but it’s flatly told through characters who are both dull, and unappealing at the same time. Even David himself is dropped into the game with a whiny and tired sounding voice over that does little to endear him to the player. While the interpersonal relationships are neither explained, nor allowed to play out enough to allow a proper grasp of how anyone relates to the other characters in any sense but genealogically.
The game is further marred by some clunky controls, which make walking David around more difficult than it should be, and bizarre choices, such as having him explore dark areas lit only by an AI controlled npc with a candle, who not only would get stuck in the scenery, but occasionally would fail to even enter the next room with David.
It’s not as if the game has no redeeming features, far from it. The aesthetic of the game is great, with a wonderfully sombre and washed out colour palate complementing the bleak landscapes and architecture of the house itself. Although, with every success, there is a caveat. The great
look of the game comes at the expense of frequent screen tear and pop-in issues, and frankly ridiculous loading times between scenery changes. Not to belabour that point, but there are times when the player needs to move through upward of five areas to get to the next point, each of which will have a loading screen of 30 seconds or more between each map. This sort of lack of optimisation is quite bluntly unacceptable in a modern game.
Which is still all more the pity, as it’s not a bad story; the deepening mystery and the rich voicework (albeit with a few slightly Brigadoonish accents at play) all help to keep an interest flowing despite the technical flaws and limp characters. But despite this, it’s an uphill battle to recommend the game to anyone but the most committed fan of adventure games, and Gothic horror, and even then, there’s a scant 5 hours of gameplay there.
Editors Note: We convinced that grumpy old git Graeme to help us on this one and we are eternally grateful for his words.