Fans of games like The Walking Dead and Life Is Strange may have a new contender to keep an eye on this fall. This past weekend at PAX West, I was able to go hands-on with King Art's upcoming gothic horror adventure, Black Mirror, after wondering exactly how it'd play. It was revealed without any gameplay footage a few weeks ago. As it turns out, the gameplay feels right at home with other modern adventure games like those from Telltale and other studios. Cinematic flair, dialogue options, and environmental puzzle solving all turned up in my time with the game, though above all else it was the atmosphere that was most impressive.
The Global PR Manager for THQ Nordic, Florian Emmerich, introduced me to the game by calling it the fourth in a series, but because it's a reboot they decided not to use a numeral in the title. It's meant to feel like a fresh start, and you don't need to have played the previous games in the series. Whereas those games were classic point and clicks, this one joins the ranks of the aforementioned modern genre titles. It opens in 1926 as I'm quickly thrust into the role of David Gordon, who is venturing to his family's Scotland estate for the first time following the death of his father. David seems a bit estranged from his family and would've organized the estate from afar, if not avoided it completely, if it weren't for an obscure law that required him to be there in person to handle matters. As the protagonist, I was dropped off by my driver at the doors to a monolithic mansion. Inside I was greeted by a butler and my grandmother, neither of whom I seem to know very well.
The butler escorted me to my room as the candlelit corridors set the mood. These opening minutes played on some timeless horror imagery; the stormy weather, the impenetrably dark rooms and mysteriously locked doors, the quiet air that fills the estate all feel like the setup of a great ghost story. The butler warned me not to snoop around. These 'things that go bump in the night' moments felt familiar, but not in a bad way. It felt like an itch not often scratched by games and I was happy to see it unfolding in this reborn IP. Naturally, as soon as he left me to my devices my next move was to explore the mansion I swore I wouldn't explore.
It was here where the game diverted from the most recent Telltale games that have all but abandoned most exploration in favor of keeping the pacing tuned as they like it. Black Mirror reverts back to the days where you had lots of pathways to investigate and didn't know in which order you should go down them. Environmental puzzling was on display too, something else recent Telltale games have left behind. The puzzles weren't obtuse like the Grim Fandango days, rather they felt like they were meant to get me to see all areas of the castle.
The opening minutes of Black Mirror do well to set the foundation for a rich mystery.
Along my travels I met with several characters including each of those who greeted me when I arrived, plus a few others I won't discuss here so as not to spoil anything. Often times, approaching certain items or heading down certain corridors would trigger cutscenes, even very short ones, that would tip me off to the fact that those things that were going bump in the night are just as unfriendly as one may suspect. The demo ended before I could shine a light, figuratively and literally, on whatever was stirring in the shadows, but as a story-centric gamer, I liked it that way.
The build I saw was not without its problems to be fixed, as frame rate skipping was pretty regular and the game sometimes needed to load going room to room more often than one may find acceptable. If those things can be resolved before the launch, it feels like Black Mirror has a lot of promise. The mood was described to me as Lovecraftian, and while that's certainly a buzzword many recent horror projects have loved to use, it did feel at home here.
The stillness of the Scottish estate was eerie and effective and the story reaches out with enough tendrils early on to ensnare anyone who may typically like this sort of thing. I don't think it will play like a real horror game. That is to say I don't think it will be truly scary given the genre limitations regarding that sort of experience, but I also think they know that and aren't trying to terrify, only unsettle. I do think they can really impress with the atmosphere and setting and I'm looking forward to exploring the shadows again. Black Mirror is due out in November.
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