"Rosangela is a smart, tough, fairly antisocial female lead with a male sidekick who talks tough but has almost no power to actually step in and help her."
Many families have heirlooms. Furniture, jewelry, quilts... all kinds of things. But the Blackwells aren't just any family. They hand down a job and a ghostly companion named Joey from generation to generation. They might not like it, but they don't have any choice in the matter, and neither does Joey, as he is quick to point out.
In three of the four games in the Blackwell series, you play as a modern-day writer named Rosangela Blackwell, and in the other, you are her aunt Lauren. Each game is relatively short, lasting somewhere between three and five hours, and they share an overarching plot thread of discovering more about Joey and the nature of the Blackwells' job. Each entry in the series feels like an episode of one long game, and you'd definitely be more than a little confused if you jumped right into the more recent games without playing their predecessors, which is why we decided to review them as one game.
Rosangela Blackwell meets Joey shortly after the opening of the first episode, and when she meets him, she is thrown immediately into the work she'll carry on for the rest of her life, whether she likes it or not. That work is locating ghosts who refuse to move on from this plane of existence, convincing them that they are in fact dead, and with Joey's help, sending them into the light.
Rosangela is a smart, tough, fairly antisocial female lead with a male sidekick who talks tough but has almost no power to actually step in and help her, and I found that dynamic really interesting. However, in the episode in which you play as Rosangela's Aunt Lauren in the 1970s, things are a bit different. Her relationship with Joey is more father-daughter, and that fits her. She's still a strong character, but she's been dealing with the job for a while, and you can tell that it's wearing her down. She knows what she's doing but needs moral support, whereas Rosangela is clueless but self-confident.
The story and dialogue are high-quality throughout the four episodes, and the characters who appear in multiple games stay consistent the whole time. This is an impressive feat, considering the five years that passed between the release of the first episode and the last. In fact, the story and dialogue are the best points of the series, which is very important for a point & click game. There are some points of the overarching plot that remain unresolved at the end of the last episode, but you have enough hints to walk away feeling satisfied rather than disappointed.
The gameplay will, as per usual, feel pretty familiar to anyone who has played even one or two games in the genre. Click on objects to pick them up or look at them, talk to people to get verbal clues, and wander from one small area to the next in pursuit of solving the next puzzle. The Blackwell games frequently set you up with a couple of different puzzle tracks you can work on simultaneously, which is a nice way to help break up your train of thought when you're getting frustrated at your lack of progress toward one particular puzzle.
Unfortunately, the puzzles aren't always great. There was at least one point in each game where I found myself suffering the shame of having to read a walkthrough only to discover that I had not asked the right person the right question enough times
to get the true answer I needed, or that I had not randomly combined the correct clues in my notebook, or some similarly frustrating illogical choice.
A few of the game's mechanics also rely on Rosangela's access to modern tech, and they don't translate particularly well to the second game's disco-era setting. That episode is definitely the weakest of the four, but I forgive it its shortcomings because it sets up the most interesting elements of the connecting plot and because the subsequent episodes follow up on those elements nicely.
The game's visuals evolve from episode to episode, but always retain a pixelated style clearly intended as a throwback to the point & click games of days gone by. The graphics are never amazing, but they're always good, and they get the job done just fine. I can only think of once where the graphics actually hindered me, when I was supposed to notice one visually indistinguishable mailbox out of a panel of 12. If you put your cursor on that box, it has a different name from the rest of them, but there's no real reason for you to think to do so. That said, to have only one moment like that in four episodes is pretty good, so this is essentially a hint by way of nitpick.
The sound quality also varies between episodes, and it's very hard to score as a result. The fully voice acted dialogue is generally well done, with only a few actors whose levels are noticeably off or who can't really convince you that they've got the accent they're shooting for. And, fortunately, those few are among the smaller parts, with the main characters handled by the pros.
The music, on the other hand, feels drastically different from one episode to the next. I feel like the developers were searching for something that they never really found until maybe the last episode. There's background music all the time, except in one episode that only has it occasionally, and the music's styles are all over the board. Most of the music is OK, and some of it is even good, but there are also some tunes that made me strongly consider the mute button. The music is also painfully loud, often overshadowing the actors, and it's certain to give your speakers some grief if you don't remember to put your computer on the closest thing you've got to "mute." When volume sliders finally surfaced in the options menu of the fourth episode, I set the music to about 25% and the voices to 50% to get them down to reasonable, compatible levels.
The controls are fairly consistent, which is a double-edged sword. Most of them work just fine from start to finish, but the items that are problematic also stay broken. For example, you are supposed to hit Tab to switch control between the main character and Joey, and that stopped working for me at some point in every episode. There's an icon in your inventory that you can click to do the same thing, but it's more of a hassle than simply pressing a button. The issues are never gamebreakers, just annoying, and aside from those few issues, the controls are intuitive and functional. This is a genre with a fairly well-established control scheme, and the Blackwell games don't try to reinvent the wheel, which is just fine by me.
Despite a volume control issue and a few frustrating puzzles, the Blackwell games are certainly worth your time. Most of the puzzles are good, and the story is the series' best quality, and those two elements are the most important elements for any point & click adventure game. I'd enjoy one more episode to wrap up the lingering plot threads, but if one never arrives, I am content with the answers I have, and I think that both of those points speak well of this series.