A brief glance of a reflection in the window gives you a look at a young, redheaded girl on a train going anywhere somewhere. She's an inbetweener, not popular, not unpopular. She has her own style, she's smart, artistic. This is fourteen year old Scarlett and she's being pestered by her ten year old brother Finn to help him get unstuck from whatever trouble he's gotten himself into this time. Scarlett gets up but not before picking up Finn's handheld games console to make sure that he doesn't get in to yet more trouble. She obviously cares about him greatly. The siblings are seemingly alone on the train as the countryside rushes by and the early interactions between the two set the scene. Scarlett is clearly on her way to womanhood while Finn is still firmly rooted in the wonderful world of a ten year old boy. Tree houses, forts, and capes. Damn, I miss it.
The two had been orphaned at a young age, Finn was just three years old and holds a resentment for the fact that he cannot remember his parents while Scarlett has loving memories of them. Raised by their maternal grandparents, the two seem to share a bond beyond that of ordinary siblings but as Scarlett grows up, Finn is losing his playmate. First his parents, and now his beloved older sister. As the youngest of three children, I share Finn's pain. Despite there being just two years between me and my sister, I still remember trying - and failing - to get her to join me in my childish games. My fun, was no longer her fun. It might not be this memory that you share but Blackwood Crossing is based very much in real life, in having a loving family, in the gut-wrenching pain that comes along with that when loss occurs. If it isn't being left behind by your older sibling, it might be a different kind of loss but for many, PaperSeven will unstitch wounds that time has done it's best to heal. They've done a truly wonderful job in crafting a surreal and fantastical story that pulls on the old heartstrings.
While the story compelled me from the off, I found the controls to be somewhat lacking, a little clumsy, a little finicky. This doesn't help in the tight quarters of a train cabin. The interactivity of the game comes from prompts, press B to inspect, A to interact, Y to collect. The simplicity is perfect for the game but it also does demand that you look at the object that you want to interact with at just the right time, in just the right place. This provided a little bit of frustration early on. I'm rarely forgiving on such matters but Blackwood Crossing does everything else so well that after the first few minutes, it just didn't register. I know it was clumsy throughout but it didn't take away any enjoyment that I got from other parts of the game. A patch, of course, would only help.
PaperSeven have perfected that dreamlike state where climbing out of a train cabin straight in to a tree house doesn't seem odd at all.
Throughout the game you'll come across a handful of scenes, a train, a treehouse, an island. The staging is hands-down some of the best I've ever seen. Finn's energetic presence fills them wonderfully but look beyond him and you'll see a wonderfully detailed world full of interesting objects and lush visual clues that glue the entire scene together. Some of the many objects can be 'collected' to gain achievements and unlock more details about Finn and Scarlett's lives growing up.
The environments also seamlessly integrate with one another. PaperSeven have nailed that dreamlike state where climbing out of a train cabin straight in to a tree house (planetarium included) doesn't actually seem odd at all. Neither does the metaphorical 'evil' that lurks in their midst. Getting that combination of weird and wonderful right isn't easy but PaperSeven make it look so. It's the type of weird that Richard Kelly got so right on Donnie Darko, the influence of which can be felt throughout the game in numerous ways, the most obvious being a homage made by way of a fake movie poster slapped up on the wall of the tree house.
Blackwood Crossing provides it's challenge through puzzles spread throughout the game. It's often the case that puzzles in this type of indie game feel 'tacked on', out of place, or simply too repetitive. There's no such problem here, this is partly due to the game's short running time of around 2 hours but also because they are well executed. Not difficult enough to break the narrative but difficult enough to make you pause and think. The puzzles are simple affairs in which you may have just missed something, or in which you must get things in a specific order. The most common puzzle being a 'talking puzzle'. You get a room full of characters and you have to pair up their conversations by talking to them in the right order. It almost feels like a more evolved version of Snap.
Studio Head Alice Guy cites Sean Vanaman (The Walking Dead Season One, Firewatch) as "one of the heroes of our genre" so it's no surprise that Blackwood Crossing put me in the mind of Firewatch. It's a completely different game, a completely different story but the two share a similar ethos - narrative driven by compelling characters. The comparison is one I make for two reasons. The first gives you an idea of what to expect in terms of that narrative. Much like how the relationship between Henry and Delilah drove Firewatch, the same can be said for Scarlett and Finn in Blackwood Crossing. The second reason is rather more of a compliment. For understandable reasons (technical, time contraints, financial), this type of game can often feel like they have a little something missing - life. So called 'walking simulators' such as Dear Esther and Gone Home are wonderful examples of the genre but Firewatch, and now Blackwood Crossing, are raising the bar. They're setting a new example for small independent studios to reach and while that may be difficult for many to achieve, those higher standards can only be a good thing.
Blackwood Crossing is a surreal and fantastical story very much grounded in reality, in love, in normal family life, in dealing with loss. It's clumsy controls and short running time can be completely forgiven based on it's gorgeous environments, superb characters, and terrific narrative. Blackwood Crossing is superb.
- Gorgeous, well designed environments with great attention to detail
- Absorbing sibling relationship between Scarlett and Finn
- Weird and wonderful
- Superb, emotional narrative
- Clumsy controls
- Slightly shorter than ideal running time