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Wot I Think: Blackwood Crossing

Derailed

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Goddammit. Goddammit. Blackwood Crossing [official site] is something truly beautiful, a wonderful vignette of joy and sadness, and it’s utterly throttled by its gruesome technical issues. It is testament to its delivery that despite this, despite playing it being akin to dragging a canoe through a lake of thick paste, and even despite the obviousness of where it was all heading, I still blubbed at the end.

In Blackwood Crossing you play Scarlett, a young woman on a train, being taunted by her little brother Finn. He’s nipping about in a precocious red cape, his freckled face as obnoxious as any little brother’s should be. And clearly something is wrong.

Unfortunately, before any of its superb delivery of intricately intertwined metaphors can be experienced, before I can celebrate what this game does so well, there’s a far bigger something wrong that smacks you hard in the face. It is utterly sodding terrible to play.

I rather outdid myself with “dragging a canoe through a lake of thick paste” and I’m not going to beat that. Whether using controller or mouse/keyboard, oh wow, it didn’t port properly, meaning moving both the camera and yourself is agonising. Gloopy, clumsy, and staggering all over the place, it falls far, far short of good enough for release. Further clues are given when you notice that the framerate is locked at 30FPS, and even so spends a good deal of the time in the high teens. I’ve scanned a few of the console reviews, and none of them mention the same issues, so I can only assume this is something that happened on the rugged road to PC. It really oughtn’t have been released yet – it’s kind of shitty that it was.

It is so lavishly beautiful at times. In an early and extraordinary scene, one of the train’s carriages becomes suddenly blooms with grass, bushes, even a tree stretching up through the roof, all growing before you. As you walk through you emerge into an aureate greenhouse, magically somehow not on the train but set in a picturesque garden. Look back through the last doorway and you’ll see the countryside rushing past the windows of the compartment, but the view from in here is a static bucolic vista. Venturing back down the train, looking for some Polaroid photographs, I noticed the nearest seats the other side of the affected carriage have small patches of turf sprouting from them. Luxurious details. Buried alive.

At another point Finn is directing you about a lakeside scene with the goal of finding papercraft items he’s created and hidden. As you hunt he gives perfectly enunciated “hotter” and “colder” variants, the hyperbolic “scorching!” “you’re melting!” “so freezing over there!” you should expect – nay demand – from a child. He delivers these directions hanging nonchalantly off some railings surrounding the bandstand on which he’s built his makeshift ‘base’. Feet tucked in on the lower metal bumps, arms out straight as he hangs backward. It’s such a precise and perfect observation of a child’s stature, so real and engaging, yet entirely unfussed over, possible to never notice if you don’t double-back and take a look at him – he’s moved by the time the task’s complete. These exquisite details are replete, each of them suffocated by the woefully broken controls.

And on it goes. I want to celebrate the wonderful way it presents memories from Finn’s life, a cast of characters reappearing throughout the game’s few locations, sets constantly redressed to further reveal the nature of the memory in which you’re wandering, each character shown as an almost photo-realistic black and white (ever-so-slightly flickering) body, with a bright colourful paper mask covering their faces. How the train to which you keep returning seems so damned important, such a significant location with its lengthy stretches always so tightly confined. And the treehouse that impossibly grows from it. The details in that treehouse, the objects scattered across its shelves, the way it seems to change size, the looks Finn gives you as the two of you sit at the table therein, cutting hand-drawn butterflies from pieces of paper. And that character design. Seriously, it puts Pixar to shame. Just wow. All of these achievements sullied by being released in such a state.

So how it managed to affect me so strongly really is a recognition of just how well it delivers everything else. And it’s worth saying it really doesn’t offer any surprises. In fact, early on I thought to myself, “Oh come on, not this again“, desperately hoping it would be about to go somewhere genuinely unexpected. Then literally a couple of minutes later finding myself saying, out loud, “Oh shit, oh shit, oh shiiiiit”, as the completely expected happened and touched me anyway. As time went on, truthfully, I adjusted to the bloody dreadful controls. They didn’t become less bloody dreadful, and it never stopped being mindnumbing how slowly I moved, but you know how it is – your brain recalibrates and moves some sliders and you get on with it. As it hit its inevitable final beat, I blubbed on cue*. It worked.

I dearly hope this receives a huge patch. Perhaps fistfuls of bandages and a full body cast. This could be a three-hour wonder, a really truly beautiful work to be lauded. Gosh I wish I could have written the review its unmangled form deserves. As it is, it’s very hard to recommend spending £12 on – already a tough call for such a short game. It’s not fit for purpose, even if it could still stretch over its unacceptable flaws and reach me. I will keep an eye out, and enthusiastically let you know should such a thing come about.

Blackwood Crossing is out now for Windows only, on Steam for £12/$16/€16.

*For those who enjoy the running gag of my crying at everything, this is the first game in yeeeeears.

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John Walker

Senior Editor

One of the original co-founders of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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