Wot I Think: Blackwood Crossing

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.

From this site

10 Comments

  1. TimePointFive says:

    I’m gonna take a stab and say the kid is dead and this is more or less a “What Dreams May Come”-type adventure.

    • TheAngriestHobo says:

      I know nothing about the game beyond what I just read in the article, but yeah, there’s zero chance Finn makes it to the end of the game alive.

      Also, does the header image remind anyone else of Hand of Fate?

  2. Michael Fogg says:

    some brothers lionheart nonsense

  3. Ghostwise says:

    If the port is so bad, it may be more a situation where you need a completely different coder rather than a patch.

    And if it’s a small studio, that likely poses a serious budget problem…

  4. caff says:

    Well, sounds nice. Might whack it on my steam wishlist to keep an eye on the patch list.

    • nitric22 says:

      Same. I’d be happy to spend the cash because I really enjoy 3-5 hour gaming experiences that I can fully experience in just one or two sittings. But…post-patch.

  5. lancelot says:

    For me the issue isn’t a low framerate at all. I’m getting steady 30 fps, but all movements are just incredibly slow and wobbly. Walking is the worst, but there’s also waiting for the game to bring up the prompt for a hotspot or waiting for the next inventory item to become active. And then having to look down to see which item it was.

    Likewise, events fail to happen on cue all the time. I may be looking at a mysterious figure for ten seconds already, and only then Scarlett notices it too and GASPS.

    Speaking of the inventory, it’s a unique WASD + mouse + arrows to cycle the inventory game. Most people have only two hands though.

    And making players waste their time looking for hotspots in a free look environment is bad. Plus things like having to run back and forth to repeat the same action four times to obtain four items and then to give those items to four people.

    If you click on the same hotspot again, either you get nothing at all (even though the hotstpot is still active) or you get the same unskippable lines.

    And yes, the story tries too hard to keep hinting at something bad going on. All the time. Leaving very little space for dramatic turns or sudden changes of the mood.

  6. CelticPixel says:

    I shall add it to my wishlist and await further instructions.

  7. jusplathemus says:

    Review is completely spot-on. Controlling the character feels very off, although it gets (barely) tolarable given some time and patience. But it’s so utterly beautiful in every other aspect, that it’s worth putting up with in my opinion.

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