Dave Gilbert first grabbed people's attentions with his adventure game, The Shivah. His deft touch with the AGS engine, and ability to tell simply, emotional tales, saw him and his developer, Wadjet Eye Games, win a bunch of awards. The series he's known for now, the Blackwell stories, has recently released its third instalment: The Blackwell Convergence. Here's wot I think.
The "convergence" in the title refers to how this game brings together the two previous parts of the series. The first, The Blackwell Legacy, introduced medium Rosangela Blackwell and her spirit guide, Joey Mallone. Cast aside images of a silly lady pretending to speak to the dead relatives of gullible clients. Rosa takes her calling a little more seriously. Working with Mallone, the two find ghosts who are trapped in the world of the living, and help them on their way to the other side. Inevitably encountering some chilling evils and murderous mysteries.
The second game, Blackwell Unbound about Rosa's late aunt Lauren, had originally been intended to be a shorter game (this is relative, the games last two or three hours), but eventually became a full episode, and indeed a crucial part of the larger tale. Joey wasn't only ever Rosa's spirit guide, but also her aunt's, Unbound exploring the peculiar relationship between a New Yorker writer and a series of murders. It's this story, interestingly, that is picked up in Convergence.
Gilbert's games have slowly improved with each addition, the traditionally retro AGS graphics presenting some gorgeous backgrounds and well animated sprites, and the structure of the puzzles increasingly refined. And at last most of the problems with the sound are fixed in this third instalment. The result is a really splendid adventure short.
While there's an optional tutorial at the start, alongside an introductory scene that re-establishes Rosa's skill and how it's used, I'd say there's little point in playing the third game if you've not played the previous two. While nothing would be impenetrable, the core story is established in Unbound, and everything would certainly be less enjoyable for not having experienced it. As such, it's tricky to say too much about the goings on of Convergence without ruining both games. So a bit vaguely, once more Rosa is seeking out stories of ghost activity in the hope to help them cross over, all the while seeking material for her unpublished ghost stories. This leads her into a story involving a number of mysterious deaths, each seemingly connected not only to each other, but to Rosa's aunt Lauren. Connections appear to be the key theme. The notion of all humans being connected on some level, perhaps spiritual, pervades throughout.
The characterisation is especially impressive. This is exemplified by one character in particular - Joe Gould. He died many years before, doesn't appear as an Earthbound ghost, and yet through conversations with others feels like a fully fledged part of the story. A homeless man, clearly quite mad, he claimed to be writing the greatest literary work of all time (about the connections between people, of course), and had made an impact on the lives of those who met him. It's testament to the quality of Gilbert's deceptively simple storytelling that he's a central part of the story without actually being there.
You could argue the game is too easy. I would not. I think instead the solutions to the puzzles are pleasingly intuitive, and remain satisfying to have worked out, despite not having had to spend time fretting over them. The use of Rosa's computer, and its primitive search engine, provides solutions for many, and the prompts put in place may not be subtle, but never feel patronising. And the application of Joey's ghostly ways - being able to walk through walls and doors, but not being able to move anything heavier than a paperclip - is used sparingly and rewardingly.
The only disappointment I found was the lack of the encroaching doom that surrounded Unbound. Hints are made that Joey may not be all he seems, and there's occasional references to aunt Lauren's unpleasant fate, but the sense of foreboding for Rosa's future never comes through. It certainly makes for a more upbeat game, but I'd have liked a touch more darkness at the edges.
Thankfully there's a dramatic improvement in the voice quality. The acting is great (with actors used in previous games seeming a lot more confident this time), and for the most part the horrible hissing and popping on the mics is gone. Bizarrely there are a couple of moments where it returns, and one conversation has no dialogue at all, but these are likely minor bugs. Accompanied by a few spelling mistakes in the subtitles. But these are tiny complaints.
A slightly larger complaint is the price. $15 isn't a huge amount, but it is only a couple of hours long. However, the larger concern is the price of the previous two games, still charged at $15 and $10 respectively. To enjoy this game properly you're going to want to have played all three, which is going to cost you $40, and that's pushing it a tad far. A bundle of all three at around $30 would be a sensible offer, and one I'd fully recommend. (It's also rather impossible not to point out here that the sublime Time Gentlemen, Please! lasts for six or seven hours and costs £3.)
While pricey, this is a shining example of what can be done with the AGS engine, and provides an interesting dramatic counterpoint to Zombie Cow's comedy TGP. It's a touching, smart game, with gentle, rewarding puzzles and yet another interesting angle on ghost stories.
You can get the demo here.