Fresh on the heels of the well-received The Blackwell Legacy arrives Blackwell Unbound. After playing and thoroughly enjoying the first for our Indie Impression feature, continuing was an inevitability. For reference, Legacy was released in 2006, and Unbound in 2007. There have since been two more releases in the semi-episodic series, so I'm still a bit behind. I am playing the re-released versions in the Blackwell Bundle, which offer improved voice acting as well as bug fixes and some extras.
For ease of writing, I'm just going to assume that you don't mind to be aware of mild spoilers in the first act of the first game. After all, it's printed everywhere, including the covers of these very games. Essentially, the Blackwell series is about the generational history of this family who has been "blessed" to be mediums to the restless spirit world. In the case of the Blackwells, they have been assigned by the powers that be to a ghost detective named Joey Malone. He is forced to stay with his medium at all times and guide them towards restless ghosts in the world who have, for one reason or another, been unable to pass on into the afterlife.
During Legacy, we played as Rosangela, the newest medium in the Blackwell family. She has to fight through a bit of family history as well as her own personal weaknesses, before encountering her family's legacy. In Unbound, we travel back to her aunt, Lauren, who has already met and come to terms with Joey.
It starts very quickly, with the two immediately looking into cases. I wish they would have had more of an introduction, as Legacy's was extremely well-done. I suppose this make it feel more like true episodic content, if that was their goal. But to me, the games thus far seem strong enough to be able to stand on their own. Unbound does move a bit slowly at the start. They do give you two simultaneous cases to solve, which is a nice touch. Once the cases get going, it grabs and pulls you along until the end.
As with most adventure games, it does have times where people may be stuck for a bit, unsure what to do. However, I want to want to congratulate Wadjet for making even difficult clues feel closer to what an actual detective would find. Clues can still feel a bit random, but improved focus on realism makes the understanding of the clues feel relevant versus say, solving a puzzle by combining two miscellaneous items. Adventure games, unless trivial, will likely always have trial-and-error gameplay and frustrating repeating of steps, but there certainly are more ways to improve the process. Until this can be solved the best it can, you'll still always have moments of being taken away from the game and its environments.
Unbound truly picks up once the game moves on and you begin to learn the details of all the individuals involved in the cases. This is already clearly the strong point of these games; an unabashed, realistic view of the human psyche and its weaknesses. And this lends itself perfectly to the overarching story and Wadjet's strengths. On the surface, this is a ghost story. Ghosts are haunting certain places, and they need ghostbusting. That's fine, you could make a game about that. But, these ghosts/spirits are unable to move on for some reason, they have something holding them back. Discovering what exactly is stopping them is the real goal, and those discoveries are what this game displays so well. Add solid dialogue and acting by the two main characters, Lauren and Joey, and you have yourself a great story that undoubtedly succeeds in ways most games don't even attempt. Similarly, the timing of humor moments is uncommonly spot-on.
As in Legacy, the Adventure Game Studio platform and UI still has some issue which detract a bit from the whole experience. In particular, I had issues in this game regarding item use. Generally speaking, one mouse button 'uses' and one mouse button 'looks.' I don't even know what was going on with the items in the menu. It seems like they removed all possibility of item combining and the stop/dialogue calls that come with those attempts. But then it was hard to tell what exactly you could use, and you couldn't remove items from your cursor unless you left the item area and right-clicked an open spot on the screen. Adventure Game Studio still definitely has problems, but seemingly the time saved is worth enough to keep using.
Although not a perfect experience, Blackwell Unbound, like its predecessor, is certainly worth playing, and I'm personally diving into the next in the very near future. These first three games (Legacy, Unbound, Convergence) can be purchased as a bundle for $15 (or less) on either Steam or directly, from Wadjet Eye. After Unbound, we're now seeing more of how the stories are connected, as well as possible future connections. I'm going to have to see how these turn out.