Black Dahlia

Developer/Publisher:  Take 2 Interactive
Year Released:  1998

Review by Rosemary Young (April, 1998)
It's a sad moment for me as I begin this review because, to be perfectly honest, I'd rather not be writing it just yet. Unfortunately, putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) means that I've finished playing Black Dahlia, and it was so enjoyable I didn't want it to end.

And please take note, although it was over all too soon, this doesn't mean that Black Dahlia is a short game ... far from it. This game will guarantee you many, many hours of gameplay as it tells a dark, intriguing story and contains a fine variety of puzzles, some of which are certain to keep you guessing and give your powers of deduction and puzzle solving a thorough working-out.

What's in a name?
Black Dahlia takes its name and its inspiration both from the murder of Elizabeth Short (known as the Black Dahlia) in Los Angeles in 1947 and from the equally infamous Cleveland Torso Murders that were investigated by Eliot Ness and ceased just prior to the Second World War. Of course, both cases remain unsolved and it has been speculated that they may have been perpetrated by the same killer. Black Dahlia builds on this speculation and weaves in notions of occult rituals based on Norse mythology and of Nazi involvement via a shadowy fifth column at work in the USA.

Hence the story more or less spans the 1940's and in it you'll briefly run into Mr Ness as well as the unfortunate Elizabeth Short as you follow a murderous trail. You are cast as Jim Pearson, newly employed by the COI (Office of the Coordinator of Information), a covert organisation akin to the CIA just before the outbreak of World War II. Your first assignment is to investigate a 'crackpot' complaint about subversive activities, but very soon you'll learn about the mysterious dismissal of your predecessor and begin sniffing out a trail of clues that link your investigation with a string of grisly murders and, ultimately, with a fiendish supernatural plot hatched by a sadistic megalomaniac.

What's in the game?
Black Dahlia is another excellent game that has managed to combine full-motion video with lots of gameplay. If the Tex Murphy series hasn't convinced you that full-motion video need not be overly intrusive then this little effort surely will. In Black Dahlia there is a good serving of high quality video interludes that move the story along and take care of conversations and they certainly breathe life into the game. The acting, too, is just fine with some well-rounded characters and, if the video sequences err on the side of lengthiness occasionally, it is only by a smidgen. Really, they are so good you hardly notice them as interruptions and the escape button is always there to press if you have seen something before. Of course, the generous amount of video means the game takes up eight CDs, but disk swapping has been kept to a minimum.

The game is mouse controlled with satin-smooth movement to predetermined spots and with lightning fast 360 degree turning, try it out and see what happens :). The location-sensitive cursor indicates when there is something to do (pick up or zoom in on an object) or when there is a screen exit. A useful on-screen item will be automatically picked up when selected and you can inspect and manipulate objects in your inventory. A click of the right mouse button brings up a small menu from where you can save and restore games, use the world map for easy travel, access your inventory, the in-game help, game options, as well as a very useful notebook. Although you can take your own notes, it is recommended that you check this handy reference often because important clues are automatically recorded.

The puzzles
The game is a lengthy one both because of the epic nature of the story and the complexity and difficulty of the puzzles. It really is a treat for puzzle enthusiasts. Similar to the Tex Murphy series it has both traditional adventuring problems (collecting and using items in particular circumstances) as well as those of the more abstract, manipulative variety. Some of the latter involve such problems as turning cogs, equalising pressure gauges, fitting together (or sliding) shapes, and there is one Chinese Box puzzle. Each puzzle has its own help file accessible by pressing F1. It won't tell you how to solve it, but it will explain the mechanics of what needs to be done. I thought these manipulative puzzles blended in fairly well with the game, though this point is probably a matter of opinion, depending on whether or not you like this type of puzzle. (There's a message here somewhere for players who dislike abstract, manipulative puzzles ... be warned) :). There are a couple of mazes as well, but one is very short and sweet and neither really require mapping.

Now, to put it mildly, some of the puzzles in Black Dahlia are complex, so don't expect to finish it in one, or even a couple of sittings. Some of the manipulative puzzles, for instance, need a good deal of patience and hard work to complete and if you want to add some extra zing to them, don't use the help files. Of course, it depends on your expertise with this kind of logic problem, but there is bound to be one or two that catch you out. Also, solving some of the puzzles requires collecting and piecing together snippets of information, so paper and pencil are a must, the in-game notepad won't suffice. One in particular eluded me (I had to cheat) and I'm still looking for the answer so Black Dahlia isn't forgotten, it's still calling me back for more.

Black spots
Though Black Dahlia's plot is black indeed, thankfully the game doesn't rely constantly on shock tactics. But this doesn't mean that there are none, it isn't a game to play with the kids. Still, if you aren't impressed by copious servings of blood then don't panic, you won't have to dive under the desk too often. Also, although it features both Dennis Hopper and Teri Garr, neither actor hogs the action. Just as well Darren Eliker makes a quite respectable job of Jim Pearson and it's a pity the vagaries of advertising don't allow him top billing.

And just as well the game is satisfying because I have no choice but to report that it suffers from the same malady as many new games these days ... it has its share of bugs. Once again, don't despair, there's already a patch available. Good news for hearing-impaired players, too, the patch has the added bonus of allowing subtitles for all dialogue. Once the patch is installed, although there are problems with synchronisation, it is possible to follow the story by using keyboard arrow keys to scroll the text. However, don't cheer too loudly on account of this if you absolutely rely on subtitles, they don't help with the one aural puzzle.

Any other problems? Well, I'm nitpicking now, but the game occasionally defies adventure game logic by not allowing you to collect items before you have good reason. Just remember to search and then re-search locations if you are stuck because you might have triggered an item or a hotspot to appear since your last search.

Don't miss it
Black Dahlia really is an adventurer's as well as a puzzle lover's dream. It tells a dark and fascinating tale and it does it very well. Overall the graphics are excellent with lots of detail and clarity and, along with the music, they paint a vivid picture of the USA in the 40's, building up a menacing atmosphere and leading to a spectacular climax. Nothing given away here, but is there a chance of a sequel?

The puzzles are, at times, difficult, occasionally blissfully painful, but ultimately very rewarding. For me it was a huge delight to sit the test :) and I wish for many more games that hold a similar challenge. Of course, this means that Black Dahlia is more suited to experienced players, but even if you are new to adventure games why not jump in at the deep end? This one is too good to miss. rating:  

Copyright © Rosemary Young 1998. All rights reserved.

System requirements:
Windows 95, Pentium 90 (120 recommended), 16 MB RAM, 85 MB Free Hard disk space, 4 speed CD ROM, DirectX Compatible Sound Card, DirectX compatible Video Card (1MB recommended), Windows compatible Mouse.