The Black Mirror

Developer:  Unknown Identity
Publisher:  Future Games/The Adventure Company
Year Released:  2003

Review by Gordon Aplin (November, 2003)
After a twelve-year absence, a self-imposed exile, Samuel Gordon returns to his ancestral home of Black Mirror Castle to attend the funeral of his grandfather, William, who died in mysterious circumstances. Samuel doesn't believe that William's death was accidental, or a suicide, so he aims to find out just what happened. Why was William strangely preoccupied, even obsessive, in the months leading up to his fall from the tower and his gruesome impalement on the railings below?

Samuel himself is troubled by headaches and, increasingly, by nightmares that warn of further violent deaths. Has the curse of the Gordon's that haunted the family's past, and seems as deep-rooted as the Castle's foundations, returned to exact its malevolent revenge? Samuel only knows that he must continue William's investigations into the family's dark past if he is to understand why William died.

Curiously out of time
As well as an unnerving story this game has a murky, sinister atmosphere helped by the strange and vaguely unsettling dislocation of the setting. It seems that time and the modern world have bypassed Black Mirror Castle and its surrounds. For the Gordon family the past is reluctant to loosen its grip. The story isn't set in the present but takes place in 1981 according to William's gravestone, yet the advertising signs in the tiny nearby village of Willow Creek are more reminiscent of the 1930s. Overlaid on this is an undoubted Victorian-Gothic veneer. All of this adds to the mystique and intrigue of the game.

As do the excellent graphics, especially the outdoor locations lit by a muted golden twilight or, at other times, lashed by incessant rain, punctuated by flashes of lightning and the low rumble of distant thunder. Attention to detail showcases the talents of the developers. Moths drawn to the light and dark birds circling distantly above the tower; the effects of rain, not just raindrops on water but the smearing of a chalked menu outside the pub and a small dinghy slowly sinking as it fills with water. I only wish Samuel had a raincoat, but even here there is added detail; click on the fire in Samuel's room after he has been out in the rain and he will tell you that's where he dries his clothes at night.

A rich world to explore
The Black Mirror is a decently lengthy third person perspective adventure divided into six chapters with many locations to explore. A handy map, once you find it, will allow you to jump between locations but only if the game allows it. You can also double click on exits to move Samuel around more quickly, and using the tab key to highlight possible exits and scrolling screens is also a useful feature. As is the cursor turning red when you can interact with something. To that extent the interface is quite intuitive.

However, you do have to remember to return to locations and search them again as some hotspots don't show up until you have triggered them by a particular action. I was stuck for some time because I didn't re-search an area of the screen that had previously yielded nothing. When I did accidentally run my cursor over it again I was surprised that there was suddenly something to do. Fortunately this happened relatively early in the game and it put me on my guard to be more diligent so that I was expecting the later examples of this when they occurred.

On the subject of hotspots, they work a little differently in The Black Mirror. The cursor may sometimes stay red after looking at something so you may need to left click several times to learn all you can and often you will need to right click as well to reveal all the secrets that the hotspot holds.

Lots and lots to do
The game will certainly keep you busy running around and talking to people as there are several puzzles that simply involve conversation. But these are accompanied by more familiar adventuring problems where you'll need keys (a lot of them) to open doors or other items to move the story on. More than once you'll find yourself trapped somewhere with the challenge to find a way out, or you might be on the outside trying to get in. And there are a few logic and manipulative puzzles to test you as well.

It isn't a difficult game, apart from the hold-up mentioned above I moved through it at a good pace although I did slow down a couple of times looking for the triggers to make new things happen. Also, sometimes you won't be allowed to leave a location until you've done everything you need to do which some players may find restrictive. I didn't mind this too much, as I knew that once I was able to leave I had done what was needed and hadn't overlooked a crucial item that may have held me up later in the game.

The Black Mirror is a highly story-driven game and the problems blend in smoothly. There were one or two puzzles that surprised me when I did things because I could, not because I knew why. On these occasions Samuel knew what he was doing but I didn't until the results were revealed. In a similar vein there were times when I knew what had to be done but I wasn't allowed to do it until Samuel had talked to a character who informed him of what I already knew. It was at moments like these that I felt I wasn't really working things out for myself but was being led by the game. To be fair though, there are still lots of things that you will need to work out for yourself. On the whole I found most of the puzzle solving and exploration to be very enjoyable. This is a game that has secret passages, crypts, graveyards, old mine shafts, sewers, a morgue and a mental asylum to reward your exploration.

Speaking or reading?
Conversations are relatively short and to the point and anything you can ask about appears as an icon at the bottom of the screen. You won't generally need to click items on people to get their response but you may need to return to them several times before a puzzle is solved. All conversations and Samuel's 'thoughts' are subtitled and you can click through conversations rather than wait for the actors to deliver their lines. Unfortunately the voice acting is uneven with Samuel himself being, perhaps, the more pedestrian. It really does seem like he's just reading his lines though I soon got used to his delivery and ceased to notice after a while. To make amends for this his diction is very clear and you can understand every word.

Given the nature of the story there are some gruesome scenes in Black Mirror, especially towards the end of the game, and Samuel can die if you are not careful so save often. Only 24 save game slots are provided so if you are like me you will probably use all of them and need to save over earlier saves. The game comes on 2 CDs and allows for a full install that eliminates disk swapping. You will also notice a copy protection on installation that requires an identification code, so make sure you don't lose the little white card that holds this code (or write it in the manual as I did).

Despite my few criticisms I enjoyed The Black Mirror. I always looked forward to returning to the game for a few hours to try to move on and open new locations. The story is suitably intriguing and there is a twist, but one that most players will see coming. As I said earlier, the game has a great atmosphere, not to mention inclement weather. The beautifully detailed graphics make exploration a sheer pleasure and the music and ambient sounds combine well to heighten the sense of something evil waiting, patiently, watching your every move. I certainly hope we see more adventure games from the enigmatically named developers, Unknown Identity. rating:  

Copyright © Gordon Aplin 2003. All rights reserved.

System Requirements:
Windows 98/ME/2000/XP
Pentium® III 400 MHz (Or higher recommended)
64 MB RAM, 8MB DirectX® 7.1 Compatible Video Card, Keyboard and Mouse