Sometimes a game is in dire need of a reboot. Other times? Not so much. When a game was classic in the first place and hasn’t aged at all, the reboot can come across as forced and pointless. Worst case scenario, the reboot can actually crap all over a beloved gaming classic, a’la Syndicate. Fortunately, Black Mirror is not a bad reboot and does not ruin a perfectly good game. In fact, it mainly does a decent job of updating a game from the industry’s awkward teen years of the early 2000s. The reason ‘mainly’ was included in that last sentence is because while the reboot does a pretty decent job, it does come with a fair few issues in the presentation.
For those of you not up to date with your early 2000s video game stories, ‘Black Mirror’ tells the story of John Gordon, a man who has received a letter from his deceased father’s family lawyer asking him to come to their family home to deal with his inheritance claim. Upon his arrival, he is confronted by strange goings on and a family who don’t seem completely trustworthy, and he must unravel the mystery of his father’s death. The game has a lot of horror themes, and thematically shares much with the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. The world you are exploring is dark, strange and mysterious, and there is a constant feeling of oppression from your surroundings. The game likes to revel in these themes as well, mentioning Poe by name several times, and even poking fun at the modern-day popularity of other authors, such as H.P. Lovecraft.
Gameplay works in a similar fashion to most ‘point n clicks’ on console. You control your character with the left stick and examine objects with X as you get closer to them. You can also slightly alter the camera perspective with the right stick to examine different objects. This control scheme is very familiar and has been used in pretty much every modern console adventure game. Here, however, there are a few issues with it. Firstly, the camera is almost a forced perspective. Other than the previously mentioned adjustments that you can make with the right stick and some tracking to follow the character, the camera will only work at certain angles in larger locations. As such, when you move between two different camera angles, it can be quite jarring, and trying to move the stick to compensate for the direction change can have you wandering off into random corners.
Secondly, sometimes the controls seem to have a sort of minor fit. When you’re walking around the mansion or its grounds, the character will sometimes stop dead, making you think that you’ve hit an invisible wall. If you then twiddle the thumbstick and try again, you can get through the area that was previously impassible. It wasn’t an issue that cropped up all the time by any means, but it happened often enough to become annoying by the end.
The last minor issue of note with the controls is the running. During scenes taking place outside, your character will automatically run instead of walk. While this is useful for getting around the wider, more open outside areas, it can cause issues when navigating certain outdoor sections. You end up overshooting tight corners and having to backtrack or not stopping in time when trying to interact with a character or object.
As well as walking around and interacting with objects, you also have to solve puzzles. These come in many forms through the course of the game. Sometimes they’re as simple as stitching pieces of paper back together, other times they could be something like figuring out how to open a strangely locked desk draw. The puzzles are one of the best designed elements of the game. At no point during the game did the puzzles get so difficult that they required the help of Google or some sort of hint system. On the other hand, they never became so easy that they were solved immediately and just seemed dull.
The game looks pretty good from an aesthetic standpoint. Everything has a consistent art style, and it all looks like it belongs in the same universe. While the graphics are not exactly bleeding edge, they suit the game’s purpose very well. There are several graphical glitches, however, which do sort of ruin things at times. When you’re walking around, you’ll see textures flickering in and out of existence in the background, the screen stutters and drops frames frequently, and often times the sound and what is happening on-screen don’t even kind of match up. Black Mirror comes across as a game made by people with a lot of passion but a very small budget. At least on console the game is very poorly optimized. The game runs at a sub-par fame rate, and every time it cuts between scenes the game pauses and stutters oddly. As was previously mentioned, the sound is out of sync with the action, but on top of that, the lip synching seems to flap about more like a Chinese film badly dubbed into English.
Another sign of poor optimization is the loading. While the actual load times aren’t too long, at least not mostly, it does happen far too frequently. Every time you leave a room or move to a new area, the game had to load for around 10-15 seconds or more. This can mean that when you’re moving between two points in the house, you can end up having to sit through 5 or more loading scenes very frequently. The camera could also have used some work. Half the time the camera points at seemingly random objects or people with little to do with the conveyance of important information. This does somewhat take you out of the story but not as much as the animation does. While the character models are put together relatively well, they have a tendency to move around more like badly controlled puppets than actual human beings.
Despite these immersion breaking elements, the story manages to be quite engaging. The mystery in particular managed to keep us interested all the way through and guessing where it was headed. Luckily, the voice acting is pretty decent across the board and managed to make up for a lot of the poor animation, although some of the very minor characters were badly performed. Interestingly, for a heavily story-driven game, it is not entirely clear if your character choices actually change anything during the gameplay. There don’t seem to be any branching paths in the gameplay, and when you have dialogue with a character, you have to work through all of the options before you can move on. There are some action segments to help break up the gameplay a little. These usually come in the form of QTEs, and in all but one instance they only required the use of the X button to do anything. As well as that, there are also several occasions where your character has a sort of super headache and you must keep a dot inside a moving circle with the left stick to keep him calm.
There are also collectibles to find as you explore the house in the form of little pieces of a picture that you can put back together to get access to concept art. The problem with these collectibles is that there is no way of tracking how many you’ve collected without going back to the main menu. This does make it kind of hard to collect them all, though you can find most just by obsessively exploring every single area that you find yourself in. Whether you actually want to do this or not is basically down to how much you enjoy looking at concept art as there is no other reward for finding them all.
Speaking of rewards. The trophies for this game are completely insane. You get trophies pretty rapidly for doing almost everything, and as far as we could tell, it wasn’t actually possible to miss them at all without going out of your way to do so. There are no extra achievements for going the extra mile, you simply have to play the game as intended and you’ll end up with one of the easiest platinums that you’ll ever get. In a way, having no extraneous trophies is a good thing for some, but at their best, these little tidbits can help add things to a barebones experience, and they’re sorely missed here.
Despite everything that has been said so far, something else needs to be said here: This game is good. In fact, as far as adventure games go, Black Mirror has been one of the most enjoyable experiences of the last few years, excluding Telltale’s work and Life Is Strange: Before the Storm. The important elements are all here. The story and mystery are compelling, the environment is just big enough to provide a decent amount of exploration without becoming a hiking trip and the puzzles do the most difficult thing of striking a balance between being fun to figure out without making the player want to scream their throats hoarse. At the end of the day, the game is incredibly fun, and its blending of horror themes and excellent puzzles deserves a look from those who enjoyed the previous game and even from those who’ve never heard of it.
Developer: KING Art
Publisher: THQ Nordic
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC
Release Date: 28th November 2017