"Black Mirror" is the first game of the eponymous trilogy. It is a point-and-click adventure - the player moves between fixed static screens and interacts with NPCs, with hotspots in the environment, or with his inventory, in order to solve puzzles and advance the plot. In case of "Black Mirror", the plot revolves around a mysterious death in an old English manor, a curse that has been laid upon a family, and possibly a demonic force about to return to the world. The player slips into the character of Samuel Gordon, a family member with a troubled past, who returns to the manor after 12 years in order to attend his grandfather's funeral.
The game presents itself as a sequence of logical puzzles in well-drawn (if a bit gloomy) surroundings. Most of the puzzles are based on the player's inventory and on the manipulation of objects, but there are also a couple of special puzzles, like reassembling a torn photo, or solving a puzzle of moving tiles. Most of the puzzle solutions are realistic and can be found by logical thinking. If that doesn't help, then experimenting with the inventory and the hotspots will sooner or later lead to progress. The game is rather linear and removes inventory items and hotspots once they have fulfilled their purpose, so there aren't too many possibilities to try out when you're stuck.
There is also a large amount of dialogue, but it usually just furthers the plot, and does not contain puzzles in itself. Occasionally the player is offered a choice, but these are inconsequential - mostly the player just clicks on all the dialogue options until they are exhausted. Sometimes the dialogue seems disjointed or confused, though this may be an effect of the translation (the game was originally written in Czech).
The story starts as a murder mystery, but turns into a psychological horror story over time. There are some plotholes, and several questions are left unanswered even after the end of the game, but in general the story is intriguing and well-told. There are some proper scare moments and some gruesome scenes, though these aren't the focus of the game. The NPCs in the game are diverse and believable, and the conversations with them are detailed and enhance the atmosphere. The ending may leave some players dissatisfied, but I found it appropriate.
The game's art style is realistic and very detailed. Most of the visuals are beautifully drawn - some are a bit drab due to the setting and the atmosphere, but there are colorful scenes as well, e.g. the interiors of stately manors. The screens are mostly fixed, but some apply horizontal scrolling (with a simple parallax effect to create a feeling of depth). Most screens are enhanced by a bit of animation - circling birds, a falling leaf, or NPCs working or idling.
The character animations are a mixed bag - on one hand, many animations are extremely well done, especially those of the upper body. They look natural and help creating the feeling that the NPCs are actual people. On the other hand, the NPCs have an awkward and completely unnatural way of turning on the spot before they talk to you, which destroys much of the illusion. The animations are also often too slow. For example, you can enjoy a good animation of the butler doing some work, but as soon as you click on, you'll have to watch him slowly turning out to you like a wooden puppet, and it will take a full second before he will even start to speak.
The animations - more so than the backgrounds - also suffer from the game's low resolution of 800x600; on a large screen they will look very pixelated.
The game has a fairly large amount of cutscenes. These are professionally executed with rendered graphics, camera movement, and fitting sound effects. They contribute greatly to the atmosphere.
The sound effects are generally well chosen and fit exactly the action on the screen (or the ambience of the scene). Many adventure games only use sound effects to break the silence, but Black Mirror uses them very skillfully to set the mood. There is no music in the game apart from some interludes and the main menu, but that means that you can concentrate better on the excellent ambience.
All dialogue in the game, as well as all texts from books or letters, is voiced. The acting is very hit-and-miss - some characters' voices are well done, some just drone on, and some suffer from the designers' attempt to diversify the voices by using different accents for different characters. The latter was not necessary since the voice actor cast is already diverse enough. In the end, having several different accents in a small village felt forced. Unfortunately, the main character's voice is rather monotonous. While that does fit his character, it's a bit grating over time.
The game uses a standard point-and-click interface. Hotspots turn your mouse pointer red and can therefore be identified easily. Pressing the tab key shows available exits (but not hotspots). Hotspots turn inactive if they have been explored and have no further relevance to the game. Unfortunately, several hotspots only become active after some other unrelated action has advanced the plot, so you'll have to keep pixel-hunting known screens for new hotspots. A peculiarity of the game is that many hotspots have a "special action" associated to them that can be activated by right-clicking on them. These special actions are often required to solve puzzles, which can be confusing until you get into the habit of habitually right-clicking everything.
When speaking to an NPC, the game occasionally gives you a choice between a "positive" and a "negative" reaction, but you don't get indication what that reaction will actually be. This can lead to frustration when the game handles a response differently from what you expected. The choices are mostly inconsequential though.
A map provides fast travel between several areas of the game. You'll nevertheless spend a lot of time walking through the game's many screens.
The game supports task switching, but sometimes won't rebuild the screen after going back to it. Saving before task switching is recommended.
EASE OF USE:
The game installs easily, is easy to learn, and easy to get back to after a break. A manual is provided, but it only explains the interface and doesn't contribute to the story.
All spoken language in the game is subtitled.
The game can be saved everywhere and has a sufficient number of available savegames.
OTHER THINGS OF NOTE:
The game is fairly long, but separated into chapters. Many locations are only available in some of the chapters. As typical for the genre, replay value is low.
The puzzles are mostly easy, with some slightly unfair road bumps thrown in. In one puzzle it is possible to use up an item right before you need it, and one random puzzle can be generated in an unsolvable state, so it's recommended to save often and to use separate savegames.
The game is DRM-free, which is always nice.
While the game did run on my Win7 64-bit machine, it occasionally corrupted the voiced dialogue, playing loud static noise instead. This could also result in a crash. Setting the game's compatibility to "Windows 98" prevented the crashes completely, but did not fix the noise.
While "Black Mirror" does have its flaws, it's still a very atmospheric psychological horror adventure with an interesting, well-told story. It also still looks nice (despite the low resolution).
Review Date: 2013/03/16
Program version: 1.00e
Progress: one complete playthr