Version tested: PC
You may not remember Black Mirror. I reviewed it, and I still couldn't remember a thing about it. But then, it was seven years ago. It was a peculiar Czech point-and-click adventure, in which you played a wretched man called Samuel Gordon - a character who went around being rude to everyone, leaving you feeling completely alienated from the experience.
Hardly a game to have gone down in legend, it's a very peculiar choice for German developers Cranberry to have created a sequel for. Stranger still, since absolutely no prior knowledge is necessary to follow the story. The "II" in the title can only hurt their chances of picking up a UK audience for what is a quite surprisingly decent adventure game.
Set in 1993, this remarkably long game begins in Biddeford, Maine. You're Darren, a student on his summer break, working in a photography store for a particularly unpleasant boss. Darren's mother, an English woman who brought her son up in Boston, had moved to Biddeford in recent years - a sleepy, uneventful town with almost nothing for a 20-something to do. And this is how things begin - sleepily, slowly, but somehow interesting.
Things start to happen. A beautiful woman, Angelina, arrives in town, and shows interest in Darren. At the same time his disabled mother is involved in a fall and ends up in a coma in the local hospital. Then that night Darren's ghastly boss is murdered, with Angelina arrested. Your task, at first, is to prove her innocence while searching for the real culprit and trying to identify a mysterious stranger you've spotted hanging around town.
However, Black Mirror II has a far larger story than this provincial murder mystery. The original Black Mirror, set in 1981, had told the tragic story of the Gordon family, following events that had occurred twelve years previously in 1969. For Darren there's something significant about the passing of twelve years, an English village called Willow Creek, and the curse on the Gordon family.
The time it takes to get to this larger story is the first interesting aspect here. That opening tale of local woes lasts hours. Spookiness is only vaguely suggested, the focus instead on giving minor characters depth, and letting you get used to being young Darren. Stories that ultimately don't feature in the game long-term - the abusive marriage of the diner owners, for instance - are fleshed out beyond simple background detail.
Uncovering secrets within the town doesn't reveal a million-year-old monster or suchlike, but instead merely the reality of people's lives. It's not stunning, it's not ground-breaking drama. If anything it's barely above soap opera. But it's a heck of a lot more than we're used to from European adventures.
However, there's an awful lot here that's painfully familiar. The first puzzle - the first one - is a bloody sliding tile puzzle. And it's not the only one in the game. Only a short while later, we're asked to piece back together a torn note. It's almost parodic. Locks must be picked, symbols decoded, ancient discs slotted into correct alignment. That you're not required to recover a key from the other side of a door with a pencil and some newspaper is a miracle. It's like a worst-of of Euro-adventure challenges, muddling up a game that otherwise promises real depth.
The inventory puzzles are, again, nothing original. But they are at least mostly very logical. Darren's magic pockets carry vast amounts, but you can invariably assume which items to combine and where to use them. It's never not satisfying to put together a bunch of tools to achieve a goal, and Black Mirror II delivers this plentifully.
In fact, there are a few knowing references. Some are nice, like Darren's remark on finding some chewing gum wrapped in aluminium foil: "I just need a paper clip, then I could build an atomic bomb." Others - well, when you're being knowing, it means you know you're getting it wrong. So when Darren remarks about how many doors he's being forced to open in increasingly silly ways, you have to wonder why the designers didn't think to listen to their own character.
Unfortunately, the further you get, the more it starts to fall to bits. There's some spectacularly awful voice acting throughout, but none so painfully hideous as that offered later in England. Imagine Dick Van Dyke crossed with a dog being drowned in a bath. Many accents swim in and out, visiting Australia, South Africa and Azerbaijan on their demented way.
Also, the translation seems to become increasingly poor. There's an absolutely stunning amount of recorded dialogue here. Every item has at least two or three descriptions, often many more, and conversations are meticulously detailed. The writing is damned fine, too. Except, the further you get, the more mistakes creep in, until you can hear the bemusement in the American actors' voices as they say something nonsensical. It all gets a bit Babelfishy, with ceilings of buildings being referred to as "lids". You can fathom the route to the mistake, but you shouldn't have to be retro-translating as you play.
Despite this, and despite the story becoming more focused on creepy curses and secret orders than people and their lives, another fantastic aspect of Black Mirror II is the scepticism that permeates it. Far too many games in this genre greet ghosts, demons and Satanic cults as if they're the postman. "Oh, hello. Got any ancient curses for me today? Ooh, you're murdering me with your mind." But here Darren remains a sceptic throughout. And more importantly, reasonably so. The mystical is significantly underplayed such that there's genuine ambiguity as to its reality, and I'm not saying which way it goes.
There's a flipping enormous number of locations, and all are elaborately detailed. It's a very traditional 2.5D arrangement, with painted 2D backgrounds and 3D character models wandering about. The animations are mostly well-detailed (although just please, could one game featuring a character playing a pipe of some sort not do that weird hip-wiggling dance?).
Best of all, you almost never have to watch Darren plodding about. Double-clicking on something to look at will ping him straight to it, as well as letting him skip straight to scene exits. Like the first game, it's one of very few adventure games that understands people don't want to sit and watch a man trudging about for 90 per cent of the time.
So, you have a mix. On one hand it's a very nicely written (if somewhat poorly translated and, occasionally, acted) game, but on another it's a collection of the most tired, clichéd puzzles imaginable. It's absolutely huge, and enormously detailed, but the further you get, the less focus goes into the characters. It begins with a smart, tight story, but by the end, the twists come so fast that it all feels made up as they went along. There's almost nothing original about it on any level, but then what's normally so tedious in Euro-adventures is delivered pretty well here.
This is a game that wavers between getting a 6 or a 7 throughout - and then comes the ending. Or, as it happens, it doesn't. A cliffhanger ending for a sequel to a seven-year-old game that most people haven't heard of just isn't acceptable. Plonk, it lands safely on 6.
Which is a shame, since I'd love to more heartily recommend this for those looking for an old-school, hefty adventure. In a world of bite-sized comedy cartoon adventuring, it's great to sink into a developed world of serious-toned investigation. This is still certainly worth getting if you're of that frame of mind, and willing to put up with the familiar foibles of dodgy translations. But with no ending, it's impossible to properly celebrate.
6 / 10