Developer: KING Art
Publisher: THQ Nordic
Played on: PC
Release Date: November 28, 2017
Played with: Xbox 360 Controller
Paid: $0 (Key provided for review)
To say that Black Mirror is the video game equivalent of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room feels like it may be a slightly overexaggerated claim. And yet, I’m hard-pressed to think of another recent title that created such utter hilarity out of situations that were meant to be dramatic and horrifying. Scenes that tried to focus on familial interactions and supernatural occurrences had me snickering at technical missteps. An intense scene of someone getting stabbed in the neck did little more than make me laugh hysterically. Thankfully, this meant that it wasn’t an experience devoid of enjoyment, and yet it’s still far and away from being a good game in any capacity.
The story of Black Mirror is pretty standard supernatural fare: a man named David Gordon inherits the mysterious Sgathan Dub House from his recently deceased father, and realizes something’s suspicious when he starts hallucinating. His relatives seem unnaturally tight-lipped about the whole situation, and in short order – you guessed it – people start turning up dead. From there, the approximately six-hour narrative weaves its way through five chapters, gradually adding wrinkles to the plot is it builds toward the climax.
While some may find the story to be laughably predictable, I was pleasantly surprised by some of the twists it took. Granted, I was so dissociated from Black Mirror for most of its runtime that I wasn’t in any position to deeply analyze its characters and their motivations. Then again, it would have been hard enough to do so when the names received so much doubling-up that they were tiresome to track; Edward and Eddie, Johnny and John…really? However, some competent voice acting and an enjoyably moody score did at least help to cement the world’s atmosphere.
Unfortunately, decent audio design can’t carry a game; especially when the visual presentation is this janky. First off, there’s the performance: Black Mirror looks worse than many PS3 titles, with potato-faced characters and frequently awkward animations (David’s swimming is little more than mindless flailing), yet it runs like bloody molasses. The system requirements are absurdly high for visuals of this quality, and the framerate regularly tanks, especially in outdoor areas. Textures are so muddy that details can be nigh impossible to discern; one scene saw a character indicating what I assume to be a scar from past trauma. I say “assume”, because I literally couldn’t pick out what she was pointing at, no matter how many times I looked.
A host of bugs and glitches pervade the entirety of Black Mirror, so let’s just rattle through some of them:
- The forest surrounding Sgathan Dub House is haunted by spirits…and flickering textures.
- A series of redundant conversations with the same character ended with David receiving a key and saying, “Thank goodness I found that map, otherwise I don’t know if he’d have given me the key” (paraphrased). Only one problem: to the best of my knowledge, I had no map.
- In a few climactic moments, the audio, video, and subtitles became completely uncoupled from one another, killing any sense of tension thanks to nothing happening when it was supposed to.
- Several “soft crashes” occurred, in which David simply stopped receiving input; the only way to progress was to reload from the last save.
- Characters are frequently out of position prior to cutscenes, sliding into place as the scene begins playing. Turns out that David’s a ghost too, as this will sometimes happen when loading into a new area; David will spawn into the floor, then rise like a spectre before snapping into place.
Then there’s the “laughing when someone got stabbed” moment. Basically, a character gets stabbed in the neck at one point, and a spurt of blood shoots up from the wound. In theory, that blood is supposed to hit them in the face and get on their suit. Instead, it simply floats in midair while their face moves freely below it; a lost texture with no surface to latch onto. Rather sad, really.
Gameplay is similarly slapdash. The opening chapter has some decent puzzles that actually forced me to stop and think, write down notes, and (in one instance) research the answers online. Then, this just stops. Subsequent “puzzles” amount to, “Walk to a point where you can interact with a thing, then interact with the thing.” The closest Black Mirror ever gets to returning to thought-provoking puzzles is with a steadily upgradable “master key” item, made up of multiple rotating segments. Each part can be turned into a different position to allow the key to open a wide variety of locks within the mansion. Only problem: throughout the entire game, I was never able to figure out which way was “up” on the key. Thus, every single puzzle involving it was less about getting the segments in the right place, and more about continually tweaking them until they were in the exact orientation (relative to the key as a whole) that the game was expecting.
There’s also invisible walls, a poorly-implemented fixed camera, and controls that don’t adjust to the new camera angles, frequently causing you to walk back into the room you just walked out of. Pointless QTEs are thrown in so sporadically that one wonders why they’re even there, and there’s a “focus” minigame that comes out of nowhere, accompanied by an ear-piercing screech every time. Plus, there are collectible puzzle pieces that are usually invisible in-game until you walk right over them, seem to have no progression milestones (e.g. achievements) associated with them, and aren’t even properly counted; I apparently obtained 95/90 pieces. The puzzles aren’t even properly linked on the menu; for instance, opening the Sgathan Dub House puzzle opens an entirely different puzzle.
I don’t understand how Black Mirror came to be. It’s a revival of a cult classic point-and-click series developed by a studio with a decent pedigree, yet it feels so utterly half-assed in nearly every aspect. To return to my comparison to The Room, where Black Mirror truly fails is that – unlike Wiseau’s film – it’s just competent enough to prevent one from simply kicking back and treating it as a “so bad it’s good” game. There are some tiny bits of enjoyment to be had, but everything else is so trite, buggy, and uninteresting that I find it nearly impossible to recommend.