It's really a pity that the Dave Gilbert trilogy (The Shivah, The Blackwell Legacy, Blackwell Unbound) only took about fifteen hours to complete. Not to say I didn't get my money worth - far from it - but gaming this good doesn't come along often.
Who can resist a film noir adventure game starring a world-weary Rabbi pulled into a world of intrigue and murder?
I hesitate to reveal much of the plot, but Rabbi Stone will spend a lot of time wandering around Manhattan, piecing together seemingly coincidental bits of trivia, reading other peoples' e-mail, and answering a lot of questions with a lot more questions. Along the way, the game meditates on morality, forgiveness, and faith in a very touching way. Ebert take note: since the gameplay of games like this is pretty much a gated series of events, the 'player creating the art' problem does not crop up, and thus could be considered art. That argument is kryptonite and I leave you, humble reader, to ponder such mysteries, but it does bear mention. Other than the occasional choice of response (and in only three scenes - the most emotionally charged moments, actually - does the response chosen actually matter), the dialogue is necessarily pre-written, and pretty much the same on every playthrough. Not, of course, that the dialogue is bad - far from it, it's some of the sharpest writing you'll find in a video game - but it is static.
The Shivah is a great game - both by itself and as a spiritual prequel to the Blackwell games. Nothing supernatural is going on here, but the mechanics that would show up later in Legacy and Unbound get a trial run in The Shivah. The clues-as-inventory system is quite clever, once you figure out how to use it (this system definitely gets polished in its later iterations). I find that every adventure game has a major head-on-desk moment, and the one I found in Shivah involved the clue system; I only figured it out after playing Legacy and, later, hitting the website. While I understand that these games are more about character and story than puzzles, it's pretty frustrating to overlook a mechanic that hasn't been used in a while. Still, don't let that stop you.
And it's five dollars. Seriously, man, that's less than most people spend on lunch. Treat yourself to Ramen and The Shivah for a day and you will not be disappointed.
The Blackwell Legacy
Dave Gilbert must have grown up watching a continuous loop of Bogart movies or something, because he really likes his noir trappings. Mercifully, between the P.I. antics of Rosangela Blackwell and her sharp-tongued noncorporeal companion, this is a good thing.
Mr. Gilbert takes a subject matter I ordinarily find unbearably trite (ghosts, hauntings), hangs a basic set of rules on it (ghosts cannot interact with matter, ghosts cannot be seen except by mediums and 'stupid' animals, etc), and makes it into a very tightly-crafted mystery story about suicidal college students.
Along the way, we meet an endearing rogues gallery of colorful characters, brought to life by spirited voicework and face close-ups (these are sorely missed in Unbound). Rosangela is totally convincing as a borderline shut-in with some serious social awkwardness, and a great foil for noir-antihero Joey, the sidekick who growls snide comments at awkward times during conversations and enjoys scaring dogs just a little too much. While the supporting cast is held at arms-length (Joey and Rosangela spend most of the game building chemistry), they are equally colorful - from the punkish dorm-dweller Kelly (and her nervous RA, Adrian, who was put on a women-only floor because the records office thought Adrian was a girl's name) to the ever-friendly next-door neighbor, Nashanti, and her pug, with whom Joey has a bit too much fun. The writing is consistently top-notch, and the voice acting is almost all spot-on. The attention to detail is excellent; Rosangela sounds more confident as the game goes on, for instance. I don't know how long it's been since Mr. Gilbert (or at least his Sprite-making Robot Retainers) have seen the inside of a college dorm, but the art and writing for these scenes is spot-on convincing.
Hey, more Blackwell isn't ever a bad thing, right? Absolutely. With some interesting new gameplay wrinkles, a new sprite artist, a new composer, and some amusing references to both of the above games (I guess The Shivah takes place in the Blackwell universe after all), it's definitely worthwhile.
Let's get the bellyaching out of the way first. Unbound dispenses with the pop-up full-face animation from The Shivah and Legacy, and it's an unfortunate loss. That feature really pulled the player in to the game and humanized the characters, especially when little touches like Rosangela's awkward grins or Rabbi Stone's head-in-hands gestures were used for comedic/dramatic effect. Fortunately, the players should already know Joey's character, and Lauren Blackwell is well-written and well-acted enough to be immediately engaging, but the supporting cast never feels quite as rich as Legacy's. The background art seems to have dropped off a bit, too...Legacy's art was consistently excellent, while Unbound does occasionally have some wierd-looking mattes. The game uses lots more movement in 3D than Legacy, and the resultant sprite-scaling is an awkward reminder that the sprites and background are 320x200 but running in a 640x400 game (remember to turn that on, by the way, or the text is completely unreadable). The full-res floating dialogue text isn't much better on that count (another reason I prefer the headshots). The instrumental soundtrack is evocative, but I found the lush real sounds poorly matched to the old-school graphics, while Legacy's distinctly electronic jungly-ambient music gelled with the overall package much better.
OK, that said: Unbound is more of the same, and consequently kicks all sorts of ass. We have more New York-hopping, note-taking, ghost-mugging action, with another great duo. Joey and Lauren are arguably an even better match than Joey and Rosangela. Lauren chain-smokes her way through the adventure (the game actually tallies how many cigarettes she uses), and is callused and embittered to an almost absurd degree. She throws barbs as fast as Joey can, and makes Joey seem almost cheery and enthusiastic at times. The switching-character mechanic, while somewhat underused (I mean, Joey can't interact with the living, and most of the game is dialogue, so...), lends some interesting wrinkles; Joey's ghostly nature is used to great effect in several scenes. I'm guessing he learns the power of light breezes sometime between the two games, though.
While insane New Yorkers have token representation in the previous games, just about every supporting character in Unbound either has a dark secret or is certifiably loony. It lends Unbound a much darker atmosphere than the previous games - while both The Shivah and Blackwell Legacy have the player straddling the 'normal' world and a parallel world, be it shady dealings or hauntings, most of the characters were at the very least decent, everyday people. By comparison, Unbound could probably be run as a Vampire: The Masquerade module and not be too far out of place. It's no wonder Lauren distances herself so much from everyone, and when she does get close Joey generally points out (correctly) that they're up to no good. It'd be pretty unremitting without the ending, but at least the humor remains thoroughly intact.