Between our repeated playthroughs of Tomb Raider, there was one genre in particular we cut our teeth on during our youth - the traditional point and click adventure game. The Monkey Islands, Simon the Sorcerer and Discworld were our staples, and we still love us a good puzzling adventure, even now. With logic that's sometimes obtuse to a fault, a slow, story-driven pace, and a tendency towards 'use everything with everything else until something happens' desperation, point and click adventures certainly aren't a genre that's for everyone, but they still have a special place in our hearts. Having proclaimed itself to be inspired by a similarly classic set of point and click games, Black Mirror has taken it upon itself to try and breathe life into a genre that's currently sadly lesser spotted, and make it relevant again to a whole new generation.
In Black Mirror, you play as David Gordon, a middle-aged man who, following the suspicious suicide of his estranged father, gets called back to his estate in the remote Scottish highlands to settle up his inheritance. However, not everything is quite as it seems. With staff that are everything from terrified to downright hostile, everyone seems to have a secret to hide, and under the guise of filling out the paperwork, David sets about investigating the mysterious circumstances surrounding his father's death - and the trail of clues the now-deceased left for his heir. What follows is a murder mystery that weaves together the occult, Gothic horror and plenty of puzzles to create a story that attempts to delve into the madness that has plagued the Gordon family for generations.
A fairly old school point and click, you'll steer David through the mansion's rooms and grounds, looking for clues - and anything even remotely useful you can stash in your pocket for later. By examining every nook and cranny, talking with the mansion's mysterious inhabitants and working your way through the puzzles, you'll slowly start to uncover the strange tale of your father's untimely demise, and a lifetime plagued by strange visions. Strange visions which you too seem to have inherited, which have only increased in frequency since you've arrived at the estate…
The plot and puzzles here are easily Black Mirror's highlights, taking in code-breaking, careful observation and good use of the things that you find (things that the everyday folk leave behind), to name but a few. One early puzzle sees you trying to access a number of locked secret compartments in a desk, having to locate three well-hidden buttons that are actually built into the desk itself. One particularly clever one requires you put in the correct sequence of button presses, based on the coloured stripes on a snake carved into the side of the desk. Another compartment required a bit of code-breaking, making use of a couple of notes your late father had left you with a few scribblings of symbols and formulae on, which you need to decipher to reveal the four-digit code. Your reward for breaking your way into the locked desk is a key to your father's study, but even this is a puzzle in and of itself, as you'll need to rotate the end of to make it the correct shape to fit in the lock - something which is easier said than done.
You see, Black Mirror unfortunately has more than a few technical hiccups during its six hour story - and it's examining and manipulating different items that's one of the more problematic. When looking at key items in your inventory, each usually has a number of important 'points of interest' marked on them that you'll want to get a closer look at - but selecting said spots is a game in itself. There's no easy way to select these spots in turn - instead, you need to rotate and reposition said item on screen until the game decides to jump to the spot you're interested in, or most likely, skip over it entirely. In the aforementioned key problem, it's especially pronounced, seeing as the teeth of the key are so close together, selecting the correct one to rotate can be a bit tricky. However, it's only really a symptom of a larger problem, as walking around the mansion and interacting with objects is similarly hit and miss, and you'll often find yourself having to do some bizarre ritual dance just to interact with a book on a shelf, for example. Add in the fact that there's substantial load times between rooms, and the fact you've just accidentally stepped into the hall while trying to examine a bookshelf soon starts to grate.
Black Mirror could have done with a bit of a going over in other aspects too - during night scenes in particular, the dark, atmospheric mansion is a little too dark, to the point where you largely can't see where you're going, even if you whack the gamma setting up to maximum. When David's carrying his own candle, it's a little better, but all too often you'll find yourself accompanied by an escort with a light source instead, who always seems to walk off at an impossible speed and leave you standing in the pitch black, wondering which way you're supposed to go now. Then, there's also the opposite problem of button prompts being too bright; whoever had the idea of putting a light grey background behind white button outlines needs to be shot. Slowdown and stuttering in both cutscenes and while exploring also make it feel a little rough round the edges, although, as it's a fairly slow-paced game, they don't necessarily hinder your progress too much.
Black Mirror also runs into the age old point and click problem of it not necessarily being that obvious where you need to go next, and what you need to do there - although it's perhaps not entirely the game's fault, and more of a quirk of the genre. In an attempt to circumvent the tendency to wander around aimlessly hoping to bump into the right item or object at the right time to progress the story, Black Mirror does have a quest log of prompts that tell you roughly what to aim for, but the problem is they're a bit too vague to be helpful. Telling you you need to find out what the maid knows, when it actually means you need to help her deal with the spider problem in the cellar is perhaps a little too obtuse for those who aren't seasoned point and click fans, and is more likely to send them barking up the wrong tree.
In all, Black Mirror is a bit of an odd one really. Its story and puzzles are all pretty good, but a myriad of technical issues mar the whole experience, making it all feel a bit unfinished. If you can forgive its faults, it's a pretty solid murder mystery adventure, full of intrigue, suspense and dark occult-ish underpinnings, wrapped up in an old-school point and click style package - but having to constantly wrestle with the controls and light settings can get old pretty fast. It's not bad, but it's not that great either, which is a shame as a little more polish could have made it into a much better game.
Format Reviewed: PC