Review by Victar
"A point-and-click adventure through the Uncanny Valley (with puzzles)!"
Blackstone Part One is the first of a planned trilogy of point-and-click adventure games available on the Xbox Live Indie Games marketplace for only 80 MSP, or $1. Adventure/puzzle game fans will get a good hour of entertainment for their money, although the 3D human models are practically a textbook case of the Uncanny Valley effect.
Let it be duly noted that even though Blackstone Part One is billed as an RPG in some circles, it is not an RPG. There is no combat system, and no modifiable (or non-modifiable) character statistics. What Blackstone does have in common with RPGs is a story-driven narrative complete with cutscenes (yes, all cutscenes are skippable); you could say that you "play the role" of the main heroine Kate as you guide her through the adventure.
The gameplay is that of a point-and-click adventure, enhanced with additional puzzles; six "stand-alone" puzzles can be replayed from the menu anytime after beating the game. These six puzzles all seem to involve sliding or rotating things to conform to a pattern, and they include two marble grids reminiscent of Hexen, two pipes networks, a grid of numbers, and a rainbow row of colored spheres. Only four of the six stand-alone puzzles need to be solved to finish the game, which is good because three of them are fairly challenging.
By $1 indie game standards, the gameplay is quite satisfying. The game is linear, and structured in such a manner that the player can't move on to the next stage until Kate has everything she needs to proceed. Translucent, moving arrows point to the items that Kate has to collect, removing the all-too-common frustration of hunting for a tiny object that plagues other adventure games. Although the inventory-based adventure gameplay is extremely simple, the more complicated puzzles for opening various doors, etc. help to keep the player's brain engaged. Save points are quite frequent.
The gameplay score loses one point for a game-crashing bug I encountered early on. When I first took control of Kate and ran up some nearby stairs, she somehow started walking up the banister and got stuck in an infinite loop - she could do nothing but walk higher and higher. I had no choice but to quit and restart the game. I only encountered this bug once, though.
Another minor gripe is that, unlike many adventure games (and RPGs), Blackstone Part One doesn't have an option to make Kate to run by default. Instead, the player must always hold down the R-trigger in addition to using the left analog stick to make Kate run. Kate doesn't run very fast either, but given the small size of the game's stages, this isn't a major problem.
Completing the game will take roughly an hour, possibly more if one tackles the optional puzzles afterward. Like nearly all point-and-click adventures, Blackstone Part One doesn't have much replay value.
This is the game's weak point, and how.
I want to give the game developers props for trying. They undertook a remarkably ambitious 3D project, and released it to the public at a bargain price. But...
...have you ever heard of Uncanny Valley effect? You can learn more about it on the TV Tropes or Wikipedia websites. Summarized, it refers to a graph of how humans instinctively react in their gut when they encounter anthropomorphic representations (dolls, robots, video game characters, and so on). When such things roughly resemble humans (think of 3D Mario and Luigi, or Xbox Live avatars), the reaction is positive. When such things resemble humans almost perfectly (think Metal Gear Solid 4 characters), the reaction is also positive. On the other hand, things that come close, but not quite close enough to appearing human just seem *creepy*. It's been theorized that humans have the Uncanny Valley reaction because our ancestors were more likely to survive if they stayed well away from sick people or corpses - that is, infectious bodies that almost but not quite resembled healthy humans.
Blackstone Part One falls squarely into the Uncanny Valley. This is why one might shudder inwardly at the 3D people, even though the background scenery is modestly pleasant, by Indie Game standards. The Uncanny Valley effect of the human characters is further compounded by their awkwardly animated movements, especially their walking/running animations.
It's a shame, because the Uncanny Valley effect - which has the natural repercussion of repulsing people - might well prevent a lot of prospective players from enjoying a genuinely good adventure/puzzle game. The game creators would probably rack up more sales if only they'd used more stylized or cartoon-like representation for their main characters.
Of course, the high marks are by $1 Indie Game standards. The game has a small amount of music, most of it ambient, and the sound effects blend seamlessly into the gameplay. But Blackstone Part One has made the extra effort of including voice acting in all of its cutscenes.
The character voices work best when the characters are speaking normally; some of the more dramatic moments (and the occasional "Noooooo!" scream) are a little less than stellar. But the overall effect strengthens the game's story, and the voice of the main villain practically exudes evil. Subtitles can be turned on or off anytime.
There's nothing terribly special about the story. An evil wizard has seized the mysterious artifact that is the Blackstone. The game begins as Kate awakens in a deserted village, and decides to rescue her missing friends.
The story is a little more fleshed out than a typical "excuse plot", but only a little. Still, it's a nice touch for a $1 game, and significantly enhances the point-and-click adventure gameplay. Blackstone Part One is a 100% family-friendly game; there's no gore or sexual content.
Since Blackstone Part One is intended to be the first of a trilogy, not everything is resolved by the conclusion of the game. Don't let this dissuade you from playing it, though; the story ends at a natural break point, not a nail-biting cliffhanger. Completing the game unlocks the option to rewatch any of the story cutscenes from the main menu.
Is Blackstone Part One worth your $1?
If you enjoy point-and-click adventure/puzzle games, then yes. The gameplay is what makes Blackstone completely worthwhile, in spite of its somewhat bland story played out by Uncanny Valley characters (with surprisingly decent voice acting). There's only about an hour's worth of gaming entertainment, but it's a solid hour. I can only hope that enough gamers pick this one up to induce the creators to make Parts Two and Three.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.0 - Great
Originally Posted: 08/09/11, Updated 02/18/14
Game Release: Blackstone - Part One (US, 07/13/11)
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