When we last checked in on Blackwood Crossing, we noted that it had all of the makings of an intriguing adventure with a powerful narrative about the bond between two siblings, but that it was sadly marred by what appeared to be more than a few technical and design issues. So now here we are at the game’s launch, and the good news is that all of the technical issues have been ironed out for the most part (although this is the Xbox One version, as compared to the PC version in the preview), making for a vastly smoother experience, so that there are no longer any major distractions from the journey of Scarlett and Finn. The bad news is that without the distractions, it was soon discovered that the preview version from earlier was basically half the game and that the journey was over far too soon.
But before we get into that, let’s recap the plot. We play as Scarlett, a teenage girl traveling on a mysterious train and accompanied by their younger brother, Finn. Finn ends up wandering off on the train, and as Scarlett goes looking for them, suddenly they’re pulled into lush wilderness and islands straight out of their youth and surrounded by masked figures behaving like their friends and relatives, all while a dark substance known as umbra is choking everything around. So Scarlett has to deduce just exactly what’s going on, all while being teased and led on by a mysterious kid with a rabbit head.
It’s captivating stuff that makes for a fascinating story that keeps you guessing up until the final acts, and the various themes of family, loss and growing up are all handled well. This is also enhanced by particularly good voice acting on all fronts, and Scarlett and Finn have fine chemistry. The story is the game’s strongest point, and it’s solidly constructed, perfectly filling out an experience last lasts about two to three hours. While the story in Blackwood Crossing perfectly fills out its timeframe, however, the gameplay doesn’t do the same.
I’m pretty sure I’ve said this before, but let me make this clear again: There is naturally nothing wrong with making a short game. There are several examples of amazing games that only lasted a few hours, from Firewatch to Gone Home to Jazzpunk, and many more. But the key is that even when your game doesn’t last long, you want it to do everything with its gameplay that you can possibly do with it. And oddly enough, Blackwood Crossing kept reminding me of another game reviewed earlier this year, Rise & Shine. Yes, the cartoonish run-and-gun game with meta humor. Both games set up a lot of fun gameplay mechanics with a lot of potential to accompany their interesting world full of colorful characters, but both end prematurely before any of those mechanics can be properly fleshed out.
For example, we’re introduced to three unique abilities that Scarlett can pull off as the game progresses: The ability to give life to various inanimate craftwork, a pyrokinesis ability that absorbs fire and lets you release it, and the ability to pull umbra away in order to lead it to destruction. Combined, those are three skills that can make for a variety of interesting puzzle designs. And yet the amount of unique scenarios in which all three skills combined can be used can arguably be counted on two hands. Even then, honestly, the game doesn’t really put up any real challenge with these puzzles, save for one moment involving attracting umbra to trees that never appears again, and you can’t use these abilities at will, only when you receive any prompts.
The other major puzzle Blackwood Crossing has is one where to have to match up the conversations of the masked people you come across by interacting with them, getting a snippet of dialogue, then finding the person who continues the conversation. It’s simple, but just challenging enough, and allows for a bit of world-building, but with only eight characters to work with here, there aren’t that many unique solutions, and so you only get about three or four instances of these dialogue puzzles. There are also sections where you get to choose the type of dialogue response Scarlett gives to Finn, but it feels particularly random as to when these show up, and they don’t really have an impact on the story (instead leaving multiple endings to a rather one-sided binary choice).
The only other activity is basically just examining various objects to give us more insight into the characters and their world, and I say that because Blackwood Crossing almost cartoonishly gushes achievements for looking at even minor objects, as if they felt the need to milk things out as much as possible given the game’s short length. I know I keep harping on and on about the length, but the annoying thing is that there’s nothing really wrong with Blackwood Crossing. The controls are nice and simple, be it interacting with people and scenery or tucking items away in your inventory, and as mentioned, the various gameplay elements also make for some fun concepts. But while there’s nothing wrong with things, the game also restricts those same elements from being allowed to grow and become particularly memorable. Even the vibrant graphics and colorful characters suffer a bit, since there’s not a whole lot of variety with the settings either. With a lot of it being constrained, the whole experience ends up being merely okay.
Blackwood Crossing begins with the promise of a fantastic and emotional journey, and provides one from beginning to end when it comes to a terrific story, but in terms of gameplay, the journey ends well before we can even take a stroll to the dining car or the like. It’s just too short a trip, not allowing for enough time to make the most out of things when it comes to puzzles, challenge or unique interactions. It’s decent, sure, but sadly never gets the opportunity to be truly interesting, which is sad given the amount of potential here. If you’re looking for an interesting tale, you may want to purchase a ticket, but the rest of us could arguably get more excitement from throwing pennies on the tracks.