Something that almost everybody will go through at some point in their life is the loss of someone close to them. This is something that PaperSeven’s Blackwood Crossing explores with two orphaned children, the young boy Finn and his teenage sister Scarlet, the latter of which the player inhabits as they find themselves on a mysterious and seemingly magical train.
Blackwood Crossing markets itself as a ‘story-driven’ game, but to me it’s equally character-driven. There’s no good or bad guys, it’s a brother and sister and the deepening understanding between them that drives the divisive and the poignant moments throughout the game. Minor characters, like the parents and Scarlet’s boyfriend, also feel important to the story and world, despite being hidden behind masks and only present as memories.
If you remember what it’s like to be a child and a teenager, both Scarlet and Finn are relatable on some level, from how they talk to why they act the way they do. The player has the option of giving sarcastic, bossy, or gentle replies to Finn, which helps to engage with the conversation, but has the Fallout 4 issue where you won’t know what Scarlet is actually going to say.
Aside from one puzzle which had me scratching my head for a couple minutes, the majority of the gameplay in Blackwood Crossing is simple. Most of the puzzles are memory based and relate to relationships with people the children know, but the puzzles that involve Finn directly work the best. It does feel like you’re playing with a child, with the game’s tutorial being disguised as a game of Simon Says.
There are a few obvious issues. The camera movement is too bouncy and jolts when you turn quickly, making movement a little disorientating at first. I suppose it’s meant to simulate movement but feels closer to learning how to walk. There’s also too many basic contextual actions. Wiggling around the control stick to draw a picture was fun, but cutting was simply done by pressing the A button. Using the trigger would have been much closer to simulating that action on a controller.
The biggest issue is the lack of a sprint button. I can give a pass to walking sims like Dear Esther, as sprinting would detract from the atmosphere, but Blackwood Crossing is more adventure based with intense moments. If there’s a fire on a train I don’t want to be trudging slowly along, I want to be sprinting to the extinguisher. Particularly if I must go up and down the same corridor.
Scarlet also has a very limited set of movement animations. The player can move forwards, backwards, sideways and everything in-between, but Scarlet’s reflection is always walking forward. There’s also the occasional lag between pressing a button and doing an action, like picking up an item, and certain actions can only be initiated if you’re facing the object or person from a particular angle. It’s frustrating to constantly move around a chair or table to stand in front of a person multiple times.
I also encountered a couple of technical issues. The first was the game became stuck on a black screen between levels. And the other was what seemed to be a corrupted save file, as the game loaded from a checkpoint I had reached ten minutes before my last auto-save.
The core story is also predictable, I had some theories from the start and managed to confirm some about halfway through. But surprisingly, Blackwood Crossing still manages to unfold in a genuinely emotive way. I’d actually expect a second playthrough to be interesting, going in with a greater understanding of Finn and Scarlet, their lives, as well as the train and island. All the environments are beautiful and detailed with things like movie posters that personify the characters.
Blackwood Crossing is not on the same level as other story-driven games such as Life is Strange, but manages to be an interesting experience and deliver a unique perspective on its themes. The ideas around family and loss rarely feel contrived, thanks to the relationship between Scarlet and her younger brother tying it all together. If you hate kids you’ll probably want to give this game a miss, but if you like kids in a non-creepy way, it’s an engaging and moving experience.