If the tedious and ill-constructed patchwork gameplay of Black Mirror (2017) doesn’t drive you to face-desking, drooling nuttery, then the numerous bugs, clumsy story, and staggeringly drunk camera work most certainly will.
If you like your reviews short and simple, save yourself rage and disappointment and just play The Black Mirror (2003) point-and-click adventure game upon which this 2017 reboot is based.
But if you want to see me unleash the Snarks of War, please continue.
Don’t make me angry
Having worked in the game industry I appreciate the process and challenges of making games. I’m a relatively positive critic, probably more forgiving than many. I have a soft spot for games with well-crafted stories (especially horror games). See my review of Perception for an idea of what happy-me sounds like.
A game must truly annoy me to unholy levels to earn a wholly negative review, and by its midpoint Black Mirror (2017) had succeeded, driving me to full-on “Christmas Story” levels of frustration and profanity.
“In the heat of battle my father wove a tapestry of obscenities that as far as we know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan.”
—Narrator, “A Christmas Story”
Clawing a thoughtful review out of a tapestry of obscenities can be challenging, but Black Mirror (2017) I accept your challenge.
Black Mirror doesn’t reflect well
Black Mirror (2017) was developed by German game developer King Art Games and published by THQ Nordic. THQ Nordic also published the original The Black Mirror (2003), which was developed by Future Games.
The Black Mirror (2003) was a classic ‘hunt-and-click’ style adventure game released at the tail end of that genre’s popularity (or economic viability anyway). I haven’t played it, but its Steam page boasts a ‘Very Positive’ rating by the community and some favorable press snippets.
As the owners of the original IP, one would think THQ Nordic would want to respect and continue its positive legacy. Unfortunately, despite borrowing the original game’s theme and 2/3 of its name, Black Mirror (2017) basically punches The Black Mirror (2003) in the crotch and craps a swarm of sh*t-stained shuriken into its writhing body.
Sinking into the swamp
Black Mirror (2017) is mired in story, technical, and design issues that suggest highly rushed, patch work development efforts. Sometimes successes in certain areas can offset a deficit in others to net an enjoyable experience. But you need to get more right than you get wrong.
Black Mirror (2017) fails across the board. It’s a recipe for frustration, buyer’s remorse, and wasted dollars and time.
It’s also a recipe for an angry, snarky review written behind my furrowed brow. (Seriously, I’m really furrowing now.)
It was a dark and stormy tin of tired tropes
A father dies, and his distant, estranged son receives a letter beckoning him to his ancestral home—a dilapidated Scottish castle (of course) populated by a small cast of eccentric, passive-aggressive folks, all of whom are a) clearly hiding shameful secrets; and/or b) Plotting Nefarious Things. Cue lightning flash and ‘muahahas.’
So begins your quest to unravel your weird family’s mysteries, mainly by walking around and looking for little circles. It’s as intriguing as it sounds.
I’m willing to entertain horror tropes if they’re crafted well. The general writing is decent enough and the voice acting is very good in Black Mirror (2017), but the story feels like it was crafted from spare parts and then hastily stitched together.
Here are just some of the notable story gaffs in Black Mirror (2017):
- The timeline of events and characters is hard to decipher. Your father sent you away to live in India and died while you were away. But his ghost/memory is always a little boy? It’s not a huge problem, but it’s never adequately explained either. He obviously didn’t die at the age of 10.
- Magical and unnecessary character appearances. There are 2 occasions where a character suddenly ‘appears’ without explanation. In one instance the character isn’t even necessary for the story or puzzle (it seems like an ‘animation leftover’ or something). In another instance the character (Leah, your compatriot) is clearly helping the writers out of their corner. Or someone just got lazy with how to introduce her.
- The teleporting villain who defies space and time (and logic). On the way to the final confrontation you must solve a series of puzzles. Apparently, the antagonist waiting for you solved and then reset the puzzles, because the path to the end game is completely linear. The villain does not have magical super powers either. The story just needed its puzzles and final confrontation logic be damned.
- The teleporting villain who defies space and time (and logic) part 2: At the beginning of your journey to the final confrontation your compatriot Leah vanishes without explanation, only to appear as a captive when you reach the villain in the final confrontation. Just look away.
- Characters can do things because it’s convenient. Leah cannot see the visions you see. Until at one point she suddenly can and asks you about something she shouldn’t see. At another point she is inexplicably able to see something that you cannot purely to create a puzzle for you solve/navigate.
- Some things can’t be interacted with until the story requires it. Minor spoiler: the big globe in the main hall of the castle is a puzzle (and not a very good one), but only when the game needs it to be.
There’s no adventure in this adventure game
As if all these niggling annoyances weren’t enough—and there are more, mind you—Black Mirror (2017) also succumbs to the worst of dated ‘Adventure-Game-isms’, mainly that story advancement is largely contingent on clicking everything and talking to everyone.
There are some reasonably pleasant puzzles to solve, but navigating each chapter is often a matter of just exploring everywhere, looking for little circles (interactive points) and pressing “1” to examine/interact. Rarely do you feel pro-active agency over identifying and solving problems, or the ‘aha’ satisfaction for figuring out a solution and advancing the story.
Instead the game feels like a tedious exercise to click all the clicks and listen to character expositions so you can continue getting shoehorned down it’s tiresome, linear path. You’re more likely to finish the game out of spite than anything else. “I’m getting my thirty damn dollars out of this whether you like it or not!”
When controlling the game is a game (and not a fun one)
Even if the story doesn’t completely kill your enjoyment of Black Mirror 2017, its many technical and design problems are sure to finish the job.
One of the biggest saboteurs is the camera, who clearly drank 38 beers before it even showed up to the party. Then it sauntered into the kitchen, downed an entire tray of jello shots, and finally threw up and passed out in your significant other’s bed.
It very frequently obstructs your view, and leaves you looking directly into your ugly avatar’s cold, dead, marionette face instead of those library shelves, desk, or whatever else you were hoping to investigate. In a game where the primary mechanic is walking around and looking for stuff this is more than a small oversight. It annoys immediately and often. and will start wearing down your patience early in the game.
Cinematic scenes also suffer. In one particular scene there’s a conversation between two characters where half of one character’s face is cut off, and you can only see the back of the other’s head.
In yet another rage-inducing episode both protagonists walk completely out of view (off screen), but the game wouldn’t let me leave to go to the next area. I had to restore a saved game to escape. At this point I was starting to suspect the camera actively hated me.
Go home camera. You’re drunk.
Unnecessary control innovation
Let’s thank King Art games for ignoring popular, well-understood and intuitive mouse controls and point-and-click adventure game interfaces. Instead, they forged ahead to grace us with the “Keyboard-number-keys-sometimes-mouse” (KNKSM) Adventure Game Interface.
WASD keys move you. Number keys interact. The mouse is used intermittently and inconsistently for annoying ‘interactions’, most of which could scarcely be called ‘mini-games’. Rotating and interacting with items in inventory could almost be a mini-game unto itself.
Yeah, it’s as awesome as it sounds. Even if the game plays better with a gamepad, we’re in PC gamer country here.
Patchwork game design
If the ‘innovative’ (read: awful) controls and obnoxiously sh*tfaced camera aren’t enough to grate your cheese, it gets worse. Black Mirror (2017) also seems to suffer from ‘design by committee or trend’ game design. And someone tried to borrow from Telltale’s playbook— but only read every 5th page.
Here are just a few technical and design issues with Black Mirror (2017).
- Pointless “mini-games” and quicktime events: “Hey, we need to give players things to do besides explore and press ‘1’. Also, there’s a mouse.” Be prepared to randomly click your mouse in abrupt mini games, absolutely none of which are fun and most of which are utterly pointless. They were injected to distract your rampant face-palming.
- There are at least two puzzles you don’t need to solve (as designed) because you can use process of elimination and a little guess-clicking instead of locating the solution. Perhaps this is a gentle mercy granted by some sensible, rogue developer. It saves time and the trouble of wandering around with Drunk Camera.
- There are collectibles to give absolutely zero f*cks about. These were probably introduced to provide false hope you’ll find something interesting. Instead, the allure of the little circle and clicking it results in “photo pieces found” — with no reason to care or even wonder what they are.
Black Mirror keeps you guessing at the wrong things
Think that’s all? HA! As they say in infomercials, “But wait! there’s more! Order now and along with Staggeringly Drunk Camera (SDC) and our “innovative” KNKSM Adventure Game Interface, and we’ll throw in Cryptic Inconsistent Feedback System (CIFS).”
Here’s an example of this fabulous system. I clicked (oops, pressed “1”) on a drawer (thanks little circle) and the character responded by saying “I might need this”— with zero indication of what (if anything) was found or added to inventory.
And this is just one example. This happens often but inconsistently for many interactions. Keeping players guessing as to what they just did does not enhance the mystery.
But perhaps worst of all it doesn’t really matter most of the time, because the game will probably prompt you to use the object when it’s needed regardless of whether you even know what you’re carrying.
You virtually never need to pro-actively identify or solve a problem (despite the game’s nigh useless ‘Quest Log’). Wander around long enough, click everything, and you’ll advance one way or another.
If Black Mirror (2017) were an Infocom game, you’d scarcely need to type more than “Do thing.” Congratulations, you clicked the thing to find the thing and click the other thing.
To be fair, there are some good puzzles, but they are relatively few and far between, and thoroughly overshadowed by the game’s many, many problems.
Overall: 10/10 NOPES
If you’ve read this far, I’m sure you’ve gotten the point: Black Mirror (2017) is a bad, bad game. JUST AVOID IT or play the original 2003 version.