Developed by Brighton-based PaperSeven, Blackwood Crossing is a first-person, narrative-driven experience that explores the fractured relationship between two orphaned siblings. The game begins with older sister Scarlett waking up on a mysterious train and searching for her brother Finn. It begins innocently enough with a few simple rounds of ‘Simon Says’ but before long the player is thrown into what proves to be an intelligent, surreal and powerful experience.
Similar to games in the same vein as Firewatch, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and Dear Esther, Blackwood Crossing shifts focus from complex gameplay mechanics and instead concentrates on storytelling which is where it really shines.
On its surface, the game follows Scarlett as she makes her way through the train’s carriages chasing her little brother. As the game becomes increasingly more obscure, carriages begin to warp and transform into different locations including; Finn’s treehouse, their grandfather’s greenhouse and a make believe island Finn has created where his child-like imagination can run free.
However, below the surface we are introduced to a number of complex themes around growing up, losing touch with loved ones and coming to terms when they are no longer around. These elements are explored with great sensitivity and told expertly through the game’s two main characters.
On one hand, you have Scarlett, a teenage girl who is rapidly making her way to adulthood and enjoying her increasing maturity as she becomes a young woman and develops relationships away from her brother. On the other hand, you have Finn, an intelligent but lonely young boy who is still affected by losing his parents at such a young age he clings to Scarlett as his only comfort.
Whilst their relationship feels endearing and the moments you see the two making paper butterflies together is heartwarming, it is also apparent their relationship is becoming more and more fractured. You get the sense that Scarlett feels held back by Finn and unable to fully let go of her adolescence. Likewise, Finn resents his older sister for growing up and feels abandoned when she leaves him to play alone in his treehouse.
In its two-hour gameplay time, Blackwood Crossing is able to explore an incredibly complex relationship between Scarlett and Finn and makes the game’s finale that more impactful.
On board the train we are also introduced to a number of masked passengers. These apparitions represent loved one from Scarlett and Finn’s past including; their grandparents, Scarlett’s bae, Cam, and even their parents. By interacting with these characters we are able to unlock past conversations that, whilst disjointed, make up the game’s backstory.
These moments also introduce an effective puzzle and story-telling device as you have to pair each character with their counterpart depending on what they are saying at the time. Pairing each character correctly unlocks additional conversations that tell us more about Scarlett and Finn’s tragic past.
Whilst light on gameplay, the game does feature minor puzzles. These often require the player to locate certain objects and place them in their correct place or finding clues that enable the player to progress. The puzzles are challenging but not overly-complicated to take you out of the experience.
As you progress, the game also introduces supernatural abilities. As Scarlett, you develop the ability to bring inanimate objects to life or draw fire into your palms. These abilities are left unexplained and under-utilised but they do a nice job of adding a little variety to the game.
Aesthetically, Blackwood Crossing is a gorgeous game. Visually, the game has gone with a fairytale-esque styling over a photorealistic appearance. These almost cartoonish and childlike visuals work as a perfect contrast to the game’s mature and darker themes throughout and the juxtaposition of these elements is a real triumph for the game.
For all of the game’s graces, it does suffer a couple of shortcomings. Firstly, interacting with objects requires the cursor to be hovering over a precise point in order for a prompt to appear. Whilst this issue is quite small and insignificant in the wider experience, it is repeated throughout and becomes a bit of a tedious annoyance.
Additionally, the walking speed in Blackwood Crossing is painfully slow. I am a huge fan of these type of games and have suffered through hearing others’ criticisms that they move at a glacial pace. However, there may be some merit in calling this game slow-moving. Scarlett’s footsteps seem incredibly short and slow. Whilst I can appreciate the game not wanting you to run past every point of interest and wants the player to really take in the scenery, there are times when the pace can take you out of the experience.
For example, there is a moment on the train in the early part of the game that requires some urgency. Yet, instead of running through the carriage like a madwoman, Scarlett moves as if her legs have been tied at the knees.
Blackwood Crossing is an impactful game littered with metaphors and nuance. As you explore the empty train, uncover Scarlett and Finn’s backstory and the mysteries of the journey, you can’t help but feel a connection with the game. This connection is possibly from the sense of nostalgia felt throughout.
Despite its short running time, the game deals with some complex and mature themes in a very intelligent way. Whilst suffering the typical mechanical downfalls that hinder games of a similar style, the game overcomes these problems with its excellent storytelling and unique style.
In short, Blackwood Crossing is a game that deserves attention. It is full of surprises and packs an emotional punch towards its final act and will undoubtedly be shortlisted for one of the best indie games of the year.
Please note: I was supplied with a copy of Blackwood Crossing for the purpose of this review. However, my opinions are 100% honest.