Sparky's Update - Blackwell Legacy, Omerta: City of Gangsters

Heyo, folks, and welcome to another pipin' hot edition of Sparky's Update, the only blog on the Internet guaranteed to rid you of those nasty warts, that unwanted morning breath, and that bad yeast infection you've been telling your mother about. Remember, kids, talk to your physician first!

This week, I've been playing Blackwell Legacy, a fun little throwback of an adventure game that reminds me strongly of the old Laura Bow games, as well as dumping roughly three kajillion hours into Omerta: City of Gangsters. Neither game seemed to have set the reviewing world on fire, so why the hell have I enjoyed them so much? Well, read on, reader, and find out! Or don't! Go play hopscotch or something. Freedom! Choices! This is America, baby! And if you're looking at this outside of the States, then you're a godless heathen who can't even read (or so Fox News tells me) and I have no time for you, unless you want to mow my lawn and trim my hedges on the DL, in which case I'm offering up two dollars an hour and you'd damn well better not steal any beer from my fridge.

On with it!

My Quest to Dredge Up Every Obscure Adventure Game Continues, Episode CXCVIV - The Phantom's Penance

Remember Laura Bow? No? OK, here's the scoop. Back in the day, Roberta Williams (she of King's Quest fame) created two games called The Colonel's Bequest and (I shit you not - no, the name isn't "I shit you not," but the upcoming title in its fullest, so just shut up a minute and let me have one complete sentence here) Roberta Williams' Laura Bow in: The Dagger of Amon Ra. Both games were fairly blatant homages to Agatha Christie (though Dagger of Amon Ra wasn't really based on any Christie novel, it still featured similar plot structuring). You, as Laura Bow (another homage, this time to Clara Bow), set out to find clues to a killer's identity in both games.

Both games were pleasant enough, but on the whole, fairly unremarkable. The first game required a fair amount of detective work, but it was more character-driven than the usual Sierra game of the time. The second game, while still heavy on the characters and human interaction, is more reliant on typical Sierra puzzles, Your investigative work actually matters to the end of the games, as you can "beat" each game without actually knowing who the killers are. I really enjoyed them, as mystery games were fairly uncommon and Roberta Williams did a great job with the dialogue back then (hey, don't insult me - Amon Ra actually inspired me to read Agatha Christie in '93 or '94, so you can't fault the games for that).

OK, the history lesson's over for the moment. Flash forward to this last week, when I downloaded my recent purchase, the Wadjet adventure pack. I'd heard some mildly positive things about Resonance and the Blackwell series, so I thought I'd jump in with the first - Blackwell Legacy.

The first five minutes of it really didn't do much for me. Your first basic puzzle - to bring your neighbor back to your apartment building to verify who you were - was admittedly dumb. However, it was the solution to this very same puzzle that made me sit up a little straighter and pay more attention to what I thought was going to be a snooze-fest of a game. Your neighbor is playing a flute in a park for bunches of people. Your character is too shy to interrupt her - but nearby, her dog is leashed to a lamp post. Now, in your usual adventure game, you'd have to find X item by pixel hunting across any number of random locations, maybe after talking to a character two or three times and combine it with item Y in what has to be the most hackneyed game mechanic since jumping eight feet in the air while scrolling right. In this case, and I'm going to put up a mild spoiler warning, you simply get the dog to follow you, and get him wrapped up around another post so he starts yipping for attention from his master.

Sounds stupid, right? I mean, it's not a groundbreaking game mechanic, nor is it a new way to play adventure games, but for me, it's exactly the sort of little detail that seperates a mediocre adventure game from something that will genuinely hold my attention. And Blackwell Legacy did exactly that.

It's not a pretty game. The voice acting and dialogue are cringe-worthy. But allow me to jump back to the Laura Bow reference for a second. The Laura Bow games might not be time-honored classics to most people, but I highly respect them for trying new things with the Sierra mold, like deeper character interaction and the highly entertaining ideas the end-game brought about. These are the types of things Blackwell Legacy seems to try to do - there's a very classic adventure game backbone here, but the creators work within the confines of the genre to create something both comforting - like mashed potatoes - and a little bit unique - like cheesy bacon and sour cream mashed potatoes

It doesn't hurt that Blackwell Legacy resembles Dagger of Amon Ra on a more physical level, too. The graphics are similar and the conversations stemming from a notebook full of observations made by the protagonist are straight from Roberta Williams' playbook. Those are compliments, actually - I love the look of early 90's Siera games, as crazy as that sounds, and drawing inspiration for gameplay elements from something both as relatively obscure and fun as Dagger of Amon Ra is a good thing. While Blackwell Legacy has you investigating ghosts rather than "real" mysteries, it still feels thematically similar too. And personally, I like that.

I'm really pleased with this purchase, folks. I know it's not for most of you, but at the very least, if you're an adventure game fan, give this one a shot for the interesting puzzles and ideas behind it. Get beyond the indie budget look and sound, and I think you'll really find something to like here.

One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer

The other diamond in the rough of the week is Omerta - City of Gangsters. This game was pretty much shrugged off by the majority of the reviewing community, but I'm a fan of turn-based squad strategy games and this one suckered me in.

Here's the weirdest, dumbest thing you'll read in a blog today - I like Omerta better than just about any other turn-based squad-strategy games not named Jagged Alliance 2. Yeah, that's right. I like Omerta better than I like XCOM. Sparky Buzzsaw, giving the middle finger to logic and making off with its hot stepdaughter. Here's the thing, though - I'm not dumb enough to say that Omerta's the better game. Not by a long shot. XCOM is technically, visually, and functionally better than Omerta on every level, save for one - Omerta's just more fun to me. How does this make any damn sense? Well...

For me, a squad based shooter is more than its tactics and action. With Jagged Alliance and Omerta, you hire mercenaries that actually feel like they have a bit of personality, as opposed to XCOM's stiflingly dull drones. Sure, that's just a surface level thing and ostensibly not important, but when you're rounding the ten hour mark of a strategy game, personality becomes more than just window dressing. It becomes part of why you continue to play the game. Getting to the next new recruit in Omerta is almost like a checkpoint system to me. "Oh, I finally recruited Fixit, I can save and rest now... just after I've seen what he can do in a mission."

It doesn't hurt that the game is set during Prohibition, one of my favorite time periods for literature, film, and TV This game is, for all intents and purposes, Boardwalk Empire - The Game, minus the sharp acting, clever writing, and... well, damn near everything other than the fact that you're a gangster trying to take over Atlantic City. Side bar - who the eff wants to take over anything in New Jersey? Ever? It also really doesn't hurt that the game's combat feels like a mildly stripped down version of Jagged Alliance 2. There's no ammo management, equipment is limited to a few guns and melee weapons, and the leveling system is based on the acquistion of perks rather than building up individual skill points. But functionally, combat is essentially all Jagged. You get your squad behind some kind of cover, you use action points to perform attacks, and you try not to get flanked while doing some flankering of your own. Flankinening. Flankfurting. FLANKING! That's the one. It even sort of looks like Jagged Alliance 2, though it's admittedly not all that optimized.

Turn-based combat isn't all that Omerta has, either. The other half of the game is a mission-based world-building element. You pick an area of the city you want to take over, and within each, you fulfill various story-based missions to win. Not all of these are combat related - you're also tasked with building a criminal empire by buying up businesses and residences. Some missions net you new gang members to hire, all of whom are pretty stereotypical, though charmingly so. It breaks up the combat sequences nicely, although linking leveling to specific missions rather than combat performance seems kind of an odd choice.

I'm also over the moon about the fact that this game gives you perks at every level, much like Fallout or Skyrim. It's just a shame that the perks lack the same charm and character as the rest of the game. I'm also stuck in a bit of a rut where all my characters are essentially choosing the same perks (mostly long-distance gunfighting bonuses) as there are only really a few choices that seem useful. Melee bonuses are pointless midway through the first act when most of your opponents start toting rifles and pistols. Some variations on these perks, as well as more support class bonuses, would go a long ways towards making the characters feel more unique.

So yeah, I'm a fan of Omerta. It's not polished, the UI is kind of ugly, and some of the mechanics are slightly questionable, but overall, it's a ridiculous amount of fun. And that's sort of the point, isn't it?

The iPad Corner

-Skeeball 2. Know it, love it, never leave it. I fuckin' love skee ball, and now I can play it whenever I want to without looking like a creeper at Chuck E. Cheese. That doesn't mean I'm going to stop my daily lunch breaks over there or anything, but it's nice to know that if they ever manage to get that restraining order on me, I can play it whenever I want to.

The Rest

-I want to like Episodes. Matt LeBlanc is certainly funny as hell in it, and the male British lead does a remarkably good job too. But the lead female character is so stupidly unlikable that it drains the show of a lot of its fun. Seriously, they need to figure out some way to make her relatable and have at least one decent moment when she's not completely, destructively self-centered and bitchy. Ugh.

-Just watched the first episode of The Wire. Holy cow, does that look amazing. I know, I'm way late to the party. But yeah, I'm really looking forward to more of it.

I suppose that's about it for this week. Wow, I wrote way more on Blackwell than I ever expected to, but I really did enjoy the hell out of both games, and will definitely be playing more of Omerta as well as checking out the sequels to Blackwell Legacy. Have a great week!

Edited by Mento

Man, I am still seven shades of chagrined about never completing Gemini Rue (Wadjet's most prolific game, from what I can tell). I also have a Steam copy of their new game Primordia that I ought to be getting on with too. Wadjet is good times.

Laura Bow was crazy though, even for a Sierra game. Weren't a whole lot of the puzzles in that game contingent on you being at the right place at the right time? I sort of like modern games that do that with some sort of time-travel mechanic that lets you be everywhere at once (in a sense), but Roberta Williams was never going to go easy on you like that. You'll solve her moon logic puzzles and figure out the game's strict schedule or you'll go hungry, mister.

As for Episodes, I was never particularly into that show, but I do remember that the female lead is Tamsin Greig. Maybe watch a season of Black Books? That'll endear the actress to you, if not necessarily make her character in Episodes any better.

Posted by Sparky_Buzzsaw

@mento: the character is no fault of the actress, but I'll cjeck out that show regardless. I still don't believe I've ever played or purchased Gemini Rue. Hm.

Yeah, there were some sensitive points in the Laura Bow games, an aspect thankfully missing from Blackwell.

Posted by Slag

Cool! I've been on a Wadjet binge myself this summer, got the whole kit and kaboodle on GOG summer sale. Man has that been a surprisingly satisfying purchase.

I just played through all 4 Blackwell games this month, Gemini Rue and going through Resonance right now (Primorida sometime in August most likely, little burned out on Adventure games right now I've banged out ten in 6 weeks). Resonance so far has been mildly disappointing to me, but I'm hoping it just hasn't found it's groove yet. The mechanical aspects of the game actually maybe the most interesting thing about it.

I basically have the same feelings you do about BL. The beginning of Legacy was real rough, almost brutally so. The game definitely took a while to find itself.

And the guy playing Joey, I dunno his accent/dialogue is noticeably not quite right to me.

The puzzles were stupid easy imo , I got stuck briefly once I think in Legacy? But as I've gotten older I've begun to wonder if hard puzzles are even a good thing for adventure games. I kinda appreciated that the easy puzzles allowed to the story to keep chuckin' along. For me at least I think play adventure games really for dialog, I always almost complusively try to hear every possible line of dialog before moving the plot.

But yeah it's almost like Comfort Food Adventure games, goes down smooth but nothing too amazing. Given the price I paid for it, i'm very happy with that.

The best news is Blackwell Legacy is easily the worst of the 4 Blackwell games out so far, I won't say anymore because I don't want to spoil it for you. I'm actually pretty excited to see where the 5th will take the series when released.

I have not played Laura Bow, but it sounds like I need to now. Thanks for the tip!

Posted by Sparky_Buzzsaw

@slag: Yup, the voice actor for Joey struck me as off, too. It felt like someone with the barest amount of voice coaching trying to very carefully emulate a specific stereotype of the 20's or 30's. It's clipped and awkward, and that's not even mentioning the guy's painful dialogue. Still, though, much like the rest of the game, I almost find the character charming in spite of all that. Weird, right?

Glad to hear the games get better. I'm looking forward to playing more of them as soon as I can put down Omerta for ten minutes. Urgh.

Posted by ArbitraryWater

I feel the need to post this, because I've been on a bit of a "Ways to die in Sierra games" bender, as of late and totally happened upon the videos for both of the Laura Bow games.

Also: Lulz Sierra Adventure games. Still doesn't beat Police Quest 3 though. This has led to me seriously considering trying Quest for Glory again, since there are 5 of those games and I feel the need to justify my stupid GOG purchases.

As for Omerta, your claims of fun in the face of logic have intrigued me somewhat (and I'm not going to pretend that my last blog on Resident Evil 6 wasn't written in a similar tone). Not going to get it until I can get it for dirt cheap, but you've given me reason enough to try it at some point, I guess. Jagged Alliance never clicked with me and I think Tropico is merely "alright", but for $5 I'd buy Sonic 2006 or some other horrible travesty.

Posted by Slag

@sparky_buzzsaw: Yeah I do too. I'm not sure why but that odd kinda off quality kinda sticks throughout the series.

I just wish Joey's VA either went all in for the old time accent or went the other way and was more subtle about it. It just felt really uneven and strange hearing "dollface" etc throw in so awkwardly.