Written by: Rik

Date posted: October 15, 2018

This lady still thinks she lives here. And that she’s alive.

After bumbling around in this mostly-ignored area of the internet for so many years, attracting attention and driving traffic to the site hasn’t exactly ever been a priority, despite our oft-repeated query about whether regular readers do, indeed, exist. But after my last review was unexpectedly recirculated by the game’s creator and prompted a number of bewildered replies questioning why someone is only just now getting around to playing and writing about this much-loved series, the thought occurred to me that some context may be required.

So, if you are new, hello! We’re behind the times here, but not so behind the times that we think games that were released 10 years ago are new. Many people discovered the Blackwell games a while ago, but we operate on the assumption that not everyone has played every game ever, and write about things from the past that we may have enjoyed, or think are interesting for some other reason (and if you think ancient football games are interesting, you’re in luck). I grew up loving point and click adventures, then sort of lost interest, then found myself discovering Wadjet Eye through The Shivah, and finding my love of those adventures again in the process, which I figured was something worth writing about. Ok? Ok!

Unbound, the sequel to 2006’s Legacy, takes an brave and somewhat unusual approach to a follow-up, by abandoning the contemporary setting and one half of the double act established in the first game in favour of a prequel. This was a choice made largely out of expedience: what became Unbound started life as part of a larger sequel to Legacy, with some of the game set in the present day and featuring Legacy protagonist Rosangela Blackwell (what was to become the third Blackwell game, Convergence) and some sections played in flashback.

Lauren and Joey get to it.

The flashback, starring Rosa’s Aunt Lauren as the human counterpart to ghostly sidekick Joey, was later developed into a game in its own right, to give Blackwell fans a new chapter to enjoy while work on Convergence continued. Such bits of detail are provided through the developer’s commentary, an interesting Wadjet Eye tradition that gives you another good reason to play their games through again: however it’s a credit to Unbound that, experiencing it for the first time, you’d never guess that it wasn’t planned this way all along.

In other words, it’s unusual, but it works. Joey’s awkward developing partnership with Rosa is set aside while we travel back to join a substantially more established one with Lauren. We join Unbound‘s heroes at Lauren’s New York flat, in the middle of a case, and in them middle of an argument: this is clearly a relationship that’s been going a while, and the parameters seem well established. Lauren is deadpan but pissed off, while Joey shows no visible concern as he chides and teases.

With less of a need for exposition, you can get on with the main business of Blackwell: finding and saving souls. There are two cases here, and after this brief establishing scene, you’re straight into them. While there’s obviously a wider arc to follow, both in the game and series, the individual cases are part of the real joy of Blackwell: delving into past lives, finding out what happened, why these souls are still hanging on in spirit form, and what you can do to help them move on. The relative brevity of these games means there’s little room to go into specifics without spoiling things, but it’s worth saying that Unbound, like Legacy, is able to handle sadness and tragedy with a lightness of touch that, without underplaying the inherent darkness of some of the game’s events, allow a certain level of positivity and humour to be retained.

Lauren deploys her charm at the jazz club.

In terms of the mechanics, there are a few developments worth noting. Firstly, you can actually control Joey this time around (a feature retained for the remainder of the series), and this helps you see him less as an annoyance and more as part of your team. It makes for some interesting and creative situations as Joey can sneak into rooms unannounced and look around, although he can’t touch anything or impact the environment, other than effecting a small puff of air (a concept introduced in Legacy but implemented in a different, use-your-sidekick type way).

Secondly, the emphasis on the notepad for retaining and combining clues has reduced slightly – it’s still there, but you’ll also need to keep notes of your own, in case you need to look up an address or phone number in the paper directory in your flat (this is set in the 70s after all, so Lauren doesn’t have a computer at her disposal). The other major technical difference is the lack of character portraits: the commentary reveals that they too were cut for budgetary reasons, but hardened adventure gamers are used to voices and floating text and, again, if you didn’t know that the portraits were missing, you wouldn’t miss them, particularly when the writing and acting is as strong as it is here.

I like Lauren. At this point, you know what’s going to happen to her in the future, but here we see her in her full ghost-hunting element: not exactly enjoying this unpaid calling or indeed hanging around with Joey but getting on with it nonetheless. It’s an understated but effective performance: one criticism I’d read elsewhere was that you’re given very little insight into her history or character in Unbound, but I’m not sure I agree that it’s necessary. Lauren is a supporting character in the Blackwell story: we’re supposed to know something of her and her history with Joey, but she’s meant to be little less of an enigma to us as she is to Rosa. Unbound works as a stand alone game, and a fine one at that, but ultimately it serves as background to Rosa and Joey’s arc.

I’m afraid that a cartoon older person with no eyes visible through their glasses will always, always make me laugh. Sorry.

As before, the New York setting is used well, and some of the background artwork is really solid. This time, not only real locations but real people are used to frame the setting, another theme that returns in future instalments. Dani Marco is excellent as Lauren, a different character to Rosa yet retaining certain recognisable Blackwell traits. Her easy back and forth with her ghostly sidekick allows for a more even and enjoyable performance from Abe Goldfarb’s Joey this time around, too.

Phone book aside, there’s little made of the 70s setting: another thing I hadn’t even thought to mention until I read about it elsewhere. Again, I’d interpreted it as a strength that it’s deliberately underplayed, but if you’re excited by shoehorned-in references to the culture, music and politics of the era (or just expect the odd pair of flares and a reference to disco) then you’ll be disappointed here.

Otherwise, there’s very little else to be disappointed by. Unbound builds on the uneven promise of Legacy, makes a virtue of its unconventional flashback setting, and delivers a solid couple of cases to investigate. We find out just enough (for now) about Rosa’s family history and Joey’s relationship to it, and you’re left wanting more. One of the shorter entries in the Blackwell saga, and perhaps not the most technically impressive, but certainly one of my favourites.