John Saul's Blackstone Chronicles: An Adventure in Terror

Review by Jen
November 2002

John Saul is a renowned author of psychological horror stories. After reading Steven King's The Green Mile series, Saul employed the same serial short novel format to release The Blackstone Chronicles (now available in a single volume). The first in the series, An Eye for an Eye: The Doll, was published in 1997, and the series was finished by the sixth, The Asylum, within a short span of months. The series was centered on the families of the fictional town of Blackstone.

I have not read any of the Blackstone Chronicles books. I usually equate horror with the more Lovecraftian themes of foul beings unleashed to wreak havoc on the world by innocent incantations of the unwitting protagonist, and monster stories just aren't my bag, daddy-o.

As it turns out, the only monsters in Blackstone are human.

The Blackstone Chronicles, the game, takes place some years after the Asylum has closed. The Blackstone Historical Society has turned it into a museum, and renovations are almost complete; in fact, opening day is tomorrow. You play as Oliver Metcalf, son of the doctor in charge of the Asylum, Malcolm Metcalf. Malcolm is not happy about the fate of the building, nor what's become of you, his son. As the game opens, Malcolm spirits away your own child and locks him in a secret room of the Asylum in an attempt to force you to follow in your father's footsteps. Only problem is, Malcolm is dead. You must find Josh before dawn if you are to save him ... and yourself. In your quest, you will meet several inhabitants of the Asylum. These will help you but only if you help them first, at your own peril.

The game is played in the first person. This is one of those point-and-click Quicktime games that were so prevalent in the mid- to late 90s, but unlike others of its ilk, this one gives you little transition movies in between turns or steps. The in-game graphics are crisp and clear, but these transitions are dark and grainy. After I played the whole two-CD game without ever disk-swapping, I wondered what the other CD was for. Well, duh, the second one had all the high-resolution movies. Of course I'm much too lazy to go back in and see if there's any difference. But at the time the game released, I bet the high-resolution movies were beyond all but the nerdiest computers' capacity and the regular ones were so everyone could play. At any rate, if you play through the game with the right mouse button instead of the left, you can skip the transitions entirely. They are all worth seeing exactly once each anyway, so no love lost there.

There are three or four places where you can die in the game, always as a result of not solving a timed puzzle quickly enough. But fear not, these timed puzzles are quite easy and even if you die you are given three choices: hint, solution, or restart at your last move and try again.

Gameplay is mostly inventory-based. You find several items that you can take immediately, and the ghosts will give you most of your clues—clues to new rooms, where to find other items, or how to use items you already have. You get further info by reading the various displays scattered throughout the museum by the Historical Society, and other hints are gleaned from diaries and papers.

Conversations with the ghosts are via conversation trees. Oliver's spoken dialogue, in a nice twist on an old device, does not match the clicked-upon option; rather, the option displayed serves merely as an indication of what path the conversation might take. The conversations are an important element of the game; unfortunately there is no option for subtitles, but fortunately you may replay dialog as many times as you like just by clicking on the dialog option again.

The voice actors all do a nice job. You, Oliver, speak mostly in a calming deadpan, and your father, Malcolm, takes on the affect of a patient teacher with a recalcitrant pupil. Other actors are a pretty mixed bag, ranging from acceptable to very good.

The Asylum's locations are relatively few, and new areas open up in small doses. Early in the game, you find a gigantic ring of about 200 keys. Of course it's pointless to try each key on a locked door, so as you progress you will need to find someone willing to tell you what key fits in which door. At a certain point in the game, all of the no-longer-needed locations will be closed off to you, which serves nicely to save a tired player from endless tromping around.

Graphics and music are pretty middle-of-the-road; I suspect that was the case even when the game was released in 1998. The strength of the product lies not in its outward appearance but in the tales that are told. As in Amber, Morpheus, and the more recent Dark Fall, you must piece together snippets of the life stories of the characters that once populated this place and help cut the ties that keep them earthbound. In The Blackstone Chronicles, however, you are faced with the added dimension of the horrors that were visited upon the hapless Asylum residents in the name of science. You will certainly find yourself wondering who among the characters was really insane, the inmates or their keeper.

The game's pacing is nice; revelations occur in a gentle, steady stream instead of a couple hours of tedium followed by a big burst of confusing activity. The Blackstone Chronicles is not particularly difficult; there were only two or three times I resorted to a walkthrough. Each time, I could've arrived at the solution myself with a bit more patience and persistence, so I feel a little guilty about that. But what can I say? The suspense was killing me ...

The Blackstone Chronicles is an excellent game for beginners; none of the puzzles are nonsensical in that inimitable Monkey Island fashion that we all know and love, and they all serve to propel the plot ever forward. But it is also a tasty treat for the more jaded adventurer because of the strength of the narrative and the skillful intertwining of all of the subplots. I give it my highest recommendation, the Four Fat Chicks Gold Star. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Legend Entertainment
Publisher: Red Orb
Release Date: 1998

Available for: Windows

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System Requirements

Pentium 166
Windows 95/98 (played fine in XP with included Quicktime 3 installation)
180 MB free hard disk space
8X CD-ROM drive
24-bit PCI video card with 2 MB RAM
DirectX 6 compatible sound card
Mouse and keyboard

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