I Saw Black Clouds (XOne) - ReviewLee Mehr , posted on 23 April 2021 / 1,262 Views
The FMV adventure genre has received some tailwind since Wales Interactive became more involved in consoles. Since 2015, it's an expectation to see a new IP from this publisher each year. This frequency has revealed the genre’s potential and drawbacks for many: the modern filmmaking upgrades from 90s cult-classic Night Trap still can't escape the limited player options – effectively being disguised movies. Although this is still something the ironically-named developer Ghost Dog Films can't escape, could there be a silver lining in I Saw Black Clouds?
You take on the role of Kristina, a young woman who's lost a close friend to suicide. Returning to her hometown of Shropshire isn't easy, but the troubling events surrounding the case impel her to find answers. Could ghosts have been tormenting her friend until she gave up? Are ghosts even real? The further she goes down this rabbit hole, the stranger the truth becomes.
I'll admit: it's a compelling premise for a psychological thriller. There's a decent supply of breadcrumbs early on to set the stage of whether Shropshire is tormented by ghosts or if there's a grander conspiracy. As Black Clouds progresses, however, the twists and turns follow a comfortable trail until the final act's dumb subversion. After virtually no proper build-up, we're taken down a different narrative thread that confuses me to this day.
Part of why my brain's still broken from this story stems back to the gameplay's contradictory structure. As with many TellTale adventure titles, choices are central to informing who your character ought to be. Black Clouds isn't even comfortable with you having volition. This goes beyond TellTale's "James will remember that" info that oftentimes teases your choice's significance; even worse, several of the binary/trinary choices given are deliberately disregarded to progress the plot. One early case is being rudely awoken by a ghost, checking the hallway, and sprinting back to your room. The option between remaining by your bed and shutting the door is made by the ghost slamming it themselves. There are other offenses later on which further damage immersion like this. The game too easily reveals its hand as to what's worth considering and what it'll do in spite of you.
In what seems like an acknowledgement of that, Black Clouds introduces stat tracking for both your relationship and personality status. These two trackers will adjust in real-time depending on the choices made. I have to be honest: I forgot about this mechanic until the pop-up upon finishing my first playthrough. Even during my second run, mindful of it this time, there's an ambiguity to decisions influencing acceptance, guilt, and denial metrics unless you pay fastidious attention after each event. It's clear the graphs will play into one of the four possible endings, but the context will likely be lost on you.
This psychological narrative also isn't helped by inconsistent presentation. On net, the professional actors do what they’re able to. Nicole O'Neill (Penny Dreadful) is a decent lead for the underdeveloped script. Iain Ross-McNamee's direction on copious close-ups of her and the supporting cast didn't have proper justification, especially compared to a Safdie Brothers film. That pretentious move got annoying by the first fifteen minutes. There are also plenty of bad match cuts after you've made a decision, oftentimes with subsequent audio mismatches to make them more jarring. The examples range from different music volumes to louder/quieter background noise. In sum, it's a strange amalgamation of qualified actors earning their checks, poor direction, and choppy editing.
These presentational and gameplay issues are interwoven with grander narrative complaints too. You want to empathize with Kristina's emotional damage, but the game's unwritten disregard of your choices harms that relationship. Experiencing Black Clouds reminds me of a bad TellTale game. You see behind the curtain so easily because there's a lack of creative scenarios and thoughtful writing. All of this capped off by a bait-n-switch towards the end that's both nonsensical and irresponsible with its subject matter.
Outside of previously-detailed presentation qualities, Black Clouds succeeds with respect to its filming locations and atmospheric soundtrack. It's a bit challenging to compare visual game design with location scouting, but I think some credit is afforded for accurately capturing the haunted beauty of Shropshire. A similar amount of praise should be given to Michelle Bee's music. Considering the disparate tones in some scenes and the larger narrative, her soundtrack was the most consistent aspect to build up any tension. A shame how often it was tied to mismanaged & confusing shot composition.
Like previous Wales Interactive titles I've played (The Bunker, Late Shift), Black Clouds has a higher-than-expected asking price, but sweetens the deal with consequential final outcomes. This way of mitigating the $12.99 wallet-damage depends on how invested you are in seeing four endings. Because of my fundamental misgivings, I'll readily admit I’m losing enthusiasm to finish my second run. All of the advertised choices you can make and extra cut scenes you can discover lose their luster when doubting if the first trip was even worthwhile.
All things considered, I Saw Black Clouds may rank as Wales' worst FMV title I've yet played. This could be partly tied to my exasperation with continued technical issues, but even that consideration only distracts from poor fundamentals. It wants to be a choose-your-own-adventure movie template while consistently disrespecting player choice. This poisons player investment in a story that rarely elevates to fun B-movie shlock, despite some acting & musical talent. Perhaps the biggest silver lining is this publisher's tenacity to brush off the flops to crank out more entries in this near-deserted genre.
Despite being one of newest writers on VGChartz, Lee has been a part of the community for over a decade. His gaming history spans several console generations: N64 & NES at home while enjoying some Playstation, SEGA, and PC titles elsewhere. Being an Independent Contractor by trade (electric, plumbing, etc.) affords him more gaming luxuries today though. Reader warning: each click given to his articles only helps to inflate his Texas-sized ego. Proceed with caution.
This review is based on a digital copy of I Saw Black Clouds for the XOne, provided by the publisher.
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