First posted on 03 December 1999. Last updated on 24 February 2010.
Black Dahlia begins its somber and mysterious tale in 1941. The United States is plagued by a serial killer in Cleveland known as the "Torso Killer" and the grisly murder of an aspiring but aggrieved young actress in Los Angeles named Elizabeth Short, who is dubbed "Black Dahlia" for her propensity to wear black. Meanwhile, the Nazi's regime and their obsession with occult mysticism trouble the pre-war Europe and have made the country very apprehensive. These actual, real life events have now been woven together and fictionalized by Take 2 Interactive in a game called Black Dahlia (as known as Black Dahlia: An Occult Mystery). While the story, atmosphere, and graphics are all excellent, a number of laborious puzzles, bugs, and crashes in this game may leave you somewhat disheartened.
Black Dahlia's story begins in the early 1940s when President Franklin D Roosevelt creates the Office of the Coordinator of Information (COI) to keep an eye on potential Nazi spies, traitors, and saboteurs in the United States. You play the role of a rookie COI agent Jim Pearson, who has just been given his first assignment—investigate alleged subversive Nazi propaganda being passed around in Cleveland. However, the case is not as simple as it appears to be at first and you soon find that there is something much more sinister looming behind it. As the mystery is unraveled, you discover links to Nazi occultism and the Torso killings. Eventually, you meet the young Elizabeth Short, who has an engraved stone known as the "Black Dahlia" in her possession. This Nazi coveted stone, as your investigation reveals, is the center of a horrific occult ritual and the source of ultimate power to control the world. Over the course of 6 years, you must pursue this stone around the world and discover secrets which are best left undiscovered. Once Jim is enclosed in this web of mystery, deceit, and evil, it is up to you to get him out alive and uncorrupted.
Black Dahlia's excellent production values can only be matched by its million dollar budget. The game is a technological improvement over the developer's previous adventure title Ripper, even though the underlying engine used is similar. The developer claims that hundreds of hours of extensive research has been done to ensure complete and accurate graphical immersion in the 1940s' time period. The graphics include phenomenal 3D rendered, realistic environments, into which digitized actors are seamlessly overlaid. The video smoothly incorporates live action sequences into computer generated backgrounds, resulting in cinematic and absorbing gameplay. Darren Eliker does a commendable performance as Jim who is the main protagonist and hero in the game. The developer has also splashed the famous names of Teri Garr and Dennis Hopper on the box, though they play merely small parts. Hopper plays Walter Pensky and Garr plays Madame Cassandra. Hopper's performance is mediocre, and Garr's is pathetic at best. The rest of the cast, for the most part, has done a satisfactory job.
The interface is simple and mostly comprehensible. Full 360° horizontal and limited vertical panning allow the player to scan the environment using the mouse. Objects accessible to further interaction may be acted upon by either clicking or dragging. The only qualm I have with this interface is that there is no cursor indication that you should drag an object or part of an object which can be hard to get used to. The main menu, accessed by right clicking the mouse or pressing the Esc key, gives simple access to options, inventory, Jim's notebook, saving, and restoring. Each of the submenus can also be accessed by programmable hotkeys if preferred. The Esc key also allows you to skip repetitive transitions or video sequences.
Black Dahlia features some 60 to 70 puzzles dispersed over nearly as many locales. Some of the puzzles seem a bit farfetched, but remain admissible (it is just a game, after all). Most, unfortunately, are of trial and error, while the rest are more logical. These include jigsaw, manipulation, code breaking, object puzzles, mazes (2 of them), and more. The puzzles range from simple to simply aggravating. Thankfully, the puzzles which you find too troublesome can be easily bypassed with codes. Even though I have to resort to a walkthrough a few times for some confounding puzzles, I generally enjoy solving them. Nevertheless, I consider myself to be a very patient person, and those who are not may find themselves banging their heads against walls in frustration.
Though many gamers have experience little or no problems running the game, I am not one of those lucky gamers. Installation and early gameplay are fine, but towards the end I endure frequent crashes, graphical glitches, and other errors. A patch that is supposed to fix these problems is of little help. Fortunately, I am still able to successfully complete the game without assassinating my computer (maybe I just have a high tolerance level). The patch also offers the option of adding subtitles. However, I find that they can rarely keep up with the actual dialog, and may have only succeeded in slowing the game down.
Other features have helped to enhance the gameplay in Black Dahlia. Among them is Jim's notebook, which you are free to type into at your whim. The game makes automatic additions to it when crucial information is seen. In addition, disc swapping is kept to an absolute minimum. Lastly, the save and restore function that resembles a "photo album" allows the player to select a slot for the thumbnail of current locale and enter a brief description. On the other hand, it is difficult to distinguish saved games from different players, unless they use their names or different pages of the album. I prefer a system in which each player gets a separate album.
The highlights of Black Dahlia include an excellent storyline, superb reproduction of the 1940s' atmosphere, well integrated graphics, and minimal disk swapping during gameplay. Though I have encountered technical problems while playing this game, others have not. The puzzles can be difficult at times, but not impossible. Therefore, if you are an adventure fan who thoroughly enjoys mystery and intrigue in a story inspired by real life events, I sincerely extend my recommendation of this game to you.