First posted on 15 September 2013. Last updated on 15 September 2013.
Blackstone Chronicles (also known as John Saul's Blackstone Chronicles: An Adventure in Terror) is not a game meant to revolutionize the adventure genre. Quite frankly, it is a fairly trite, though brilliantly told, maudlin work of fiction. Based on the literary work of John Saul's Blackstone Chronicles novels, the game strives to expand the saga, taking the main character from the novels into a final and chilling chapter.
The story itself does not quite rise above the level of a sort of a Dean Koontz or V.C. Andrews thriller, with an element of historical flair. The game itself, too, does not break any new ground—it is a haunted house story, relying on dread and mystery to create its aesthetic. What makes this adaptation a remarkable game, and it is, is its production and design. The game is nearly a flawless execution of the story. Although it is certainly not a perfect game, the narrative and puzzle design are integrated so well together that playing it becomes an experience. Even if this experience is a rather lowbrow form of fiction, the game does what it intends to do very, very well.
You play Oliver Metcalf, the son of the deceased superintendent of Blackstone Asylum, Malcolm Metcalf, who has not let his current condition keep him from serving as the psychotic villain in the story. Malcolm has kidnapped your son, Joshua, (how he has done this as a ghost is never quite explained) and hidden him somewhere deep inside the asylum. The asylum has not kept any patients in decades and is now a historical Museum of Psychiatric History. You have until morning to find your son.
While a building being haunted is not usually a fortuitous situation, it is in this case because the spirits of dead patients that still haunt the asylum have decided to come to your aid. It appears that they have all got an axe to grind—in some cases, literally—with your father.
The first element that makes this game stand out is the performance of the actor, Henry Strozier, who plays Malcolm. While most of the voice cast is adequate, Strozier plays Malcolm to the hilt as a gruff, psychopath determined to exert his will on his oldest son. Even when Strozier plays it a bit corny, he is the perfect villain in a perfect B movie of an adventure game.
The second element that makes this game stand out is the music. As you explore the asylum, you are greeted with different aural themes for each room. In the atrium, where the game starts, a longing but foreboding classical piece sets the tone. In the day room, classical muzak sets the mood of an abandoned recreation area. In the basement downstairs, where the nastier "therapies" took place, the music follows the darker direction.
The game also has a few interesting mechanics which present themselves early on. The first mechanic is the conflicting stories that you will learn in the narrative about the asylum. Many of the rooms in the game have museum exhibits, housing asylum artifacts and displays that give interesting facts about the history of mental illness treatments. While these exhibits paint a sympathetic, if sometimes, inevitably, condescending picture of archaic psychiatric therapies, the spirits—who are only represented by their voices—tell a completely different tale. The real tale you get from them is chilling and a frightening historical glimpse of the science of psychiatry. The second mechanic is the use of puzzles that are timed sequences. At certain points of the game, you will find yourself in a deathtrap puzzle which takes a fair amount of wits to get out of. Although timed puzzles are often frowned upon in adventure games, they work well in this game because they add an amount of suspense that matches the mood. (If you really hate these puzzles, the game even has a hint system for each of them which will give you an answer if you are completely stumped.)
The other puzzles in the game are also well integrated, most being a mixture of inventory and deduction challenges. Your inventory grows a bit unrealistically over the course of the game, but not so much that you have to pore over item after item trying endless combinations. Except for the occasional pixel hunting, I have found most of the puzzles to be fairly logical. Indeed, this may be the only design element that has pushed my suspension of disbelief from time to time. Often, I have found myself waving the cursor or an inventory item across the screen, pixel hunting to see if any part of the environment becomes activated. While some puzzles can be difficult, there are not any in which the solution feels arbitrary.
The game is not particularly long. Only the asylum itself can be explored, although it certainly has quite a few surprises. The game is about 15-20 hours in length, including the time spent staring at a particularly demanding deathtrap puzzle.
The graphics are par for an adventure game of its vintage, photorealistic enough to create the illusion of being inside a mental institution. The asylum is well recreated, silent and ghostly enough to keep you somewhat ill at ease. The artwork is eclectic and intriguing and really shines when it shows off the differences in decoration in the inmates' rooms (including the room which recreates an English medieval bedchamber). The only letdown is that the asylum is not completely open for exploration. There are doors which you can never unlock, and there are doors which close behind you and are never to be opened again. This keeps your path fairly linear—good for game progression, but not great for a sense of realism.
As a horror game, this game is meant to unsettle you. Mostly, it succeeds. The actual realities of historic mental illness treatments are enough to make some gamers feel ill at ease. From prefrontal lobotomies to focal infection therapy, real treatments of psychiatric diseases are all represented here. What are also represented are the spirits of the patients' stories and experiences of those treatments, adding a human element to the history. There are quite a few characters, though, and the game falters in that these characters are often just caricatures whom you will better remember them by the treatments (such as hydrotherapy or electroconvulsive therapy) they have received than by their names. While the game never goes for the cheap surprise thrill and stays away from abject gore, it does not shy away from truly disturbing imageries. The legacy of these horrific treatments is directly illustrated. After a certain point in the game, it becomes nearly impossible to feel completely comfortable inside the asylum.
In addition, the rescue of your son adds an element of suspense which further augments the sense of dread that the game is deliberately trying to build. It is impressive, because there are certain moments where the game can easily veer into absurdity but somehow manages to never go off the precipice.
While Blackstone Chronicles may not set new standards in storytelling, the integration of its narrative and puzzle design makes the game an easy recommendation. It is also an example of what a game can be when a developer pays deep attention to mood, setting, and story. Like many other adventure games in a haunted house, both the loneliness and the sense of mystery provide a visceral experience. The experience may amount to only a pulp horror novel (which Saul's novels are), but it makes the game no less compelling and satisfying to complete.