Blackwood Crossing Review — Childhood Wonder
Our review of PaperSeven's narrative experience Blackwood Crossing dives into the game's emotional and heartbreaking take on childhood whimsy.
Fairy tales, like those of the Brothers Grimm or the countless others that were told to us as children, are the type of story that effortlessly serve as both wonderful flights of fantasy and dark cautionary tales. Underneath almost every one of these stories involving magical beings, talking animals, and extraordinary circumstances lies a deeper, darker message waiting to be discovered. That context is important to note with developer PaperSeven’s debut title, Blackwood Crossing.
Blackwood Crossing brings to life a beautiful story of childhood, loss, and wonder that feels very much like an interactive fairy tale, both literally and metaphorically. Though it’s a brisk adventure at a playtime of about three hours, Blackwood Crossing‘s powerful narrative is one you’ll be sure to remember long after finishing the experience — at the expense of some gameplay and technical hitches that are the few flaws on an otherwise beautiful gem.
Blackwood Crossing is a first-person narrative experience following the story of two siblings: the teenage Scarlett (whom the player directly controls) and her younger brother, Finn. While Scarlett accompanies Finn embarking on a train through the British countryside, the story soon morphs before Scarlett’s (and the player’s) eyes as various events turn the train into a literal wonderland of natural phenomenon, ghostly presences, and other supernatural forces that quickly meld the worlds of reality and fantasy into one.
These presences primarily take on the form of supernatural figures wearing paper-mâché animal masks, adding to the sense that Scarlett (and you as the player) are walking through a lucid dream. Through the majority of the experience, players guide Scarlett through her interactions with the characters (and forces) she encounters, while also solving environmental puzzles that — while not too difficult — provide some variety through the (mostly) narrative-driven experience.
That last point is the one that players will most likely take away the most from Blackwood Crossing, as the narrative and storytelling pulls the player into these characters and world in a unique and compelling way. While I can’t go too deep into the story without spoiling significant portions of it, PaperSeven has done an exceptional job at making Scarlett and Finn’s relationship believable and, most importantly, relatable to anyone on some deeper level with a sibling or a close loved one. Blackwood Crossing is sure to tug at your heartstrings at some point throughout its 2-3 hours, but in a way that feels genuine and thought-provoking, rather than manipulative or forced.
That sense of emotion is driven further by Blackwood Crossing‘s lush visuals and sound, which add some fantastic flourishes and dynamics to the game’s heightened fantasy world. As Scarlett explores the train cars, new scenes open up that drastically transform the ordinary countryside train into a living, breathing forest that exudes beauty, or a garden greenhouse bursting with with color and vibrancy. Adding to that sense of the fantastical that Blackwood Crossing exudes is the soundtrack that swells with heartbreak, with the voice acting — particularly for Scarlett and Finn — also incredibly strong across the board.
From a visual and aural standpoint, Blackwood Crossing toes the line between fantasy and reality convincingly and with an exceptional degree of imagination. However, as a gameplay experience, Blackwood Crossing is a bit less satisfying due to some of its technical and gameplay shortcomings. Though most of these are lesser issues thanks to the strong storytelling and visuals, the game’s issues do come up and can detract in some ways from the experience.
The most prominent of these issues come from Blackwood Crossing‘s controls, with the player’s movement speed severely limited and slower than what players might expect or desire. While it’s understandable that playing on a cramped train car might not be best-suited to blazing fast walking speeds, the slow movement speed and sometimes fussy controls can make navigating the environments a slog. In particular, the reticle that players move to interact with various objects within the environments can also be a bit hit or miss, leaving some opportunities where players might not immediately see an important object to engage with and progress the story.
Despite some of the technical shortcomings of the title, Blackwood Crossing ultimately is a tale that becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Though it’s a brief experience that will only last a few hours, Blackwood Crossing is another title that showcases the power of storytelling in gaming as a medium, while still offering a story that you’re going to remember long after finishing it. Much like the fairy tales and fantastical worlds it borrows from and references, Scarlett and Finn’s tale is filled with visuals, color, and life that goes beyond our sense of reality, but Blackwood Crossing‘s emotion and connection to the player lies in something deeper.