Phoenix Wright had Mia Fey fulfilling the role of Obi-Wan as a spirit adviser. Ghost Trick's leading man Cecil started out dead. And even Guybrush Threepwood shed his mortal coil at one point in Tales of Monkey Island. Now, in Blackwell Deception, we have spirit medium/author/private investigator Rosa Blackwell and her Philip Marlowe-esque ghost partner, Joey Mallone, solving their own supernatural mysteries. I'd be tempted to call the Ghostbusters if I wasn't enjoying this recent trend so much.
"Deception" is the fourth game in the Blackwell series, but it's self-contained enough that it's accessible for newcomers. Switching off between Rosa and Joey, it's your job to investigate paranormal activity and help recently turned "spooks" comes to grips with their death so they can move on to the next world. Before too long lots of people wind up dead and it's up to you to delve into the world of charlatan psychics to get to the bottom of things.
It sounds goofy, but the tone is surprisingly grounded once you get past the outlandish premise. There is humour, but most of it is dialogue based and pertains to Joey and Rosa's wry observations of their surroundings, whereas the characters and New York setting are depicted realistically.
The pair's investigations lead to some clever puzzles where you toggle between the two leads. Being a ghost means that Joey can pass through locked doors, but he can't pick anything up and his influence to the corporeal world is limited to gentle gusts of wind. Using their abilities in tandem with one another quickly becomes essential to sussing out each mystery.
Another neat twist is that, rather than housing an endless inventory, Rosa never holds more than a few items at a time, and much of your problem solving is done on her smart phone. As you gain information it shows up as notes in her phone, which can then be presented to NPCs. Furthermore, you can search certain key terms in her web browser to find out more information. It can be a little finicky what phrases it accepts, but it's a nice throwback to text adventures that's fitting with the context. Most puzzles are sensible, though I did get stumped when I was supposed to combine notes on my phone, something the game never indicates you can do.
For a game centred around its story, it's disappointing that Blackwell Deception's murder mystery is so straightforward. It starts out intriguing with red herrings teasing an epic revelation into Joey's past, but this is underdeveloped and the main plot is telegraphed too far in advance. As such, you're always one step ahead of everyone else and just need to go through the rigmarole to prove it. The final act is also an unsatisfying, clichéd mess.
Blackwell Deception has some good ideas and it's refreshing for a game to deal with ghosts and psychics in a way that's not entirely shallow. The script is at its best when it's disarmingly sincere, as the attempts at humour are hit and miss. It's just a shame then that the story is as old-hat as Joey's fedora.
A deft pairing of sensible puzzles with text adventure elements and likable characters, but the story is clichéd, predictable and haunted by some flat humour and acting.