Black Dahlia is another game which proves to me that full-motion video (FMV) games were capable of providing some wonderful game experiences. However, the problem with Black Dahlia is that it is a mixed experience at best.
Graphics (quality, animations, cut scenes)
The cut scenes and graphics were everything you could expect from a huge, high-budget FMV game. This game is about as close as you can get to a completely interactive movie. When not watching the actors, you are in a first-person viewpoint game engine, with full horizontal (and limited vertical) viewing available at every pre-rendered node. Even the game options and travel-map screens were true works of art, complete with animations. As an example, the travel-map screen was a desktop, with pictures of the possible locations sitting on the desk. There were always added touches, like a cockroach with waving antennae sitting off to on side of the desk.Black Dahlia takes place in the 1940s, and everything about it (the music, sepia-toned cut scenes, props, offices, and hairdos) blends perfectly to make you feel as if you were there. This is about as good as game can get for immersing you into a world and keeping it feel realistic.
Sound (music, voices, special effects)
Excellent music and great acting. Surprisingly, the least effective acting was from the famous actors, Terry Garr and Dennis Hopper. In both cases, it appeared that they had some problems with spouting the lines they were given, and especially in Terry Garr's case, the end result was pretty bad.
The special effects are sometimes stunning, and they are always effective. Again, this is about as good as it gets in a game.
Story (plot, theme, depth)
The game was a mix of detective story, Indiana Jones movie (with a bit of satire thrown in), and supernatural thriller. The story itself was great, but I do have to warn all prospective players that the ending of the game is a true letdown. It's short, and is an amazing slap in the face after all the effort expended in playing the game. Do not expect to come out of this game feeling good -- I honestly wanted to throw the CD at a wall when I saw the ending of the game.
Characters (depth, development, interaction)
The characters truly made this game. The acting was superb, with the bad guys being properly slimy, and even the bit players did an extremely good job. Terry Garr gets the award for the worst acting in the game, and that seems to have been a result of some bad scripting.
Puzzles (difficulty, uniqueness, suitability, ugliness, linearity)
Black Dahlia contains some extremely difficult puzzles, some of which I never even attempted to solve. There are cheat codes available which will automatically solve some of the puzzles for you, and I recommend that you find a good walkthrough as well as the codes. This game made Obsidian look simple in comparison.
On the other hand, some puzzles were poorly designed, in that I solved them by trial and error accidentally, usually while playing with a mechanism to see how it worked.
The designers just had to include a maze, and this one is a doozy. Don't bother mapping it out -- just get the directions from a walkthrough and save yourself the frustration.
Controls (user interface, save/restore, sound/video adjustments)
Movement is node-based, with full horizontal (and limited vertical) panning available at every node. The only part of the user interface that took some getting used to was the ability to grab an item with the cursor and slide it. It wasn't intuitive, and my wife and I ended up stalled a few times until we figured out that moving an item was required. Basically, pixel hunts required not just clicking on everything, but grabbing and sliding as well.
Black Dahlia has the world's best (and prettiest) save game system. A save gave you a little photograph, which you could then decide where to place inside a photo album, complete with a caption of your choice. I hope some other game engine will copy this one sometime in the future.
The game has some very amusing easter eggs, so I recommend that you look them up and try them out as you play the game. As an example, try spinning your point of view to one side as fast as you can, and leave it like that for a while.
Even though there are eight CDs, there is a really small amount of swapping required. Travel between locations is quick and painless, with minimal trudging around in the game.
Bugs or Problems
The game crashed quite a few times, and several times we got a partial crash, where the graphics weren't loaded, but everything else worked. It looked really strange moving your viewpoint around inside the game's coordinate system, with lines to show the picture segment boundaries. I had to borrow a copy of the final CD, since the one I had just would not load. There is a patch for this game, and it is definitely required -- it doesn't fix all the crashes, but it reduces the frequency enough that you can at least finish the game. Do remember to save often.
The subtitles didn't sync up with the speech at all, and was especially bad when the speech went on for some time.
There was no full install option, but with eight CDs, I don't think they ever expected people to have hard drives large enough to handle that much data.
Wonderful story, graphics, acting, scenery, props voices
Truly made you feel like you were there
World's best (and prettiest) save-game system
Fun easter eggs
Crashed frequently, even after installing patch
A miserable maze
Some impossible puzzles
Some puzzles to easy
Subtitles didn't sync with the speech
An ending from hell -- very poor payoff
In spite of some severe problems with the game (puzzles, crashes, the ending), I still must recommend that you play it. It may not end up on my top ten list, but there are enough good moments in the game to make an easy "thumbs up" call, and I have no intentions of selling it anytime soon. Black Dahlia is also a perfect example of how realistic it is possible to make a game; if you want to be immersed in the 1940s, then play this game.
This article copyright © 2002, Murray Peterson