Black Dahlia

Publisher: Interplay
Developer: Take-Two Interactive
Year: 1998
Platform: Windows

Review: In the mid 1930’s, the Torso Murderer ravaged Cleveland, Ohio by slicing up seven people and leaving Eliot Ness a puzzling case that even he could not solve. In 1947, Elizabeth Short (nicknamed the Black Dahlia), an aspiring Hollywood actress, was brutally murdered in much the same fashion of those in Cleveland a decade earlier. That case wasn’t solved either.

Take 2 Interactive takes their shot at solving the case, creating a mystical black gem (sought by the Nazis, naturally), known by the name of Black Dahlia. The gem gives its owner power to rule the world, quite typical for Nazi relics. The crusade for this gem by various groups is masked by all of the aforementioned murders, and one agent of the CIS is bound and determined to solve the case and stop the world takeover. You play Jim Pearson, a fictional agent of the non-fictional CIS (later the OSS, and still later the CIA). You must interview agents, criminals, and face the murderer himself in order to solve the case, while dealing with interference from the local police, Eliot Ness and the FBI, as well as, of course, Nazis.

Take 2 does so many things right with this adventure that it’s hard to know where to begin. One of the last games (until the rise of indie adventure games in the 2010s) to use extensive FMV sequences, it avoids the pitfalls present in most games of this nature. For starters, the game plays in first-person perspective. You never see Jim unless you’re watching a movie, so the continuity of his clothing and emotional state never come into play. And while some of the script is hokey, there are no noticeably horrible acting performances. The worst performance, surprisingly, is given by Dennis Hopper as an ex-CIS agent who’s been committed to a psych ward. Complementing the movies is the soundtrack, which is nearly flawless. Tense moments are subtly treated as such, without cheapening the mood with overblown scare tactics.

The plot, which is perhaps the most ambitious and well-crafted in adventure game history, spans many locations, including Cleveland, Germany, and Los Angeles, and about ten years of history as Jim Pearson attempts to track down the Black Dahlia and the killer. The story borrows plenty of historical facts to increase the feeling of realism.  As it is fairly easy to determine what is fact, fiction, and pure mysticism, the player never feels insulted by the storyteller. The game never pretends that it knows the truth behind the killings; it simply takes a fascinating historical account and creates an even more fascinating story around it, much like James Cameron did with Titanic.

What either makes or breaks the game for most players are the puzzles. They are hard. While there are a few inventory puzzles, most are symbolical or mathematical and require extensive note-taking. If you’ve ever done Mensa puzzles, think of the hardest of those. I would encourage all players to have a walkthrough handy, as unless you are a literal genius, you will break your keyboard from pounding your head against it. The designers cannot be faulted for the puzzles themselves, as none of them are contrived and all fit seamlessly with the plot. However, there are far too many of them, especially midway through the game, and at times it feels more like a homework assignment than a game. To be fair, some of them I found to be fascinating and I solved approximately a third of the puzzles without any help to much personal satisfaction.

If you like FMV games and don’t mind using a walkthrough to get through the tough parts, there is little doubt that you will be as enthralled with this adventure as I am and will no doubt follow up your experience by hitting Wikipedia for a history lesson.

Contemporary RatingMedium. It takes a little bit to get used to movement.  Also, swapping eight discs during gameplay is a pain, though there’s not much back-and-forth.

Cruelty RatingPolite.  Death (or a premature game over) is a rare outcome but can happen.  The occasional save is needed.

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