[Review] I Saw Black Clouds
Posted on April 11, 2021 by Dennis(@LyonHart_) in Reviews, Switch, Switch eShop
Release date: March 30, 2021
Developer: Ghost Dog Films
Publisher: Wales Interactive
FMVs, much like visual novels, have always had that sort of stigma where those that weren’t open-minded enough wouldn’t really consider them to be true games, yet I guarantee every genre, regardless of what one’s feeling towards them are, has at least something for everyone that may surprise you – it’s just a matter of finding that right piece of media that’ll open the doors to help further spark an interest. While I haven’t played many FMVs, I can count quite a few that have all been fairly different from each other. Even if its live-action foundation may make it seem like a movie more than anything else, games like Erica, the controversial Phantasmagoria, and more set revolutionary ideas into place that made them much more than an interactive film. When it comes to the new Switch release I Saw Black Clouds, it finds itself in an odd in-between that goes from being mostly pure film to one with quite a few neat ideas that make it much more than a simple “choose an option” experience, and while I wouldn’t necessarily consider it fun in the traditional sense, as a film it can be immensely enjoyable.
Depending on the approach of an FMV, you’re either set for an all out film experience, or something that resembles more a point-and-click title. Having played several from the 90s and early 2000s to some of the more high-profile releases over the last five years, a lot of them tend to be similar. However, I Saw Black Clouds does enough to be in this limbo between the two aforementioned approaches that FMVs tend to find themselves in, which is beneficial but also makes it feel like a banal experience. Ultimately it all comes down to what one is looking for when experiencing an FMV as the gameplay also needs to complement the genre and story being told.
I Saw Black Clouds, as a film, is actually really enjoyable. The protagonist, Kristina, investigates a friend’s sudden suicide – alongside a string of related disappearances – which doesn’t seem to add up, with slight supernatural instances occurring throughout, and returning to her hometown to uncover much more than she anticipated. It’s not doing anything new in terms of mystery thrillers, but it’s still one that’s entertaining enough that it’d entice you to play through it a few times to check out every which way the narrative can twist and turn, and because of the genre of choice, the film/game’s multiple endings, routes, and scenes, bad or good, tend to feel proper and weave themselves in in a competent manner. This is just a personal preference, but I do wish there were more horror elements to I Saw Black Clouds, as the dark tone, wonderful British setting, and constant “what’s going to happen next” intensity of it would have made for some really well done scares, though admittedly even without the traditional sort of fear factor, it does tend to make your skin crawl from time to time.
I Saw Black Clouds’ gameplay elements are minimal, but I really liked the statistics menu that assesses traits, personalities, and relationships in real time from scene to scene and choice to choice. This will determine the outcome of where the narrative goes next for both the short term and long term. Due to the topic of the game, you’ll see how your denial, acceptance, or guilt affects the story, as well as how Kristina is doing in terms of honesty, strength, introspection, tact, and morality and how that affects the relationships between those she interacts with. These choices can be a hinderance sometimes, however, as it’s hard to anticipate when the next choice is going to happen as sometimes you won’t see them for a long period, while other times they happen to be rapid-fire. Scenes where you would expect a choice to occur, nothing happen, and conversely tamer scenes that you would expect to naturally carry themselves end up lending themselves to the player for where to follow next.
When the choices do happen, the time in which you have to make a selection is almost done in the blink of an eye, and if I would look away for even a second to sneeze or whatever the case may be, the time would be up and it would auto-choose to best fit your path. This happened during quite a few instances, but there is a way to circumvent the issue as I Saw Black Clouds has a Streamer Mode in its settings where, for those that are streaming the game, it can allow for audience participation by pausing a scene when the choices do occur. As far as I’ve been able to tell this is the only way to do this, and there aren’t any clever ways or workarounds like a slow motion method or coloration that gives cues or the sort, instead opting for a basic receding bar to reflect your time to choose.
Interestingly, I’m not sure if this is a visual bug, but whenever a choice or any interaction is made either within the game or the menus themselves, the selected choice is highlighted and there’s a faint highlight with extra options being executed as well. That means for those times where you happen to miss a choice, you’re not sure exactly what was chosen. Some audio issues like clipping, distortion, and just odd balancing also make for some scenes to seem lower budget than they already were, and the mixing becomes questionable in a lot of other parts of I Saw Black Clouds that unfortunately can muddy the experience.
There are occasional deaths that can occur in I Saw Black Clouds, and thankfully both the checkpoint system and auto-saving are reasonable. Checkpoints activate to the scene just before an untimely choice can occur, and autosaves essentially pick up in the scene you left off in. I found the death “sequences” to be pretty neat in how the transitions happened, where instead of a loading screen it would simply go into a black and white scene where the victim is walking down a pathway with some dialogue before fading back into the last checkpoint.
I Saw Black Clouds also has a nice cinematography to it that accentuates its dark nature and fills the scenes nicely with its closeups and wide angle shots to make sure things are focused, but that all other objects in a scene make sense and there aren’t many continuity issues. Seeing as this is the Switch version, output will be limited to 1080p docked and 720p handheld, but I can imagine I Saw Black Clouds really shining through with 4K available on other platforms as the equipment used for a lot of its scenes.
I Saw Black Clouds is an overall solid psychological thriller that entertains and keep you at the edge of your seat as you try to uncover the events leading up to Kristina’s friend’s tragic death and all the nefarious things happening within her hometown, and despite its shortcomings with scenes that aren’t as fleshed out as it could be, mixing issues, occasional stutters, and other odd technical things, as a film it’s actually rather entertaining, but as a game it’s not necessarily doing anything new for FMVs. It’s still worth a playthrough for those that want a more causal experience and can’t choose between a movie night and something to play. FMVs tend to take on a lot of problems with trying to blur the line between film and game, and instead focusing more so on being a purely film experience unless they find themselves as an older point-and-click title with live-action elements and assets. While I Saw Black Clouds is a fine film that retains enough interest to see it to the end, a lot of odd production issues such as audio mixing, a plethora of closeups, and poor editing can make it overall feel like a bumpy ride in and out of its narrative.
I Saw Black Clouds is an FMV that doesn’t necessarily do anything new compared to other titles within the genre and acts as mostly a pure film experience where you’ll occasionally make a choice. But from the moment you hit “New Game” to the second the credits roll, it remains a genuine mystery thriller with supernatural elements that does enough to grip you. There’s just enough to play around with that it incentivizes multiple playthroughs if you’re trying to for all of the endings and unlock the 500+ scenes that are made available. The gameplay elements it does have are minimal and are restricted mostly to choices, but its inclusion of stats and skippable scenes once you’ve completed it for the first time make it easy to go through the following times to see all the possible scenes and routes. It looks good on Switch in both handheld and docked mode, though the occasional stutter tends to happen in random scenes, and it has a decent enough budget that the game can be enjoyed by both casual and hardcore FMV fans. It’s also a solid film in its own right, even if some of the acting and plot points can be questionable. I Saw Black Clouds certainly isn’t one of the best FMV experiences you’ll have, but it does stand out with its own flavor and not having that sort of low-budget corniness that a lot of them do unfortunately suffer from.
Review copy provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.