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Blackwood Crossing review

Blackwood Crossing is a game about the loss of loved ones.

This might lead you to worry that Blackwood Crossing is a grim and dark affair, to turn away and look for something cheerier. And, yes, there are sections of this game that draw us into the gloomy dungeons of despair. But these dank locations mostly serve as contrast to a blooming, life-affirming ode to love, family and the wonder of children.

It's a three-hour first-person adventure in which teenage girl Scarlett tries to make sense of her younger brother Finn's intense emotional needs. The children were orphaned while Finn was still very small. He is angry and confused by his attempts to reconcile this terrible loss, of a love he has no recollection of experiencing.

These bewildering feelings are exacerbated by Scarlett's drift into adulthood. She loves her playful, imaginative, sweet-natured sibling. But her life is turning towards boyfriends, gothic nail varnish and cell-phone time.

Meanwhile, like all children, Finn is interested in play and human connectedness. To Finn, those things are one and the same. He expresses his hopes and his fears by playing. He interacts with items of wonder, whether they be butterflies, flowers or planetaria. This ties his inner life closely to Scarlett's in-game activities.

Scarlett and Finn enter an Alice in Wonderland dream-world, in which magic exists alongside evil, where ghosts speak and toys come alive. This well-worn device gives developer PaperSeven ample opportunity to make use of emotional symbolism. There is much literal dragging of darkness into light in Blackwood Crossing, as well as fixing broken items and giving life to things that are not alive.

Scarlett solves various puzzles in order to either catch up with a rampaging Finn, or simply to make him happy. He's not as needy as this makes him sound. This is no babysitting sim. Outstanding facial animations and voice-acting give us a child who is mercifully sympathetic, only rarely edging into whiny tantrums.

Puzzles are essentially childhood games like hide and seek, coloring and putting pictures in the right order. There's a fair amount of searching for stuff, as well as rudimentary logic riddles. Every now and again, it can feel repetitive, but this is rare. The games are about following basic instructions, but they are varying in tone and intensity.

While simple, these basic mechanics also serve as a satisfying narrative device. They tend to weave short bursts of meaningful dialog into the puzzle. The best example is a matching game in which peripheral characters deliver shorts bursts of dialog that hint at their role or their personality. When matched with another character - by walking between the two of them in the correct order - the dialog becomes much more than the sum of its parts. These characters are archetypes, but beautiful visual design (they wear masks) and razor-sharp writing give them enormous power.

As Scarlett explores her emotional landscape she finds heartwarmingly nostalgic artifacts, such as her grandfather's greenhouse or an old soft toy. Augmented by an outstanding soundtrack, these coalesce to create a picture of normal familyhood that is both joyful and melancholic.

The truth Blackwood Crossing finds is unforgettable and emotionally wrenching. Its palette of feelings - love, loss, anger, belonging - are beyond the scope of all but the best narrative games, and Blackwood Crossing is one of the most beautiful and best I have ever played. It explores the meaning of childhood, without falling into a soup of schmaltz. It dares to investigate the mutual incomprehensibility of adulthood and childhood, and to explore the different landscapes we and our offspring inhabit.

Blackwood Crossing was reviewed using a pre-release "retail" Xbox One download code provided by the developer. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.