Almost exactly one year ago, Wales Interactive released The Complex, a sci-fi thriller FMV game that I actually enjoyed quite a bit, in spite of all of its endings being disappointing nonsense. Now, Wales is back, albeit with a different production company in Ghost Dog Films, to deliver I Saw Black Clouds to Nintendo Switch and other platforms. It is a dark psychological thriller about a woman (actress Nicole O’Neill) working through the apparent suicide of her close friend, and it uses several of the same mechanics seen in The Complex for its decision-based gameplay.
Unfortunately, unlike The Complex, I Saw Black Clouds is terrible.
I saw so much missed potential
Nearly every aspect of I Saw Black Clouds is flawed in one way or another. The best praise I can offer is that the cinematography is adequate and the makeup is quite good. The acting of O’Neill and the rest of the cast is mostly decent overall as well. They do the best they can with a shaky script.
The narrative is undeniably ambitious, but the execution is so flawed that it’s difficult to appreciate. Protagonist Kristina is trying to understand why her friend took her own life. However, early on in the game, the story will fork to become about one of two wildly different narratives that use the same cast of characters for different purposes.
One version of the narrative is a straight-up ghost story, with an actual creepy ghost stalking Kristina in different places. The other is framed as more of a murder mystery, weaving a conspiracy around Kristina’s friend’s death. Even though the ghost story version feels more inspired, the murder mystery is actually more engaging, perhaps because the ghost story feels both less focused and also relentlessly gloomy. In either case, the narrative adheres to familiar plot beats, except for a startling twist that I will address in broad terms later.
Regardless, I Saw Black Clouds has horrendous problems with pacing. There are so many prolonged scenes of Kristina just walking around in silence — in the woods, in abandoned buildings, in her own dreams. These scenes quickly go beyond establishing an atmosphere and become obvious, poorly edited padding. Additionally, when and why Kristina goes to the places she goes does not always feel clear upon first viewing. Sometimes it feels like things just happen. But at least you can skip scenes you’ve already seen upon replays.
I saw so many frivolous decisions
In an interactive movie like I Saw Black Clouds, it is critical to at least present the illusion that the player can make important decisions for the main character. Yet nearly all of the decisions in I Saw Black Clouds feel trivial in nature, or they ask questions of you that you can’t possibly provide an informed answer for.
For instance, the game begins by asking Kristina if she thinks the dead friend blames her for her death, and how the heck should I know how to answer that? The game just began! There are also tons of “decisions” that are pulled straight out of a point-and-click adventure and don’t make sense in an FMV game, like deciding to go left or right. (Hint: It doesn’t matter which you pick, except for when you literally die if you pick wrong, in which case the decision just resets until you pick the correct one.) Likewise, talking to other people is often less about carefully choosing words and more about just picking options until you’ve exhausted all the available points of conversation. In fact, it’s hard to understand what your decision options even mean sometimes.
Another tremendous annoyance is how the game physically handles your choices. Frequently, when you make a decision, the scene will not smoothly transition into what you have chosen. Instead, it will hard cut to the result, with the visuals and even the audio slightly resetting to a different state, and it ruins immersion.
However, the worst thing about the trivial decisions is that they are constantly affecting three stats in a menu that have a large effect on which of the four main endings you receive. There are stats for “Denial,” “Acceptance,” and “Guilt,” and it is often a guess which decisions will increase which stats. In all honesty, despite how many times I’ve played through I Saw Black Clouds, I still haven’t unlocked all four endings because I have not been able to crack which utterly arbitrary decisions will sufficiently raise my Guilt meter.
Yet above all else, the most ambitious yet strangest decision I Saw Black Clouds makes is at the end. If you arrive at the “good” ending branch — and it’s kind of hard not to, oddly — the entire game suddenly hard-transitions into a completely different story that retroactively makes most of your previous decisions completely irrelevant. It’s difficult to talk about without spoilers, but suffice to say, it feels like a slap in the face, exacerbated by the fact that all of the game’s decision-making is so frivolous in the first place.
I Saw Black Clouds is the wrong kind of dreadful
I Saw Black Clouds has some bold ideas, but the execution on a structural and technical level is a total failure. Even if the writing, acting, and scene editing were immaculate — which they are not — it would not forgive how all of the decisions the player makes carry no weight. Decisions only have consequences in vague, indirect, unpredictable ways, and it’s extremely unsatisfying to have so little control over a story that isn’t overly engaging in the first place. The best decision you can make is to just not play I Saw Black Clouds.
A review code was provided by the publisher.