The phrase “experience” gets tossed at indie-games the way that shooters are the fallback of AAA studios nowadays. Games like Shadow of the Collossus and The Unfinished Swan earn the title of “experience”, where other indie games struggle to achieve such artistic perfection. Enter the game Blackbar, a “decode-the-word” puzzler with a tale to tell. After playing it, the question must be asked if Blackbar manages to achieve alluring immersion, or if it fails to engage the player. The answer is, it doesn’t quite achieve either. It is by no means terrible, but it doesn’t quite achieve its full potential either.
Playing less like a puzzler and more like an interactive storybook, Blackbar presents the plot of its story-driven title in a series of correspondence between several characters, all filtered through the eyes of an Orwellian department which censors out words it finds “distasteful”. Your goal as the player is simply to figure out which words are missing; that’s it. Thankfully, taking the time to decode the letters is unique and fun, and the simplistic mechanic carries you through the story, which slowly becomes more interesting as you progress.
Here is where I’d normally mention graphics and sound, but Blackbar really has neither, eschewing bouncy soundtrack and flashy polygons for a simple iBook aesthetic. It fits and works, but is admittedly still a bit bland and less engaging than games with textual aesthetics like Device 6. However, the ultra-simple presentation keeps Blackbar as straightforward as can be.
My two biggest problems with Blackbar are the both game’s length and the challenge level of the puzzles. Blackbar demands each censored word be decoded to near-perfection, and although most of the time the missing phrases are merely challenging to uncover, some are infuriatingly difficult (I used a walkthrough for those). Also, despite the plot being engaging, once you’re done with the game, you’re done. The puzzles remain the same if you play through it again, so after your couple-hour first playthrough, Blackbar will more than likely get deleted to make space for something with more longevity.
The fact is that Blackbar, taken just as a puzzle game, lacks quite a bit. The demand for totally perfect words is harsh and frustrating. Occasionally, however, the game has a story to tell, and quite a good one at that. If nothing else, you will want to struggle through some of the harder decoding sections just to get to the end.
Blackbar is not going to cater to people who want a short micro-game, or an addicting, hardcore experience. It is a little app that demands you sit down and immerse yourself in it, puzzling out bits of the dystopian tale as you go along. Ultimately rewarding, but also short and frustrating at times. The good of Blackbar outweighs the bad, but for me, the negatives still ultimately keep the game from being a must-have app.