From the start of I Saw Black Clouds, I had some reservations about the game. It's a FMV mystery game from a proven developer (Wales Interactive), but it always gives me pause when media takes on suicide as some sort of "case" that you can "solve." In my book, that's not a particularly responsible way to represent issues of mental health. In any case, it turns out this ended up being among the least of my concerns, as I Saw Black Clouds is one of the most slapped together and confusing adventures I've been on in a long time.
I Saw Black Clouds opens on the protagonist, Kristina, as she attends a funeral service for her dearly departed friend Emily. You then go on an adventure where Kristina resolves to figure out why Emily took her own life, helped in part by childhood friend Charlotte and some locals who try to help you piece things together.
This story unfolds with live actors interacting in scenes which change in response to different choices you make at different points in the game. Much of these choices revolve around the direction of Kristina's investigation and how much she chooses to endure the horrors she uncovers along the way.
What a twist!
Although it starts as a mystery, I Saw Black Clouds seems quick to give up answers around Emily's death and trade them in for horror elements. It seems there are some otherworldly powers that played into Emily's death, many of which you discover and face as Kristina while you press on through the game.
Without spoiling too much, this starts out innocuously enough, with some jump scares, audio stingers, and disturbing imagery, but at a certain point I Saw Black Clouds doesn't know how to stop trying to scare or surprise you with new things. As a result, the back-half of the story devolves into just a cluster of disjointed scenes where Kristina and/or Charlotte are put under duress, and through most of it you feel powerless to understand or do much of anything about it.
What did I even see?
By the end of I Saw Black Clouds, my grasp of the overall story was tenuous at best. This doesn't really feel intentional, either. There are characters that just come out of nowhere with no setup as to who they are or what motivates them, and they are used as the impetus for the final climactic encounter which ends up feeling totally random and hollow.
If I didn't see who these people are because of the choices I made previously in my playthrough, the game didn't let me know that. There are stats on how many scenes I saw versus how many I have left to uncover, but in no way does the game communicate that I should pursue those other scenes to complete the story. As a result, my feelings on the game are that it's branching paths don't connect in a way that ever really tell a cohesive story. Even if they did, I'm not sure they would make the experience much more satisfying.
The bottom line
I Saw Black Clouds feels like a step backward for Wales Interactive. It's return to storytelling outside of virtualized spaces feels messy and in some ways incomplete, and it doesn't help that the story its choosing to tell is somewhat problematic.