Adventure Gamers Awards
In the absence of anything requiring either logic or lateral thinking to figure out, your purpose is largely to move the characters from one hotspot in the environment to another. Relevant objects only become active – denoted by an on-screen icon appearing – when your character gets close enough to interact with them. This is even true of exits, meaning you have to physically walk across the screen, sometime waiting for it to scroll with you, and only then are able to leave. Oddly, the designers made the choice to only ever allow one objective at a time, so the “mystery” isn’t about figuring anything out (even the crime scenes), just walking around to find the next scene or hotspot to advance the plot.
At times there are close-ups that must be searched, such as a deceased body (at least one of which is slightly gory) or a desk full of papers. These sections also felt rather empty and trivial to me, as hotspot markers are immediately displayed on all the important elements and the “search” consists of nothing more than clicking on each one in turn, which usually causes the clicked point to vanish.
The heavily streamlined formula grows tiresome very quickly. From the time they arrive in London to the closing moments of the game, Du Lac and Fey – and Mary once she becomes available – are generally confined to the same dozen scenes. Five of these are street exteriors where the point of view is pulled so far back that it’s quite a slog to cross them, even when double-clicking to (barely) increase the protagonist’s movement speed. The other seven locations include shop interiors, the local church, and the pub/inn where Du Lac and Fey are staying.
Occasionally you do visit other locations after the Ripper has committed a crime, but these are always short-lived before returning to the same twelve scenes. While the backdrops are well-painted, they share a rather drab palette and depict quite generic locations. Few are particularly noteworthy or memorable, though you do get the chance to revisit them at different times of day and night, and they take on a spookier appearance in the dark with fog rolling in. The only place in London that stood out visually to me was the chemist’s shop. The proprietor is a magical tree creature – who has a glamour over him so that non-Arcane people perceive him as a bespectacled old man – and his shop is vivid and overgrown with vibrant plant life. Strangely, many scenes are populated with a combination of 2D, almost cartoonish background characters and 3D real-time rendered ones, which helps create the sense of a larger community but can be stylistically jarring.
Beyond walking from one place to another, the primary interaction comes from conversing with the next key character. These dialogs typically switch back and forth between close-up views of those involved. At various points during the conversation, two or three responses are provided. While the options allow you to select a slightly different attitude or approach, I didn’t really get the feeling it mattered what I picked. The game seemed structured so as to always keep moving forward along a linear path regardless of whether I was friendly or haughty, sympathetic or sarcastic. Much of the play time consists of these exchanges, but they don’t seem to matter in the grand scheme of things, which would have been fine if there had been other things to do instead.
Although your encounters with the Whitechapel locals don’t offer much in the way of interactivity, they are still one of the highlights of the game due to their aesthetic quality. Clearly a lot of effort went into the character models, their expressions and animations. Du Lac’s drunken walk is so wonderfully done that it is a joy to watch, and Fey’s movements are always smooth and graceful yet still convincingly canine. It should perhaps be noted that there are a couple brief scenes of nudity, though sexual relations are more implied than seen.
Voices too are well done. I don’t have a great ear for accents, but the ones here sounded genuinely European to me. Fey’s cultured tones and range of emotions are particularly impressive. Mary has a Welsh accent that’s very pleasant-sounding as well, but periodically there are line readings that come across as not being a natural part of the conversation. Whether odd inflections that turn statements into questions or vice versa, or Mary suddenly and unexpectedly raising her voice for a line or two when the person she’s talking to is right next to her, it causes a break in immersion and makes the troublesome Mary sections just a little bit more difficult to get through. Quite a bit of profanity comes out of people’s mouths, including Mary, but on balance it’s used in moderation and actually feels justified under the circumstances.
Musically Dance of Death feels era-appropriate. Much of the score is played on winds or piano, with strings coming in every now and then. It’s pleasing to listen to and never overshadows the ambient audio, complementing the on-screen action by growing quiet and mysterious when investigating crime scenes and more bombastic during the action beats. Effects are pretty solid as well: the fluttering flip of tarot cards, the strikes of Du Lac’s sword, and the smile-inducing click-click of Fey’s nails as she pads across the floor are all well done. Even details like the murmuring of crowds along the streets of Whitechapel are given attention. It’s actually possible to stop and listen to some of the background chatter, at least until it noticeably starts repeating.
Regrettably, there are a number of technical issues that could have used the same degree of focus, as the game has quite a few niggles and a general lack of polish. Take the close-up conversations, for example. While the characters are nicely animated, I experienced visual glitches like the game flickering back to wider room shoots for a frame or two between camera cuts, having conversations play out entirely against blank walls, characters not facing one another when speaking, and missing props such as a champagne bottle that the people are clearly meant to be interacting with.
Even walking is a rather rough experience due to dodgy pathfinding. Care must be taken to always click on an obviously unobstructed spot on the ground to move, or else the current playable character might wander off in some random direction or simply not move at all until you click again a few pixels away. If another character gets in the way they are pushed along in front of you, sliding across the scene like snow before a plough.
The biggest rough spot that affected me was the save system, or lack thereof. This game continues the ill-advised modern trend of not allowing players to make their own save games. Instead there is only a single save slot that is updated automatically as you progress. Dance of Death illustrates why this approach is such a bad one. Mere minutes away from completing the game, I had to exit out without realizing how close I was to the end. When I returned later and attempted to continue, the game did not properly resume, instead placing me in a scene with Du Lac and Fey standing around a bonfire (actually, Fey was standing in the fire). No amount of clicking could get either character to react, so after restarting a couple of times, I conceded that my save file was corrupted and wandered off to YouTube to see the closing moments of the story. Not the way I would have chosen to end my experience, obviously.
With its assortment of glitches and lack of meaningful gameplay, Dance of Death: Du Lac & Fey feels like it was rushed out the door before it was complete. However, even if most of its technical issues are resolved – and to their credit, the developers have been working hard on updates since launch – the case of Jack the Ripper is a mystery that doesn’t lend itself to being investigated, let alone solved. And with what feels like the majority of the play time spent with Mary and her rather banal tasks, it’s often rather tedious. For all that, I sincerely hope Salix will produce a sequel focused on the aspects that do work, while learning from those that don’t. The notion of an urban fantasy set in Victorian times is an intriguing one, and the chemistry and interplay between Du Lac and Fey is as good as any pair of game characters I’ve ever witnessed. Is the game worth playing for these bits alone? That’s a tough call. For me the charm of the two Arthurian principles just edges out the ennui of the rest of this excessively-linear experience. I would love to see a better, more refined adventure for Sir Lancelot and Morgana in the future, because I think it could well be something quite magical.
What our readers think of Dance of Death: Du Lac & Fey
Posted by My Dune on Apr 9, 2019
Good game, but too broken
I'm so sad and angry at the same time. The game is pretty well made, but has a huge flaw that makes me angry in every game that should have been great! The story is good, graphics look very nice. The voice acting and music I have nothing to complain about....