Detective Di: The Silk Rose Murders review

The Good:
  • Engrossing story
  • Good variety of gameplay challenges
  • Clean and colourful visual aesthetic
  • Music fits the distinctive, rarely-visited setting
The Bad:
  • A couple of pixel hunts
  • A few modern turns of phrase don’t suit the historical era
  • Lack of voice acting
Detective Di: The Silk Rose Murders review
Detective Di: The Silk Rose Murders review
The Good:
  • Engrossing story
  • Good variety of gameplay challenges
  • Clean and colourful visual aesthetic
  • Music fits the distinctive, rarely-visited setting
The Bad:
  • A couple of pixel hunts
  • A few modern turns of phrase don’t suit the historical era
  • Lack of voice acting
Our Verdict:

Nupixo’s debut offering Detective Di: The Silk Rose Murders is a brilliant introduction to one of ancient China’s most famous investigators that does just about everything right.

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Great Britain may have had Sherlock Holmes, and Belgium might have been home to Hercule Poirot, but China too had its own master detective. Di Renjie, the titular character of Nupixo Games’ Detective Di: The Silk Rose Murders, is every bit the brilliant investigator as his European counterparts, and a far sight more politically savvy. In this colourful and enthralling point-and-click adventure set in the seventh century, Di chases a serial killer in the midst of political unrest besieging the nation. That may sound dark, but it’s a lot of fun too!

Although certain characters and events in Detective Di are based on real historical subjects, the adventure itself is a work of fiction. Di Renjie – the real Di Renjie – served as an official in various postings throughout his career. He was already established by the time the Zhou Dynasty was created by the empress dowager Wu Zetian when she ascended to power. In Detective Di, the fictionalized account is a little different, presenting Di as a young investigator assigned to his first case less than a year before Wu (another key character in the narrative) takes the reins of command.

Di’s initial assignment in the small coastal district of Penglai serves as the game’s prologue. He has been summoned to a remote estate to investigate the murder of a Korean ambassador who was there to negotiate an important border treaty with the Chinese representative. With the death of the ambassador, a political crisis now looms unless Di can get to the bottom of the mystery. This section introduces the key gameplay elements, most of which will be familiar to players of classic point-and-click adventures.

Having completed the prologue with Di suitably impressing the higher-ups, events move forward ten months. The old emperor has died and his consort, Wu Zetian, has proclaimed herself the first empress dowager of China. Under this new rule, Di has been reassigned as the magistrate of law forces in the capital city of Chang’an. In short order he is summoned before Wu, who personally tasks him with looking into the grisly death of a young woman, Xu Linfei, who was strangled and then had her heart cut out. Di’s predecessor was less than competent and pinned the murder of Linfei on her father. However, Wu doesn’t believe the accusation and fears that it may be politically motivated to try to topple her from power. As you begin investigating, you’ll quickly find more bodies than you know what to do with, as Linfei turns out to be only the first victim of a serial killer who is intentionally leaving taunting notes and delicate roses at each crime scene, daring Di to catch up.

From the very beginning, Detective Di hooked me with its interesting characters and storytelling. Di himself is very serious about his job and seeing justice done, even when those of higher authority may wish he wasn’t. In contrast, I really enjoyed the quarreling brothers working at the library and the soup lady with her fixation on cats, as they brought a welcome lightness to what could easily have been a grim tale. The intrigue is skillfully doled out as well. With each murder I felt like I was getting closer to the criminal only for him (or her) to slip away again at the last moment. And while the game is a work of fiction, there are enough real historical elements woven into its fabric to make it particularly appealing. Such tidbits cover the different written languages used in China, political machinations both before and after the emperor’s death, and the secret police that the empress dowager may (or may not) have employed.

The retro-styled visuals also caught my eye in a positive way. Settings have a clean, pleasingly minimalistic style. Rich colours are used throughout so that even ordinary locations like the rain-dampened front yard of a simple home or a street of market vendors feel like unique places of interest. Besides such basic settings, the game also visits other varied locales like the ornate halls of the palace, a reflecting pool at a military man’s home, a pleasure barge, and an ancient tomb, among many others. These backdrops depict a rarely-explored culture and era, and the Eastern influences really help to make the experience stand out. Most of the areas feature some manner of parallax scrolling, which adds depth and makes the scenes even more expansive and impressive. Some even incorporate zooming in and out, which lends a nice cinematic flair.

The cast of characters fits well into these environs with a similarly minimalist look. This is not to be confused with a lack of detail, as there are plenty of those on display. Di Renjie’s asymmetric sprite is a good example, as whether he’s facing left or right it’s not simply the same sprite set flipped but rather distinct renderings of him looking each direction. It’s a subtle detail but one that I greatly appreciated. Other nice artistic touches include shadows underneath each character, and the kicking up of water when Di finds himself in a chamber that’s flooding.

Despite the gruesome nature of the crimes being investigated, Detective Di wisely doesn’t focus visually on gore. Bodies, when discovered, are usually covered up by some element of the background, such as a dressing screen or a railing. There are some blood-spattered pixels here and there but done in a tastefully understated way. Well, as tasteful as a crime scene where a victim’s heart is cut out and stolen can be.

The game's music can be both inconspicuous and bombastic. In some places, typically outdoors, the music drops out entirely and allows ambient sounds like the chirping of crickets to come through. Interiors, on the other hand, almost always have suitable music looping in the background. There’s a certain officiousness to the tune playing in the justice department, which contrasts nicely with the vaguely unsettling theme that plays when searching the murderer’s home. Each track has an appropriately Asian flavor, and I found they always enhanced their respective scenes and never became distracting. Sound effects are sparingly used but when employed serve to heighten the impact of corresponding events. The drawing of a sword or the satisfying click of an intricate lock disengaging are very rewarding in context.

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