The real-life unsolved case of Jack the Ripper, who spread panic and prostitute entrails across Victorian London, has captured the public imagination for over 130 years. Unsurprisingly, during that period the serial killer story has spawned over a hundred non-fiction books and resulted in just as many fictionalised explorations in popular culture, from novels, short stories and comics to feature films and TV series.
Joining the dozen video games that have featured the subject is upcoming Dance of Death: Du Lac and Fey, a point-and-click adventure, and first release from British indie developers Salix Games. Dance of Death’s unique spin on the Ripper tale? What if Sir Lancelot Du Lac and Morgana Le Fey, key figures of Arthurian legend, were immortal demon-hunters dropped by magic into the bloody mix? Oh, and the cursed Le Fey is now a dog who has a bone to pick with wizard-in-hiding Merlin.
Ambitious concept and pedigreed indie production
That’s a pretty wild premise to begin with, but adding to the complexity is that Dance of Death features a hard 18 age restriction, with the language and themes to match. The game promises a no-holds-barred and historically-accurate look at such timeless topics as prostitution, xenophobia, exploitation of the working class and tabloid journalism. There is a lot going on.
Dance of Death has a pedigree to match its ambition at least. It’s plotted by Philip Huxley, writer of Batman: Arkham Knight and Killzone, alongside BAFTA-winning sound designer-turned-game director Jessica Saunders. Meanwhile, the voice cast includes Torchwood and Dragon Age’s Gareth David-Lloyd as blonde Matt Smith-lookalike Du Lac, Perdita Weeks of Penny Dreadful and Magnum PI (2018) as Fey, and Welsh actress Alexandra Roach – who has appeared in dozens of films and TV series, including Black Mirror – as real-life Ripper figure Mary Kelly.
Three-way play and a foul-mouthed Victorian Nancy Drew
In Dance of Death, the player slips into the shoes (and paws) of all three of these characters. Mary Kelly has her own devoted chapters, but as Du Lac and Fey investigate the Ripper killings, the player can switch between them to harness their different skillsets. While Du Lac integrates better with society, Fey has a dog’s acute sense of smell and can question animals, who typically have a very different interpretation of events.
Du Lac and Fey’s dialogue is laboured with convoluted medieval turns of phrase (you could make a drinking game out of the number of times Du Lac says “mayhap”) and that may grate some players. While Du Lac is rigid Lawful Good, though, Fey has an appealing cynicism and pithy wit. This said, the show-stealer is Mary Kelly, a likeable survivor alternatingly warm and fiery, who effortlessly navigates the sordid district of London she calls home. For the record, Mary has been touched by magic herself, experiencing premonitions she doesn’t understand, and this puts her on the Arthurian characters’ radar.
If the game were just Mary Kelly being all brassy, psychic Nancy Drew, proactively going after the Ripper to protect the other down-on-their-luck women of Whitechapel, and engaging with the game’s vast and varied supporting cast, that honestly would be enough. But Dance of Death is committed to its unusual mix of legend and history.
For the record, the game’s narrative is also paired with an appealing aesthetic that melds 2D and 3D, and brings Broken Sword to mind. The environments are especially rich, tonally dark and interesting, making each scene change something to look forward to. In the demo alone, the player visits such era-appropriate settings as a pub, brothel, mortuary, curiosity shop, the docks and the home of an upmarket fortune teller.
A cut above or destined for the poorhouse?
Of course, the big question is whether Dance of Death: Du Lac and Fey will help gamers scratch the adventure itch, especially with Telltale Games now as dead as a Ripper victim? Based on what was experienced during the three-chapter preview build, the answer is “kinda.” While the player is drawn in by the story and visuals, the gameplay is mostly unengaging.
The use of an action hotspot system in Dance of Death means the players must be within a certain distance of an NPC or object to trigger an interaction. Cue repeatedly traipsing across environments at a snail’s pace, and routinely having to battle awkward routing to reach your objective. It’s a tedious process to get around.
Also, your enjoyment of Dance of Death will probably depend on what you like most in adventure games. If you’re in it for cerebrally-rewarding puzzles involving item collection and code-breaking, you’ll likely find the game lacking. The few instances of puzzle-solving in the demo offered zero challenge. This said, if you’re all about narrative experience, Dance of Death doesn’t skimp. Along with dozens of historically-authentic documents to peruse, essentially every character you meet has a backstory. The game’s press release promises an extensive branching narrative with a wealth of side missions, and there is certainly evidence of that in the conversation-heavy opening chapters, despite no obviously hard choices.
There’s a moment in Chapter 1 of Dance of Death where Du Lac must haggle with a street urchin over a fee for information. That’s kind of what the game feels like overall: there’s loads of potential but players will need to be persistent to unlock it. Fans of The Alienist should dig it, but much like that TV series there is a lot of awkwardness blocking the path to enjoyment.
One final thing to note is that the press build of the game – dated mid-February – was exceptionally buggy. Here’s hoping the many glitches will be ironed out before Dance of Death: Du Lac and Fey hits PC on 5 April.
Last Updated: March 4, 2019