History Repeats Itself
Ever wonder what it’d be like to live through one of the worst pandemics in Earth’s history? Maybe you just need a break from living through the current one. If so, Tales of the Black Death – Italy, the new interactive fiction game from Doubleton Game Studio, might be for you. It sends you back in time to 1347, when the black plague was reaching the shores of Tuscany. Despite some rough edges, this enjoyable game succeeds with tense gameplay and an appealing story.
You play as Baldasar, a pious and sickly 14-year-old boy trying to survive this era. As an interactive fiction game, the gameplay consists of tapping on text options to make choices which affect the story. The decisions you make also influence two bars, a health bar and a morality bar. If either bar drops to zero as a result of the options you pick, you die. Not only must you steer clear of injury, malaise and infection, but you also have to avoid selfishness and wickedness.
It’s a unique challenge: do what you must to get by, but not so much that you are corrupted by the world around you. See a diseased animal on the road? You might have to help it, even though it’s obviously a bad idea.
An Incomplete Story
The story of Tales of the Black Death feels more like an introduction, as there is a lot of plot action that goes unresolved. For instance, in the beginning of the story, Baldasar awakens from a prophetic dream about a young girl and a figure dressed in black. Although the mysterious dream is mentioned again later, none of the events in it come to pass. Tales of the Black Death’s art-style is nothing special. The characters are only shown as faces.
However, despite these narrative and artistic let downs, the story still entices and includes some cool written passages that have fun with both the disease and the time period. For much of the story, Baldasar is on the run from authorities with a young thief named Lorenzo. No matter how you choose to act, the world of the plague challenges Baldasar’s fragile morality by forcing him to do things he normally wouldn’t. The script contains some interesting reflections about morality during a pandemic which pertain to today’s world.
A Strenuous Ordeal
The difficulty of this game surprised me and kept me guessing. While the story was ultimately short, getting to the end after a few serious tries did feel like an accomplishment, especially since it seemed like I could have died at any moment. It’s hard to get either your health or morality up above a significant level. You can’t just focus on raising your health then ping-ponging back to your morality when it dips below a certain point. For the most part, neither are going to be at a comfortable level throughout.
The results of any given choice you make are usually difficult to predict. Trying to steal some food can net you a quick health boost. But if you’re caught, you lose morality. Baldasar is a terrible thief, so he rarely gets it right, but the chance to stockpile some bread for later is one you might not be able to pass up.
A Disease You Know Nothing About
While this game can offer a fun challenge, it can also be frustrating. When you die, you are sent back to a checkpoint. But sometimes the checkpoint is broken, and you can’t progress from there no matter what you do. You can get sent back to a spot where your morality is already too low and there is nothing you can do to improve it.
Usually I would opt to reset the story from the beginning rather than use a checkpoint, thinking I could get back to the same point with considerably more health and morality by making different choices than I did earlier. However, Tales of the Black Death – Italy adapts to your playstyle. On my second play-through, I died after catching the disease from trying to bury my dead parents. I was able to do this without a scratch on the first go-around. This means you can’t memorize the best outcome of each choice on an early run-through and then go back for an easy win.
At first glance, it seems like Doubleton might have churned this game out to capitalize on the coronavirus pandemic. I did notice a few errors. The most glaring on the Doubleton website, where this is listed as a “Nobile” game, with an “N”. A small but egregious mistake that sums up the unpolished feeling of Tales of the Black Death.
But trying to capitalize on current events is not always a bad thing. This game put into perspective just what the Black Death might have actually been like to people back then. The text-based gameplay is simple but offers a lot of suspense. At times, I wished the developers had cleaned this game up. But despite the missteps, it serves its purpose as a stimulating adventure.
This game has a solid story with a few moments that left me thinking hard, but it ends too soon with too much unresolved. Still, you should be able to look past the plain art style and some other frustrations to enjoy this uniquely challenging and hair-raising game.