A couple of weeks ago, we spent some time sat in a Guildford coffee shop chatting with developer Jessica Saunders about Du Lac & Fey: Dance of Death. The game, which is set during the murders of Jack the Ripper, was one of our most anticipated 2019 British games, and we've finally had a chance to go hands on with it to see if it lives up to the promise of its premise.
The idea behind Dance of Death is that players control Sir Lancelot Du Lac, and Morgana Fey, two historical figures displaced from time, and living through events they should not have survived long enough to see. Players work together to investigate the murders of Jack the Ripper, learn more about the world at the time, and generally act as detectives in an unfamiliar time.
The gameplay is primarily about investigation, with each of our primary characters offering different skills for solving crimes. Du Lac is a lawful good socialite, a sweet talker trying to use fancy words to get to the truth of matters, while Fey has been transformed into a dog by Merlin, offering her not only powerful smell detecting abilities and the power to interview animal witnesses, but also allows her dialogue to be more snarky by virtue of its not understood nature.
It's very clear playing through a preview build of Du Lac and Fey that historical accuracy in terminology and speech was incredibly important to the development team, even when that accuracy might not always make for the most smooth experience. Characters say things in often convoluted and flowery ways that, while useful for selling the realism the game wants for its world, may make some conversations tough to truly appreciate. It sets tone well, but it's not always the most easily understood text.
While Du Lac serves as a straight edge protagonist, Fey truly does help to balance out his goodie two shoes act, as well as offer players a lens through which to be critical of societal norms of the age. While Du Lac and Fey is set in Victorian England, with characters acting as such, Fey offers an avenue for the player to call out things which are no longer acceptable in 2019, while not disrupting the story or trying to rewrite the beliefs of the time. She is a much needed antithesis to Du Lac, and really did make this tale that was aiming for accuracy feel more approachable.
In terms of the content matter and tone, Du Lac and Fey doesn't shy away from the grittier details of its settings. There's foul language aplenty, descriptions of killings, and discussions of difficult topics that are best described as unflinching.
There is one final playable character, and one I want to focus on for a second. There are separate chapters to the game where you get to play as Mary Kelly, one of Jack the Ripper's final victims. Mary is a wonderful character to play as, with a knowledge of life in London and a bright attitude which are exciting to experience, but even in this preview experience I have some concerns. While the game makes great efforts to present itself as based around reality, Mary Kelly in this game has magical powers and gets visions of the future.
Particularly considering in my chats with Saunders she talked at length about wanting to do a more realistic take on Mary Kelly, one which avoided the assumptions made by others, it feels really weird to give her a trait that's fictional. Allowing our protagonists Du Lac and Fey to be affected by magic feels acceptable because they're out-of-time visitors to this narrative, but to place magic powers on a real woman who died, who the developers wanted to be realistic, just sat oddly with me.
In terms of the gameplay, the experience was very light on puzzles of any kind, with those puzzles present being very simple. This is at its heart a narrative exploration game, and you have to go in knowing that. While it can be plodding and meandering at times, the writing was engaging, I did want to know more about the world, and I was interested enough to go searching for stories outside of that main story.
Du Lac and Fey: Dance of Death does show potential, but a few chapters in I'm unsure how I feel about it. While in many ways it's clearly built with a love and attention to detail on the real world during the time of Jack the Ripper's killings, it feels odd to give a real world victim magic powers, and the dialogue is sometimes accurate to the detriment of being easily understood. Some of these issues are unlikely to change in the month between now and release, but even so I am excited to play more and find out where this experience is going.