Tales of the Black Death Review: YOU DIED
The way I view the Black Death in the wake of COVID-19 is quite different than how I viewed it in the past. In the before times, I guess I envisioned it as some faraway event that happened due to the lack of progress in medical science; surely, a pandemic wouldn’t be too hard to quell in this day and age? Silly, naïve, unimaginative me — how blissfully unaware I once was! Of course, the Black Death was far more deadly than COVID-19 (an estimated 75 – 200 million vs. a confirmed 5 million), and I count my lucky stars that treatment features far fewer leeches, but to think that modern times could be horrifically connected to what was once discussed as a devastating relic of the past is pretty humbling.
I thank Tales of the Black Death for my recent re-education on the plague and just how catastrophic it truly was. Developed and self-published by Doubleton Game Studio, Tales of the Black Death is a dark historical fiction visual novel where choices matter — and an unwise decision often results in a gruesome death. Following the story of a boy desperately trying to find safety and solace amidst the terrifying spread of the Bubonic Plague the mid 14th century, Tales of the Black Death really puts into perspective just how awful life really was back then, and, in comparison, how good we have it now even in our current situation.
Tales of the Black Death has players taking on the role of an Italian boy named Baldasar, who lived a relatively normal life for someone growing up in 1347. After helping his widowed aunt bring in the wheat harvest, he makes the journey home to his village and to his parents. Upon his arrival, he notices that something seems… off. The chickens haven’t been fed, the windows are shuttered, and the air is heavy. He opens the door, only to hear his father weakly cough out a warning: “Don’t come in — some terrible illness has fallen upon your mother and me.”
It is here where Baldasar must make his first difficult decision: does he stay and tend to his ailing parents, or does he back off and seek help? Be careful with your decision, as one leads to certain death, and the other leads to opportunities for many more ways to die.
Tales of the Black Death is broken up into three chapters, which follows Baldasar’s journey from Italy into France, then into England — all the while trying desperately to fend off hunger, the elements, and the dangers that other humans present. After all, it’s not just the plague that’s spreading, but fear and chaos as well. No one wants to let wandering newcomers into their homes and towns for fear of catching the deadly disease, but being left in the cold wilderness can spell doom in other ways for the young boy in the form of hypothermia, starvation, or harm by thieves or other ne’er-do-wells. Suffice to say, the 14th century was not a comfortable time for the average person, let alone the newly orphaned.
Although Tales of the Black Death can be played as a pure visual novel, the way the developers intended players to follow Baldasar’s tragic tale is with certain survival mechanics. Baldasar has two meters to mind in the form of health and mental well-being. If Baldasar receives a physical injury, his health will drop a bit; on the other hand, if he eats or rests, his health will increase. As for his mental well-being, a lot of it has to do with the psychological impacts of his actions. Witnessing something traumatic or doing something that causes him guilt will make his psyche meter decrease; conversely, confessing his sins or experiencing some happiness in this bleak and brutal world will cause the meter to go up. If one of these meters depletes completely, it’s game over: YOU DIED.
In addition to the meters, there are also three other things to watch for that will impact your health down the line — injury, illness, and infection. Cutting your hand or being shoved down a cellar door can cause an injury that, if left untreated, can increase your risk of illness or infection. You’d think illness and infection would be the same, but they differ in one simple way: illness means something treatable, like a general fever, while infection refers specifically to the plague. Although you want to treat any illness posthaste, it isn’t a death knell; infection, on the other hand, will absolutely kill you.
While playing on historical mode, players will soon find that they die over and over and over again, which could be infinitely more frustrating if it were not for the clever use of Steam achievements. You’d think that the Bubonic Plague would be Baldasar’s biggest concerns, but it’s actually other people and the overall response to the pandemic. Under normal circumstances, Baldasar would be at home with his parents and likely live out an average, boring life; instead, he’s forced to travel from town to town, often getting caught by unforgiving and downright brutal guards for breaking curfew (since no one will give him shelter as they fear infection from an unknown person). Decapitation, stabbing, flaying, poisoning, hanging, whipping, exhaustion, and so many more causes of death grimly await Baldasar, this cruel world changing a once bright-eyed boy to an embittered man.
Although I was completely engrossed in Tales of the Black Death, I admit that it took some time to really get to that point. I felt that the first chapter was actually the hardest to get through, with every choice I made seemingly fated to end poor Baldasar’s life. At one point I thought I’d start over on story mode instead of the punishing historical mode, but for some reason you can’t seem to change your mind once you’ve made it, which seems odd. I did eventually beat the game after several hours, but I just don’t feel like that option should disappear. Additionally, there’s a rat-killing mini-game that has frustratingly small hitboxes; for some reason, stabbing the rat on the head doesn’t result in its death (but can result in yours), just the body. Finally, I feel that the characters you speak with along the way know far too much about what caused the plague, which doesn’t seem totally accurate, but I could be wrong. If anything, it just felt like the line of communication between NPCs and Baldasar vs. game and player were just a little too blurred for believability.
With that being said, I genuinely enjoyed my time with Tales of the Black Death, not only for its compelling story and fun gameplay but also for the real and raw choices that were presented to Baldasar throughout his journey and how it made him believably grow as a person. He goes from questioning whether or not he could kill a person to being presented with the option to do so several times over, and choices made either freely or under duress haunt him even years later. It feels very realistic to go from an otherwise average kid to someone who is up all night tormented by invasive thoughts of people who died either directly or indirectly from his actions. Above all else, Tales of the Black Death has piqued my curiosity on parallels between Baldasar’s pandemic and ours; I know I’ll be reading about the Black Death for days because of this game.
Tales of the Black Death inserts players directly into the cruel world of 14th century Europe and challenges them to ward off death in its many brutal forms. Featuring beautifully hand drawn characters and environments juxtaposed to an atmospheric soundtrack and, of course, the horrific subject matter, Tales of the Black Death soberly puts into perspective just how lucky we are to live in a world with modern medicine and current creature comforts (with respect to everything that’s happened these past two years). If you’re looking for a historical fiction visual novel where choices really, really matter, Tales of the Black Death awaits those with a curious mind and a strong stomach.
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: Mobile, PC (reviewed); Publisher: Doubleton Games Studio; Developer: Doubleton Games Studio; Players: 1; Released: October 15, 2021; MSRP: $9.99
Editor’s note: This review is based on a retail copy of Tales of the Black Death provided by the publisher.