The alluring fantasy motif of Death Tales piqued my interest in this adventure game that previously had flown under my radar. Stylish settings, compelling character design and an overall beautiful aesthetic suggest a unique adventure in a strange but fascinating land. And while the beguiling presentation did contribute to an enjoyable experience in total, did other aspects of the game likewise rise to the occasion?
Arcade Distillery does craft an impressive fantasy world with copious use of expressive lines, colorful palettes and fanciful characters animated in a style that at times reminds me of marionettes. The score includes vintage fantasy themes whether music in the early Soulless Realm levels that’s reminiscent of Tim Burton films or compositions in Forest Night Time locations that suggest a more dramatic adventure.
The game’s levels also include the city of Vesilia, Mountains and variations on a theme. In this way, while the variety of locale is not extensive, changes related to the time of day or local conditions help vary the setting, including deep, vibrant earth tones during the day and shades of blue, purple, etc. at night, as well as backdrops of swaying trees, leaves, embers and more.
The characters that inhabit this world likewise match the exaggerated storybook style and eye-catching color, whether the playable Reaper, sidekick Spaura (the Reaper’s Soul Bearer), the Grim Reaper, Death, Soulless Queen or others. Some resemble variations on birds, a dead deer, people, even frogs, but almost always with a creative flair – including the unique 2D animation – that separates them from ordinary creatures.
All this helps establish the distinctive fantasy that is supported by little details like a grinning moon or sun that resemble the Cheshire Cat, trees (I think) that look like creatures or people, roots that conjure snakes, and structures that resemble birds. It’s an inspired setting for any game, and the premise of a Reaper traveling the world to gather souls for Death should make good use of such a fantasy setting.
The story, however, doesn’t do it any favors. It can be a little hard to follow, partly because it scrolls at the bottom of the screen and partly due to a plot and wording that sometimes confuses. More clarity or text requiring a button press to proceed would have helped. That said, the story follows a Reaper who refuses to take a soul, setting in motion events that reveal a schism among the powers that be and imbalance in the world.
For what it’s worth, the story has little practical impact on playing the main character of the Reaper. Regardless of the situation that the Reaper and Spaura find themselves in, the central task at hand is always the defeat of foes and the collection of their souls. Whether gathering them for the Grim Reaper and, ultimately, Death or helping displaced souls, the core action is still the same. Even side quests have the same impact.
Speaking of side quests, as well as the characters that issue them, there are far fewer than I’d presumed given the marketing I’d seen. Aside from the main characters and a couple others at the beginning, there aren’t that many to be found and neither is there much in the way of quests. And to the extent there are any, they aren’t very consequential and don’t vary from the task of collecting souls.
A video for the PC version in fact seemed to show many more character models than appear in the Switch version I played. I likewise expected more player volition given a choice presented to the player early on. But I can’t tell that the choice had any more impact than either rewarding the player or not. Also, I don’t recall another choice in the game. All in all, these early inclusions are exceptions rather than the rule.
Thank goodness, then, that the central task of wandering the land and collecting souls proves entertaining in its design and execution. Players on the Switch can jump (B), attack (Y), dash (A), cast spells (left and right shoulders), aim spells (right stick up) and use special moves: heavy combo (Y,Y, hold Y; or heavy attack of Y 5 times), launch attack (hold Y), windmill attack (left stick up + Y) and ground slam (B + left stick down + Y).
Controls are intuitive and responsive, providing fluid movements and constant action. Enemies can be kept reeling with repeat attacks and multiple foes can be hit at the same time, even launching adversaries together into the air with successive uppercuts. Players can dash to avoid hits or to strike quickly, including from the air, as is the case jumping, too, which also enables the ground slam move.
The basic move set works well enough against various foes that include witches, other conjurers and various robot types using melee or ranged attacks. But the environment, foes or sheer numbers might require the use of other offensive options. And while players shouldn’t expect the standard arsenal of different combos or chained attacks, they’ll have a variety of spells and weapon variations to access during their journey.
These additional items can be collected from chests, chosen at level completion, or purchased from the vendor Fiona in Vesilia with essence the player receives (along with spirit and life) upon defeating enemies. Among other things, they might enable players to spawn bullets, rockets or flame; summon meteors, stampeding unicorns(!) or a conjurer; or perform an extra action like a hit at the end of a dash.
Besides sickles or blades, Fiona also sells armor and hoods, which all have either offensive or defensive capabilities. Similarly, spell-cast training can be purchased from Inan, a protector of the forests in Inan’s Cove. These all provide players with more options. And while players can select bounties from Vesilia’s Lead Reaper for eliminating enemies or bosses, their main benefit is rewarding players with essence to buy more items.
What to do with all these items? The good news is that Arcade Distillery allows for five Gear Sets accessible from the Equip screen in the Menu (plus key). Each set allows a choice of Weapon (sickle/blade), Hood and Armor, as well as two spells (mapped to the left/right shoulders). Players can switch between sets on the fly, but also can alter each set anytime choosing among all weapons, hoods, etc. that have been collected.
Part of the fun is experimenting with each loadout and figuring out which you like best including for a specific situation. For more demanding platforming sections, I chose a set with armor that uses wings to slow descent and a hood that enables higher jumps. For combat I generally preferred armor that boosts protection and life, hoods that spawned meteors or rockets, and sickles/blades that offered health or bullets.
The plethora of options in this regard contributed to a degree of RPG inventory swapping. But they also have a visible and practical impact on gameplay. The action can grow chaotic when grinning meteors rain down, unicorns or conjurers leave a rainbow in their wake, rockets hit their targets, flames erupt, and enemies attack or explode in a shower of red (life), blue (spirit) and yellow (essence) orbs.
The FX are a sight to behold when in pitched combat. And it helps that there is little to no noticeable slowdown when the action becomes frenetic. However, it’s also a distraction when the screen fills with activity. The problem is that the small player-controlled Reaper can disappear among foes and particle FX, in particular because he turns red when hit, the same as hit enemies. At that point, button mashing is the best option.
The screen won’t always be filled with action, though, as some areas aren’t packed with foes and spell use depends on whether or not they have a cool down period and how much spirit fills the respective gauge needed to cast spells. Defeating foes can replenish spirit, and collecting spirit shards can extend the gauge, in the same way that collecting pieces of a torn heart card can gain one life heart.
Platforming sections, too, can help break up the action, albeit not as much as you’d think. Gaps in terrain, varying elevations, moving platforms and various obstacles that fall, swing or rise task players with familiar challenges. But these can be complicated by attacking foes. Spell casting can help clear a path in lieu of ranged attacks, but they can sap the spirit meter needed to pull them off.
In these ways resource management becomes more important, as players need to determine which Gear Set is appropriate for any given scenario, whether to select items with more offensive or defensive capabilities, and which spells might be best depending on their strength and cool down period. Now, this isn’t the most challenging journey, but planning in advance for certain foes or terrain can help player progression.
I should mention that I’m not very good when it comes to side-scrolling games. But I did manage to get to the final boss. If I’d played local co-op, where a second player controls Spaura, I might have beaten it by now. The point being, that others by comparison might find the game easy. For me, the challenge was tuned just right. I died sometimes platforming and other times fighting, but never felt cheated or frustrated.
To the extent there were disappointments, they were the aforementioned omissions, where better exposition would have helped the story, more gameplay variety or quests would have broadened the appeal, and player volition would have deepened immersion. It also doesn’t help that there was spell-cast training for spells I never saw (i.e., Heal Totem, Ice Block, Bomb Totem) that might have helped, at least against the final boss.
Still my overall impression of Death Tales was a positive one where I was often entertained by the inspired, almost fairy tale like quality of the eye-popping presentation and beautiful fantasy score, and happily engaged by the over-the-top combat involving an arsenal of rockets, meteors and stampeding unicorns in the service of a sickle-swinging soul reaper. With its current $9.99 price of admission, the game is worth a visit.
(This post is based on a review key for the Nintendo Switch version of Death Tales, which released December 3, 2020, and is also available on PlayStation 4 and PC.)
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