Die of the plague before it’s the cool thing to do!

Title: The Black Death
Platform: PC (Reviewed)
Developer: Syrin Studios, Small Impact Games
Publisher: Greenman Gaming
Release Date: Out now for Early Access, full release TBC
TL;DR: The seeds of promise have begun to sprout into a beautifully depressing experience
Price: £15/$15 (Early Access)
Family Focus?: Click here for more information

The bridge into the next town lies just ahead. You’ve got a full stomach, a quenched thirst, and you’re full to the brim with sticks and kindling to sell to local merchants – basically, you’re winning. At the edge of the bridge sits a beggar, shuffling from side to side in the dreary rain. You’re wary; sure, you have some gold – but that’s yours. And there’s something… off, about this beggar. As you edge closer, you notice a red cross above his head, you hear the pained coughs, but it’s too late now. The beggar sprints towards you, hands held out in piteous optimism. A swirl of black encircles you, the message pops up that you’ve got the plague, the bloody beggar has buggered off, you’re puking up blood, and you’re about to die. And that’s day one.

Let me say this; The Black Death is a game still very much in development. But as soon as you start your doomed little adventure, the first thing that’ll smack you repeatedly over the face shouting “Appreciate me!” is the morose beauty of the game. Rain seems to be a constant, whether you’re standing around the docks looking out to sea, trying to forage in the boggy woodland, or strolling through the towns, the pitter-patter of the rain is always there. It’s one that puts a greasy shine on everything, casting the world around you into a gloriously medieval picturesque setting.

That being said, not everything during the Middle Ages was hunky-dory; actually, very few things about that period were, and the game makes sure you understand that with certainty. Being predominantly about survival, you’ll have to get through the early slog of figuring out what you can eat and drink, where you can forage without interruption, and you’ll have to try to not contract that pesky bubonic plague. Now, the plague that’s ravaging the country can be found it all sorts of quirky places, from dead bodies that litter the cobblestone paths, to beggars that hang around alone or in packs, all looking for a spare bit of cash and to seemingly “spread the love,” – it’s just that the “love,” is the plague.

But fear not! Because the plague isn’t an immediate death sentence – I mean, it usually is, but there are tools in place in the game to stunt its effects and protect you from even contracting it. Crafting masks and medicines form the bits and bobs you find is a mechanic we’ve seen a ton of times in survival games, and the developers have been smart in keeping the system simple, meaning you’re able to work out how to get what you need after a couple of minutes tinkering with the inventory.

You’ll have to do more than just protect yourself from lurgy-ridden peasants when you’re on your travels. Bandits on the roam for your blood and money come thick and fast, either hanging around their makeshift camps or hiding in the woods that litter the country, just waiting to ruin your day. These run-ins tend to end in a brawl that’s all at once horribly lethargic whilst being surprisingly fun; the fights I had nailed the slow, ill-prepared technique of real life. A punch in the game isn’t a quick jab, it’s a flailing hook that, when it lands, makes a wet, fleshy sound. It’s an execution of combat that’s a perfect fit for the world, leaving you feeling that you’re able to win an encounter but rarely giving you any indicative edge over an opponent.

And as much as the game does look great and – in places – feels great, it’s clear that there’s still a lot of work to be done in the game. The cities that you visit are devoid of pretty much any other people except a handful of merchants, and most importantly, the game lacks any real story from what I’ve seen. Instead, you’re able to complete miniature quests to ease you into different class systems – which at this point take the form of nine classes: beggar, peasant, monk, doctor, bandit, knight, smith, merchant, and militia. Now, I only ever managed to get to the early stages of the doctor class in my playthroughs (multiple, I died a lot) and whilst these classes do offer some direction in the game, the world the developers have created is something that deserves a thought out narrative.

Add to this that all of the servers I used were – as far as I could tell – empty except for me. Of course, I wasn’t expecting a server crammed full of other players, but there’s definitely an aspect of the game that I’ve missed out on. There’s a lot of scope there for players to create a thriving world and creating unofficial alliances with each other, whether they’re a group of bandits protecting a merchant, or a gang of peasants looking to steal from a local bandit camp. There’s so much potential still to be realised in The Black Death, and it’s with impatient excitement that I’ll have to wait and see where it goes.

Survival games seem to be everywhere at the moment, so chances are that the mechanics you’d see in The Black Death aren’t that different from what you’ve seen elsewhere. But the context of the game, the world you can explore, and the simple beauty of the game all make it worth checking out if you don’t mind having to watch the world around you being slowly built up.

The Good:

  • The game already looks amazing, I can’t see how they’ll improve the graphics any further
  • The combat is surprisingly effective, and come complete with the horrific sound of bone connecting with flesh
  • The game comes with fully voiced characters, offering up the whimsy of the West Country with the horrors of the Middle Ages – hooray!

The Bad:

  • Still being in early access, it feels like you’re only getting a glimpse of what the game will offer
  • The survival mechanics (except for the plague) are all fairly generic, good for newcomers, but makes it feel a bit unecessary
  • It’s a shame that the servers are empty, it feels like so much of the game’s experience is diluted

Family Focus

The Black Death won’t have a certification for some time, but you can expect a lot of corpses, pissed-off bandits, and your avatar dying quite a bit. It might be a fun game to play with your kids if they’ve got an interest in the Middle Ages.

Disclaimer: This review is based on an early access veriosn of the game provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.