If Tim Burton designed a video game, I imagine it would be something like Death Tales. This 2D side-scrolling hack and slash/beat ‘em up game is colorfully grim, and nightmarishly whimsical. You play as a new reaper—a hooded, Grim Reaper-like figure complete with scythe, but with a chibi-like stature. If you play in co-op, your companion will take control of Spaura, an animated scarecrow with a mallet.
Death Tales, mechanically, is pretty basic. You fight enemies from one screen to the next, while performing short platforming sections. You have a basic attack with your scythe, and magical attacks. You can perform a forward dodge. If you don’t quite make a jump you can grab a ledge—but there isn’t any wall jumping. And that’s pretty much it. Sometimes, that can be enough—especially with tight controls, great level design, interesting items to find, a good story, etc. Death Tales doesn’t have any of those things, however.
Beat ‘em ups, at their best, feel fun to play. Death Tales does not meet that standard. While the store page says that a controller is recommended for play, it’s pretty much essential—mouse and keyboard controls are almost unusable. Too bad, even with a controller, the game fails to be mechanically satisfying. Fighting and jumping both feel floaty and loose. Combat is not very fun—enemies feel like damage sponges, weapon swings feel weak, and the hit detection is floaty. Jumping in Death Tales is similarly woeful. While most of the combat was a breeze, I found myself having to restart levels more often due to bad jumps more than anything else. Enemy encounters in Death Tales just aren’t very fun. Even with overpowered abilities, enemies feel formidable. Enemy health bars would have been a great addition, as well as damage numbers.
There are a fair amount of power-ups and items you can find in Death Tales. Some of these items can make the game more fun with how powerful they are: drop giant fireballs on your enemies, and sprout angel wings to glide. There are multiple different types of scythes to acquire, as well as different armor types to augment your reaper’s abilities. While collecting new items is one of the only things I enjoyed about Death Tales, it didn’t heighten the overall experience too much.
Death Tales does have a striking art style, but the art itself is lacking. All of the art looks blurry, like someone used a soft felt marker or images that are just slightly too low resolution. It ruins the great art style, and makes everything look a bit muddy. There’s also often too much going on at once, with trees swaying in the back and leaves blowing in the foreground. It’s not really a distraction, because the action isn’t fast or tight enough for it to be, but it looks busy and ugly. Character design is a bit tired too—too many animal skulls and plague masks.
While I enjoyed the psychedelic landscapes, it all felt a little same-y after a while. It doesn’t help that each area feels extremely repetitive. It’s hard for me to even differentiate between levels in the same zone—they have similar appearance and hazards. Even the earliest side scrollers of the 80’s knew to change it up a little. On top of that, even the enemies in each zone repeat—with a few that persist through the entire playthrough of the game.
Death Tales missed most of its marks for me. I don’t even think co-op would solve its issues—and while most games are more fun with friends, this is one game I wouldn’t want to subject on another person. Fighting is floaty, and doesn’t have enough feedback to make it feel satisfying. The platforming sections are awful, and sucked out every last bit of enjoyment I may have had playing Death Tales. Even its whimsical, colorful backdrops and character designs are overwrought and unappealing. Skip this—there are far better beat ‘em ups to play.
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