The Black Death Review

The Black Death

Death, decay and destruction. These are just 3 of the things that can be expected on a day trip to Scunthorpe. They are also 3 of the aspects that can be used to describe the period in European history known as The Black Death. The Black Death, otherwise known as ‘The Plague’, was the worst pandemic in history, having killed as many as 200 million people across Europe and setting the continent’s population back by 200 years. Oh, and now it’s a survival game set in the same period as the actual plague, joy.

What a Lovely Day for a Gross, Pus-Ridden Funeral

The Black Death is a survival RPG developed by Syrin Studios and Small Impact Games, and it is published by Green Man Gaming. The Black Death is the first game to be developed by either studio, and it has been in early access since early 2016. Despite having been available for purchase for two years, the game has only reached version 0.30 and still seems to have a long way to go before it actually gets a full release.

The first and most important facet of The Black Death is the survival aspect, as that is what you will spend pretty much all of your time doing. If you’ve played a game with survival or crafting elements in it before, then you’re probably going to be very familiar with a lot of what’s going on here. You have a water and food percentage that continuously drops and a health bar that only refills while you’re well fed and watered. To keep yourself going, you’ll have to scarf down strawberries or a whole cabbage every so often and also occasionally break into someone’s base to steal their water.

When you first boot The Black Death up, you are presented with a start button that leads to a server menu, so it should be clear at this point that the game is online-only. You can choose from either a PvP server or an empty server, sorry, I mean a PvE server. There are a few official servers, and beyond that several that seem to be run by different players or player groups. You can join any of them as long as they’re not full or password protected, and your character is tied to each server that you play on.

They Live to Serve(er)

So you’ve selected your server and started playing. The first thing you have to do is choose which profession you want to play as, which is going to be the “beggar” because it’s the only one you have access to at the start of the game. As a beggar, you have limited customisation options from the get-go, basically meaning that all of the male beggars look the same, and all of the female beggars looks the same as well, which is a bit of a shame, to be honest. In a server mostly populated by newer players, it ends up looking like someone’s gone mental with the clone stamp tool in Photoshop.

Most of the first 5 hours in The Black Death will be spent doing a small number of things. Firstly, you’ll be picking up a lot of rocks and sticks off the ground, primarily so you can somehow magically stick them together to make weapons. Secondly, you’ll be either punching a lot of animals or hitting other human beings with a stick. Whether the other humans are NPCs or not depends on which server type you chose at the beginning of the game. The last thing you’ll probably be doing is dying a whole lot.

A plague doctor performing an autopsy in the black death
“I don’t believe that man’s ever been to medical school!”

The reason that you’ll probably be dying is because, from the get-go, you cannot build a whole lot of stuff, and the stuff that you can build requires you to pick your way through the wilderness picking up sticks and cotton or murdering boars for their bones. So, to unlock more stuff to build, as well as better professions to choose from, you have to grind, grind, grind, grind, grind. Each level up you get unlocks either a skill point or a new attribute point. Skill points unlock new recipes to make and unlock new professions for you to play as once you’ve got enough of them. Attribute points make you slightly better in some way, like increasing your damage or maximum health, or reducing how quickly your food and water meters drop.

This attribute/skill feature is incredibly problematic. It means that your first few hours with the game are spent hiding out and killing enemies or picking up resources over and over and over again just so you can die and come back as one of the proper classes. It also just makes the attribute points feel pointless in the early game because whenever you die in the game, you lose all of your attribute points anyway, and in the early days you’ll probably barely last a long weekend in game time. The factor that really makes everything much worse is the fact that your character is tied to whatever server you started playing in. So, if you’ve spent half a day grinding out enough levels to unlock the profession you want and then go to take a break for a bit, then you better hope the server you were playing in isn’t full or hasn’t been taken down, otherwise you’ve got to start all over again.

The Real Grindhouse

The grindy gameplay is certainly not helped by the controls one bit. You move in a very stiff way, which feels a little bit like you’re controlling a player made out of cardboard. The combat has a few issues as well, mainly that it’s sort of hard to hit things. Instead of having attacks that connect at your reticule, your attacks connect at wherever your weapon swings, which takes a bit of getting used to. It can be pretty difficult to move yourself into a position where your enemy is actually going to take damage from your attacks instead of just flailing your arms around vaguely in their direction. Also, some of the enemies clearly have magical powers as they kept somehow teleporting behind me and shooting me with their crossbows.

The best part about The Black Death is the world it has managed to build. Not because it’s at all believable, far from it. Every NPC you come across sounds like they were paid £10 off the street to voice their lines, and the enemies don’t act like real human enemies, instead they’re freewheeling backwards and whacking you with whatever they’ve got. The world is good because it feels like it’s natural. The world progresses based on the whims and desires of the different players. New settlements can spring up out of nowhere, castles and bases can be taken over if a group of players attacks them in a siege, and the first time you come across another player you can never be sure if they’re going to murder you or offer you a plate of Jammie Dodgers.

a plague victim burning at the stake in the black death
“Hey, who turned out the light…and set me on fire?”

Okay, so once you’ve managed to get yourself to a good point, you’ll need to build yourself some sort of base. To do this, you’ll need a few things, firstly an axe and pickaxe (go figure) to collect some wood and stone, as well as some cotton that you use to make thread. Once you’ve got all of these things, you can build yourself a small shack. Unfortunately, you cannot build just anywhere, you have to build on predesignated and flattened areas, which means you need to play on a server that doesn’t have too many people already in it, but that means that you have to play in a server with less people to interact with, which feels a little counterproductive.

The worst part about building is the completely broken ‘land claim’ system. The way it works is that you have to go and buy a land claim contract from a seller in one of the game’s major towns. Then, when you go to the place where you want to build, assuming you can find one, you can put your land claim down, attach it to your name and then you may build in the area and unlock any of the doors. The issue is that you have to make sure you build your land claim inside of a building before you attach it, because anyone can add or remove people to a land claim if they can get to it. This is a system desperately in need of a password protection feature or pretty much anything to protect your bases from enemy intrusion. If someone can find a way to jump over your walls or get around your security, then you’re likely to log back in to find your entire base ransacked.

No Story to Tell

You may be wondering why there’s been no mention of a storyline, and the reason for that is that there isn’t one. Not that this is a huge problem. How many online-only survival games actually have storylines, after all? The issue isn’t a lack of story, although it could possibly improve things a little, it’s the fact that the chosen system to guide a new player through the start of the game is completely broken. As soon as you start playing, you get missions that tell you how to build certain things, like healing items or different weapons. The issue is that about 50% of the time these missions don’t track properly, and you end up having to try and do them over and over again to get them to work. Also, once you’ve got the gist of most of the game’s rules, you really don’t need to do these missions beyond acquiring the experience that they reward you.

As you could probably expect from an early access game, it is still buggy as all hell. Apart from the aforementioned mission tracking issue, you also have enemies warping around the place, random de-spawning and respawning during server refreshes, and sometimes even if you hit an enemy, your attacks won’t do anything. Possibly the most egregious example of a bug was the time that I got warped inside a locked building and had to commit suicide because the land claim for the building was outside it and I couldn’t get out; therefore, I ended up losing all of my items and attribute points. Then, by the time I got back all of my items had just gone missing from inside a locked room.

two peasants fighting in the black death
Everybody was kung fu fighting! HEE YAA!!!

On the plus side, despite not actually having a single-player mode, you can just start a private server and play on that, at least until you’ve managed to understand the game. Honestly, playing the game on a private server with just a group of your own friends is probably the best way to do it, it means that you don’t have to worry about someone removing you from a land claim (unless you have one of those sorts of friends), and you can get a basic understanding of how the game works without being murdered by a more experienced player. None of that solves the fundamental issues with the game, of course, but it is nice to know it can be done.

Nothing More to Be Done

The real crux of the issue comes down to the fact that The Black Death has no point to it. You can spend 12 hours making the best base in all the land, but then what do you do ? You can go around killing people for more experience points or even explore caves if you really want to, but it’s all just unnecessary. There is no pull to keep you playing the game, there’s no carrot on the end of the stick at all, you just spend your time in-game trying to cling to a dirty, grubby little life in which everything else wants you dead. It is possible that down the line something will be added, maybe raids or special missions for players to undergo once they’re feeling strong enough, but in its present state, the game has almost nothing to it that we haven’t seen a million times before.

The Black Death is grubby, disgusting, gruesome and dull. It just isn’t any fun to play. There were moments where I thought it was fun while I wandered around the expansive world randomly picking up rocks and sticks to make my experience bar go up. Then I stopped to smell the rotten roses and tried to build a small hut in which to try and eke out a meagre existence, only to be teleport murdered by a crossbow bolt up my arse. That was when I realised I wasn’t having fun, I was having an aneurysm.

Developer: Syrin Studios, Small Impact Games

Publisher: Green Man Gaming

Platform: PC

Release Date: 15th March 2018 (Early Access)

You can check out more information or buy The Black Death here.

Want to check out our other stuff? Take a look at our other game reviews here.

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