Death Coming is a fantastically beautiful piece of pixel artwork, on a par with the master of the art, eBoy, and a game in which you must try to create accidents to kill as many of the world’s inhabitants as you can. For you are Death…’s assistant. It sounds great! It would be, if it would only stop getting in its own way.
The game begins with your character’s death, and a deal with Death himself that if you become his assistant and begin ethereally causing the deaths of others, he’ll eventually give you back your life. So it is that you take the omnipotent position of all isometric management games, and use your invisible hand to prod and poke at elaborate scenes, bringing about the demise of a list of targets, along with dozens and dozens of innocent bystanders.
There’s a version of Death Coming in another universe that is adored. It’s a version where you get to pore over these ridiculously great animated pixel masterworks, looking for wobbly statues, dodgy wiring, vampires you can bring to life, and so on, to trigger grisly deaths of cute pixel people. There you get to combine elements together after playing with them to work out what they do, to lure people into traps, or trigger chains of deaths. And when you’ve secured both the specific named kills and the extra numbers required to clear a level, you move onto the next.
It really looks like it’s going to be that game. After the first level I was certain this was going to be a classic. And then it started falling apart.
Death Coming goes to some lengths to stop itself from being the fun game that’s there, visible, before your eyes. In no way more egregiously than the fun-spoiling angels, which we’ll get to, but also in more subtle and pointless ways. Like how particular traps or triggers can only be used a limited number of times, such that if you experiment for a bit with the plant feeder that makes the weird tentacle plant grow, to work out why you want to, and then try to lure someone into that trap, you find out it just no longer works. And when that trap was vital to clearing a level, in which you’ve already successfully secured 64 other deaths, you realise after grimly clicking at everything else you’ve no choice but to restart the level.
Or how you need to move a guard to be able to let a guy steal a rocket, so you make the phone ring, and when he’s over there answering it, drop a precariously balanced crate on his head – perfect, now the guy grabs the missile, and you can soon blow up the changing rooms. Except now, because you did that, you can no longer trigger another scripted sequence in this level which tells you a statue needs damaging. Damage it, and it seems there’s no one left to notice since you took out that guard, and the last half hour’s play is wasted because you didn’t psychically discern the order in which you were expected to play. Something that might work in little five minute levels, but not in these lengthy behemoths, where restarts are significant blows.
And yes, talking of restarts, those bloody angels. Quite how angels and Death have become opponents is not explained, but every 14 kills (and you’re required to get dozens per level, despite the game’s opening erroneously saying something about avoiding killing innocents) you unlock three or four angels into a level. They float about with poorly programmed visible cones of sight, and any time they see you’re interacting with an object (clicking causes a red circle to appear around anything with which you can meddle) you lose a life. There are three lives, and once all are gone, you have to start that level over. So when you’re asked to kill 64 people, at a certain point you’ve got nine or so of these buggers covering half the screen.
They prevent you from enjoying yourself in two ways. One, you have to wait for them to get out of the way to do anything, and since often doing anything involves waiting for an NPC to wander into the right place, it becomes increasingly frustrating for the two uncontrollable events to align. Two, when you’re zoomed in on the screen to see what you’re doing with a fiddly trap, they can fly in and “see” you before you can see them appear, which on your third strike is a rage-quit-inducing piece of dickery. And this doesn’t include when they “see” you despite their cone of sight facing the opposite direction. Argh.
What’s so maddening is the game doesn’t even need these antagonists. When they first appeared I couldn’t fathom the purpose, and now they’re swarming any level to the point where there’s little pleasure in playing at all. The game is trying to figure out all the traps, spot all the details in intricately drawn scenes, and then use them successfully enough to achieve enough carnage. The challenge is all already in place. The angels only serve to stop you from being able to play, rather than introducing any new entertainment. I think, without them, I’d be able to put up with all the other glaring flaws for the fun on offer despite them. With them, I kind of hate the game. It’s not more difficult for having them, only more annoying.
It then further complicates things with changing weather in levels, with certain traps only available in certain weather, which again just makes what could have been this pleasingly methodical murder spree feel needlessly fiddly and obstructive. I just wanted to enjoy the gruesome glee of triggering disasters and squishing little pixel people with wobbly cable cars, but it just keeps finding more and more ways to get in the way of itself, until there was just no fun left to squeeze out of a level.
And it remains such an enormous shame, as every level is a masterclass in pixel art, packed with so many tiny details, and every scrap of it delightfully animated. The deaths are surprisingly grim, made more so by the arcadey point scoring ways, creating a macabre atmosphere that just keeps to the right levels of distaste. This could have been the Hidden Folks of murdering. And it’s all there, underneath the mess, waiting for someone to rescue. Sadly that has, so far, not been realised.
There, I wrote the whole review without making a ‘Death having a wank’ joke!
Death Coming is out now on Windows for £5/$7/7€, via Steam.