Looking at the retro art of point-and-click adventure Detective Di: The Silk Rose Murders by a small Canadian indie dev, you may gawk at how rudimentary it looks. It’s like a throwback to early 90’s when VGA graphics made a breakthrough in PC gaming. 320 x 200 resolution with a whopping 256 colors on screen! Detective Di’s strictly pixel by pixel shaded and rendered, neat and clean graphics are perfect replica of the era before scanned art from hand-painted drawings became more popular in adventure games. However, look past the blocky visuals and you’re likely to find an adventure game wiser beyond its intentional retro looks, befit of its titular character.
Di Renjie was a real-life court official in the Tang Dynasty China. An intellectual and compassionate figure, he has been popularized in mystery novels written by Robert van Gulik and in numerous TV and movie adaptations of varying quality. Here, Di is just a fresh magistrate, eager to solve his first murder case. A Korean ambassador is found dead and Di must piece together events that led to the crime and uncover the culprit. Commanded by simple mouse clicks, Di jogs between a few screens of the murder scene, talks to witnesses, picks up evidence items and gathers clues to the deduction board until it’s time to reenact the case.
It all is just a prelude to what Di faces two months later. Appointed as the chief magistrate of the capital, he has an audience with Wu Zetian whom the history knows as the first and the only empress of China. A brutal murder has taken place and the intimidating empress wants to see the one responsible for taking a young woman’s life caught and punished. What ensues, though, is a gruesome series of murders, targeting women of the same age who all are killed in the exactly same, violent manner; eviscerated with their hearts cleanly ripped out. It seems that the serial killer is toying with Di, leaving mysterious clues behind for him to find.
Now, I don’t try to pretend to be an all-knowing super human as it’s actually my brother who has read van Gulik’s mystery novels. He let me know that The Silk Rose Murders is built like one; there are several cases to be solved at the given time frame that more often than not turn out to be interconnected. In the game, Di’s first case, while seemingly solved, has left an uneasy feeling in him, resulting in a recurring nightmare. As Di picks up clues in the following murder cases, talks to different people and solves puzzles and riddles based on cryptic clues, it becomes more apparent that all murdered women may have something in common and the empress herself is put to center to it. How a humble servant of the Empire can stand against the one in absolute power – or does he even need to but follow his innermost instincts and honor code? And the first case comes haunting back, becoming a curse or an absolution for Di.
The crude pixel art of the game does enough to portray vibrant vistas of the ancient China, depicting official buildings, markets and the infamous flower boat with its beautiful courtesans, among other things. Geometrically aligned views are easy to read, even though there’s occasional pixel hunting to do to spot out a crucial clue. Fortunately, each case centers on only a few places at a time so it’s not burdensome to run through them back and forth. Simple music enlivens scenes and events, never coming in the way but still being an important piece of the atmosphere. There’s no voice acting in the game but it’s actually delightfully refreshing. I much rather read text than listen to the voice actors trying to churn out English in a forced Chinese accent!
While The Silk Rose Murders’ wisdom lies in honoring the history and the customs of ancient China and most of the game involves classic crime investigation in an adventure game style, horrible murders themselves are a bit too much like from today’s crime fiction in their bloody, detailed gruesomeness. However, the game presents wise thoughts about power and responsibility and honor and justice that comes along them, and puts it in a clever dialogue between Di and Wu Zetian. They both challenge and come to honor each other in their own kind of absoluteness and sacrifices that need to be done along the way. Di’s place is but a humble servant of justice under her majesty’s service but at the same he’s a moral compass even for those in the highest power.
It takes some six hours to see Di’s investigation to its end. The presentation and the gameplay are both serviceable but the true strength of the game is in the writing. It doesn’t try to rewrite history or force alien agendas to its real-life characters but rather respects them and present juicy, fictitious details of what could have been – or perhaps has been. After all, who really knows? At a mere tenner, Detective Di: The Silk Rose Murders is a no-brainer to pick up for anyone looking for a cerebral and emotional murder mystery. Also, anyone interested in the historic era the game presents will find a real winner here.
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.