Home Reviews 3.5/5 Review Death and Taxes Review

Death and Taxes Review

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Death and Taxes is that rare game that’s better on the second playthrough. Now, that’s a big ask for anyone: you might have to commit to a first playthrough that’s not quite up to scratch if you want to see what it’s capable of. It reminds me of when a mate recommended that I watch Picard: “don’t worry, it gets good in season three”. Sure, I’ll watch twenty hours of mediocre telly to unlock the ten hours of great. While Death and Taxes is more like three hours to play, end to end, it’s still a big ask of any player.

My mistake was playing Death and Taxes in Mass Effect paragon mode. This is a game that is reminiscent of Papers, Please, in that you’re given some basic information about people and then have to make life-changing decisions about them, based on that too limited information. And there’s nothing more life-changing than death. You’re a grim reaper, and you are quite literally the judge, jury and executioner. You decide who lives or dies.

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Will they live or die?

So, we did what we always do, and played paragon first. We played by the rules, with a moral compass as our guide. This was undoubtedly a mistake, and by the time we realised, it was too late. Because Death and Taxes doesn’t want you to play by the rules. It wants you to bend them, take chances, and see what happens – like a morbid experiment – if you try different things out. The result, for us at least, was an unsatisfying spiral into failure without a real sense of what we were doing wrong. We felt like a kicked puppy.

Once we realised that Death and Taxes should be treated, almost, like a roguelike, then we started to enjoy it. This is a game designed for replay, where the flapping of butterfly wings, the cause and effect of killing someone or sparing another, is the secret to enjoying it. 

We’re not sure what Death and Taxes could have done differently to make this clearer. Did it need to make it clearer? Would an opening title card that said ‘Death or Taxes is a game with multiple endings that are designed to be seen over multiple playthroughs – oh, and don’t follow the rules’ ruin the joys of figuring it out for ourselves? There are clear arguments for both sides. We’d have liked a little more of a nudge.

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There are decisions to make in Death and Taxes

But like Picard season three, it really does peak later on. This is a fun toy that got our game design cogs whirring. We are still working out if the people that you are sent to kill (or not kill) are randomly generated, or even AI generated, because they seem to be different each time, but are still very cleverly interwoven with each other. Saving someone who creates a vaccine for a future disease will cause the timeline to branch and reveal other choices. And there plenty of these examples, all riffing off each other.

There’s still the nagging sensation of ‘what do you want from me?’, even after that first playthrough. When you’re asked to kill six of seven people, and none of them are worth saving, what are you meant to do? There is an opaqueness to Death and Taxes that makes you feel like you’re missing an in-joke. What did I miss? I often wanted Death and Taxes to present itself as a puzzle with a right or wrong answer, but it often felt like it couldn’t care less for either.

There’s some nice frilly stuff on the outside of the killing. Best of these are some desk toys, purchasable from Mortimer – a windbag store owner at the bottom of the building you live in. These seem innocuous but offer real benefits. There’s some fantastic revelations as you tinker with the toys on your desk and realise that they have vital input on the decisions you are making. Honestly, buy the desk lamp. Oh, and the snow globe.

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Just don’t follow the rules…

Beyond that, it’s frippery that you can engage with as much as you want. New outfits can be bought and unlocked, and there’s some additional dialogue if you’re wearing certain items. A pub lets you hobnob with other reapers, which plumps up the worldbuilding and setting, while you also get daily debriefs from Fate, your supervisor. He’s a hoot, but he only adds to the weird feelings of nihilism: is anything you’re doing really making a difference? Am I predestined to fail?

Understand what Death and Taxes is trying to do, and it’s a magnitude more fun. This is a toy where you can save or kill whomever you choose, and the mischievous glee comes from what happens next. Ignore all the chatter about rules: they’re there to be ignored, and abiding by them leads down unsatisfying paths. But once you’ve got all that, fun is as inevitable as, well, Death and Taxes.

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death-and-taxes-review<b>Pros:</b> <ul> <li>A cheeky twist on Papers, Please</li> <li>Clever connections between the deaths</li> <li>Smartly written</li> </ul> <b>Cons:</b> <ul> <li>Takes a while to connect with what it’s doing</li> <li>Many paths are unsatisfying</li> <li>Playthroughs are slightly too long</li> </ul> <b>Info:</b> <ul> <li>Massive thanks for the free copy of the game, Pineapple Works</li> <li>Formats - Xbox Series X|S (review), Xbox One, PC <li>Release date and price - 7 September 2023 | £10.99</li> </ul>
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