A wave of nostalgia hit me while playing Detective Di: The Silk Rose Murders. If you ever got lost in the Sierra Online graphic adventures of the ‘90s on PC, like Gabriel Knight, King’s Quest and Police Quest, or you played the games that were inspired by them, like Broken Sword and Beneath a Steel Sky, then this will feel like a return home. Their DNA runs through Detective Di like a katana runs through a torso. It’s in the detailed environments, the realistic (albeit faceless and pixelated) characters, and the deadly serious approach to story. Through my rose-tinted spectacles, Detective Di: The Silk Rose Murders is everything that I loved about that period.
What separates Detective Di: The Silk Rose Murders from all of the above is its devotion to authenticity. While this is from Nupixo, a Montreal studio, it’s headed up by Minh Ta, who – from the credits – has made about 70% of the game, including its art, testing and design. And Minh Ta has made conveying the setting and its characters absolutely paramount.
The main character, Di Renjie, often known as Judge Dee, is a folk-hero in China, somewhat equivalent to Sherlock Holmes. He’s the hero of the 18th Century crime novel Di Gong An, which was set in Tang Dynasty China, roughly 1400 years ago. This is a character and setting that’s hugely well loved in the east, but perhaps less well known to reviewers like me, but the supreme joy of Detective Di: The Silk Rose Murders is how believably it’s all portrayed. You could tell me that this was a true story, and I would believe you.
It all starts with at the beginnings of Di Renjie’s career, investigating the murder of an official behind a waterfall. It’s effectively Di’s first case as Magistrate of Penglai, and he’s baby-faced, so no one quite takes him seriously. But there’s political threat bubbling underneath, as the official is from Korea, and a contract of peace was being drawn up at the time. This case acts like a prologue and tutorial, but is so indelibly tied to the other cases in Detective Di: The Silk Rose Murders, that it never really feels like one.
The tone is set here in a few different ways. There’s the art, which is never flashy, always effective. More importantly, in everything it portrays, it feels authentic. The fabric, symbols, architecture, customs – everything, really – are all clearly of a time and place, and it evokes Tang Dynasty China perfectly. I love how Di Renjie will stand, fist in palm and head deferential, pointing down while he talks to the Empress. And how the floorplans of all the rooms are so sparse, with quiet servants skulking behind you, waiting to help.
It sets the tone with the controls, which are Detective Di: The Silk Rose Murders’ one misstep. It has opted for point-and-click movement over one-to-one control of Di Renjie, and it feels misjudged. The problem’s most pronounced when you’re using items. You have to drag a slow cursor over to the bottom-left of the screen, where a small bag is tucked. Then you open the bag, and the items are spread across the bottom of the screen – which might be far away from your cursor, so you have to drag it over there again. And then you’re lugging the item over to the area of interest, desperately hoping that they work together. It’s all clumsy and slow.
It doesn’t have much time for shortcuts, either. The ability to see which elements of the environment are interactive is buried in menus, which is a surprise, and backing out of rooms and puzzles is not initially clear. Travelling to another area of the map – Detective Di: The Silk Rose Murders will often give you several areas at once – requires you to travel to the door out of an area, when it could (and should) have been one press on the map. If we’re being generous about Detective Di: The Silk Rose Murders, it adds to the stately and leisurely (and incredibly polite) tone and pacing, but we’re not that generous.
But what’s incredibly clear from the opening prologue, running through all of the other cases here, is how orchestrated it is. This isn’t your traditional detective game like The Darkside Detective, where a diversity of cases is key: these are a sequence of murders, likely by the same person, where they overlap and feed into each other. The concentric circles keep expanding outwards too: there is politics involved in the case, with people pulling you in different directions, interfering with what you are doing. There’s your reputation and career to think about, particularly being so junior. The ripples of each case keeps flowing outward.
It should be noted that this is not a difficult game. There are probably three moments where something like a puzzle creeps in, and your hand is lovingly held as you complete them. Di will often gently prod you to a solution, or tell you not to leave a room when there’s still something to be found. It’s best to let the cases and writing subsume you and ignore the railway tracks in front, if you can. It’s also not a long game – we would suggest somewhere in the region of four hours.
But what a game it is. Pushing the control issues aside, this is a graphic adventure that does two things to be cherished. Firstly, it brings you into a world that never feels anything less than 100% authentic. You can breathe in Tang Dynasty China as you move from its squalor to its palaces. Secondly, it’s a detective game where the cases overlap so much that they almost stack on top of each other. As you uncover a piece in one, it improves the picture on the others. The depth of the craft in both of them is bordering on staggering.
We can’t be the only ones who have a hankering for an old-school graphic adventure, one that takes the genre as seriously as Sierra Online did thirty years ago. Detective Di: The Silk Rose Murders does that and more, delivering one of the most sensual and adult examples of recent years. Pssht, Sherlock has nothing on Magistrate Di Renjie.
Detective Di: The Silk Rose Murders hits the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S soon