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  • Writer's pictureNate Hermanson

REVIEW: Death Trick: Double Blind has more twists and turns than a high-flying acrobat

There's a magic trick-like quality to the delivery of the story, with a ton of misdirection leading to a shocking ending, but most of the moment to moment action is subdued and surprisingly warm.

After last year's Video Games Are Good Campout, our annual 24-hour VGG anniversary stream (that just so happened to be themed around carnivals and circuses), I have a newfound appreciation and lingering fondness for circus-themed media.

Death Trick: Double Blind has loitered in my mind since I first saw it. It's one of those indie games that, despite my best efforts, got put on a pedestal in my head pretty quickly.

After spending just under 6 hours under the big tent, I'm happy to say that it deserves placement on that pedestal and stands out as a game that lives up to the likes of its mighty inspirations.

An in-game screenshot of Death Trick: Double Blind. A young girl in a colorful leotard is balancing on some unseen circus equipment. Confetti surrounds her and the glow of the circus lights up the scene. A text box at the bottom reads: "She twirled on the highwire, with her hands stretched upwards reaching for the ceiling, let out a big laugh, and danced."

​Just the Facts

Developer: Misty Mountain Studio

Publisher: Neon Doctrine

Platform(s): PC, Nintendo Switch

Price: $15.99

Release Date: March 11, 2024

Review key provided by publisher.

Murder at the circus? We used to be a country

This Ace Attorney-inspired mystery game comes to us out of Shanghai, China from Misty Mountain Studio. Starting as a two-person team in Melbourne, Australia before blossoming into a five-person studio with a successful game under their belt in Shanghai, the team is looking to keep the streak going with Death Trick: Double Blind.

If first impressions are anything to go by, Death Trick makes a great one with its stunning visual style and fun dual protagonist setup. After spending some time with it, things only get better as you find a surprisingly somber and emotional family tragedy. It's full of genuinely stunning surprises and a momentum and pace not often found in games like it.

In Death Trick: Double Blind, Morgan's Traveling Circus is struck by sudden tragedy. Hattie, the show's star magician, is dead, but official reports say that she's missing. There are no obvious clues, the local police refuse to give it the time of day, and before the dust can even begin to settle, two separate surprises come strolling into town to disrupt the relative calm and find answers.

First on the scene is Jackie, another magician invited to the circus by Hattie herself with a letter that shares an ominous warning that "something is going on at the circus." Jackie's goals are simple: find out what's going on, deliver justice for Hattie, and try to not stir the pot too much. Just as the crew is introduced to Jackie, the wily Detective Jones arrives in a frenzy and starts doing the "official" investigation on behalf of the circus's owner. The two of them perform a delicate dance around each other, poking and prodding at the expectedly tight-lipped family of carnies as they try to uncover the mysteries clouding this circus.

Oh, and a fun little twist: they've only got a day to solve the mystery, because the circus is leaving town tonight and the trail's all but gone cold.

In the non-linear detective game, players bounce back and forth between the twin perspectives during each hour that passes, bringing each Jackie's and Jones' unique perspectives into interactions with the circus staff and using their distinct angles on the case to cobble together the truth. It's a fascinating game to play with yourself as you jump between the two heroes — having to remember who learned what, and what knowledge you as the player can bring to both characters to help further the overall mystery.

An animated GIF of Death Trick: Double Blind. It starts with the silhouette of a detective against a blue background with various checkered patterns. A hand fans out some cards over the scene and a silhouette of a magician pops up against a purple background with a diamond shaped patterned background.

Death Trick's got a surprisingly quiet demeanor. Rather than the over the top nature of its inspirations — the likes of Ace Attorney and Paradise Killer — Misty Mountain Studio instead relies on the emotional weight of the situation, of a family in mourning and the shocking idea that a killer may be hiding amidst them.

When the investigation begins, it doesn't take long for the complex relationships of this misfit family of circus folk to reveal themselves to you. And once you understand why someone might be hiding things from this family, what kinds of things they're hiding, and how this talented group of artists has found community with one another, Death Trick shows its true heart.

Whether it's the relationship between fire dancer Aideen and her rambunctious acrobat sibling Yan or the polar opposite vibes of roommates Chip the Clown, who will try to make anyone smile, and the circus's strange puppeteer, Echo, who would rather hide away in his room and communicates solely through his puppet self, you find an unexpected relatability in these relationships anchored by a grounded writing style. If you come in expecting an explosive mystery, you may be disappointed. There's a magic trick-like quality to the delivery of the story, with a ton of misdirection leading to a shocking ending, but most of the moment to moment action is subdued and surprisingly warm. Pair that with a shorter than expected 4-5 hour runtime and a drip feed of the most important info and you've got a slow burn of a mystery.

That style may not be for everyone. But if you're interested in diving into a family drama, digging into the nitty gritty of character relationships, and being truly shocked in a mystery's final moments, Death Trick: Double Blind pulls it off with gusto.

An in-game screenshot of Death Trick: Double Blind. It depicts a conversation between the magician Jackie and the circus's owner, Moses. Moses wears, what I'd call and English teacher outfit, with a brown plaid coat and an argyle patterned shirt. He leans on a cane in his lavish office, which has a chessboard on the wall and lush carpeting and furniture. Moses says: "But, this means..." and the three options for the player are: "She's not dead." "I received a letter from a dead person." and "She knew she was going to die."

"I only got four minutes to save the world"

Death Trick: Double Blind isn't only carried by its warmth and family-focused narrative; it's got some genius decisions in its gameplay systems that make it a standout in the genre.

For starters, Misty Mountain manages to add a genuine layer of tension to the mystery that its contemporaries often lack through the use of the ticking clock. You've got 11 hours to interrogate each suspect, gather evidence, and confront contradictions. Each hour passes by through the game's Action Point system, where both Jackie and Detective Jones have a limited pool of actions they can take in their "turn." Ask characters about each other, present them with the evidence you find, go digging through each location at the circus. Once both character's points are depleted, the hour passes and the circus staff goes about their day and you're sent back into the fray.

When I'm pixel hunting to find the key piece of evidence in a game like Ace Attorney, a lot of the drama is wiped out. I know the world is waiting for me to find the evidence it's left for me somewhere, and nothing I do can hurt the investigation in the end. In Death Trick, I genuinely felt the pressure of the time ticking past me with each decision I made. I questioned if I was chasing down the right leads and if I was making the most of my time. It made for a much more engaging visual novel experience than I'm used to.

There's even a light XP system in place that allows you to level up each character and give them more action points, crucially stretching out how much they can do in the final hours as the answers start to reveal themselves.

Another great tool is this game's contradiction system. It's similar to other games, where you try to catch lies by presenting specific pieces of evidence. But it's the game's hint system that stands out. At any point when confronting a suspect, Death Trick can let you know that there's a contradiction to toss at them. It tips you off but still requires you to do the groundwork to find exactly what the game wants.

This is where it leans into the classic adventure game logic issue of sometimes knowing what it is the game wants but still struggling with how it wants you to articulate it. When you can see that you're supposed to have a right answer and you've got limited action points to find and present it, it just highlights your mistakes further and makes it all the more frustrating as you're racking your brain. But still, a hint system is always appreciated, and I liked that it doesn't completely hold your hand.

An in-game screenshot of Death Trick: Double Blind. It showcases the information collection screen. Small icons identify each new piece of info the player has collected. The highlighted one is identified as "Situation in the circus". Labels for "INQUIRE" and "CONTRADICT" can be seen on the top. In the background, an open field with stacks of hay and horses stables can be seen. A man, presumably working the stables, can be seen scratching the back of his head.

A few smaller nagging issues worth mentioning: playing on controller is less than optimal. With the game coming out on Switch and touting full controller support on PC, you'd think they'd have it down pat. But when simply pressing the D-pad — something your brain logically thinks to do when scrolling through your inventory — uses up an action point because they assigned various scene shifting tools to it... it's clear that this game is best played with mouse and keyboard. Beyond that (and maybe this is more of a personal gripe that not everyone will find troublesome), Death Trick: Double Blind also presents one of those mysteries you can't totally solve of your own volition. It relies on a few sneaky twists and turns that players would not likely see coming. That's fun and exciting in terms of story, but a bit disappointing as the player. I appreciate when a mystery, even a challenging one, gives you the tools to properly solve it on your own. Instead of giving you the satisfaction as a player, it instead turns you into an audience member, a personal hang up I have with the genre. I'll allow for the possibility that it was just a skill issue on my part, but that's another discussion.

I never like to end on a down note, so let's address the final piece of the puzzle, Death Trick's genuinely beautiful art style.

If I had to play the comparison game, Death Trick's art sits somewhere between the stunning character art of a Vanillaware game and the stylish animation and subtle realism of Cing's games like Hotel Dusk, with a splash of brilliant watercolor style. The softness of each character's design amplifies the tenderness of the game's narrative. The use of color showcases the whimsy of the carnival setting and helps tell each character's story. The fiery reds tell you everything you need to know about the fire dancer, Aideen; the muted tones of leather and a simple, dirtied white tee complement the shy animal tamer Rolf; the bright and bold colors of Yan's acrobat leotard are awash with youth. Death Trick's style is lush and incredible and transcends any one of its inspirations in the end.

I genuinely felt the pressure of the time ticking past me with each decision I made... It made for a much more engaging visual novel experience than I'm used to.

An in-game screenshot of Death Trick: Double Blind. The player is in conversation with one of the behind the scenes staff at the circus, Alys. The two of them are in one of the "backstage" tents, with costumes and props littered about the room. Alys is saying: "Wait, I think I ahve some of the dress fabric left" while pulling out some fabric measuring tape. She's got an entire toolkit of anything she'd need to make costumes and maintain the circus's props strapped to her and a small red hat sits atop her blue hair.

Death Trick: Double Blind was a surprise in more ways than one. It tells a surprisingly warm murder mystery, is carried by some genuinely shocking twists, and successfully implements tension into a formula that games in the genre rarely manage to do in a satisfactory way.

Video Games Are Good and Death Trick: Double Blind is . . . GREAT. (8.5/10)

+ a slow burn mystery whose twists pay off big, a fascinating ticking clock mechanic to make the mystery tense, art style that blends its inspirations beautifully

- frustrating puzzle logic at times, features the kinds of twists you can't solve until the final moments, the slow burn packaged with the short runtime could feel dissatisfying for some

The key art for Death Trick: Double Blind. Around a dimly lit table, a cast of characters loom over the player's perspective and a messy table of documents and playing cards. A small child with a strange hat, a performer with bright red hair, a man with a puppet, and a clown are amidst the group. Seated in the center is a regal man in a patterned button-up. The game's title is right in the center of the table.

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