I spent much of December being ill, and the start of January moving house and being in a minor traffic accident, so I have a stack of things to review that are growing increasingly overdue. Here, then, is the first of these as I try to overcome the backlog and get back into good reviewing habits. In this first of my reviews of the year, I share my thoughts about The Book of Unwritten Tales, which I actually finished a good few weeks ago. My memory may be hazier than I would like when starting on a review, but I hope to give a reasonable impression of my experiences.
I start, as is usual, with a little introduction to the game itself. This is a fantasy game that openly embraces the clichés of its genre: the world is being torn apart by a great war between the Army of Shadows (orcs, trolls, goblins, malevolent wizards, &c.) and the Alliance (humans, elves, dwarves, small gnomish people, &c.); meanwhile, an old gremlin archaeologist named MacGuffin holds the secret to a powerful artifact that will enable the one who wields it to determine the fate of the world; finally, through a series of coincidences, a gnome is drawn in to the adventure by coming into the possession of a ring and is forced to journey from the comfort of his home for the first time in order to deliver it safely. While all of this should seem familiar to anybody who has even heard of the fantasy genre, this is merely the canvas on which some great characters and situations are painted.
The nods are not merely in the direction of Tolkien (or, indeed, World of Warcraft), however. Pratchett’s Discworld as well as references to various other staples of fantasy, adventure games and popular culture are thrown into the melange, with a heavy dose of original humour, charm and – naturally – carefully crafted (and occasionally decidedly convoluted) puzzles, often adhering to the rule of three, which the fourth-wall shattering characters know all too well is an adventuring standard.
With all this in mind, I really wanted to enjoy this game. And while I enjoyed it, I did not really enjoy it. The trouble is, that there was too little that felt new about it. In spite of what Todd might have said in his recent review for Primordia, the adventure game genre has had its revival period and is now surviving rather nicely, if not positively thriving, so it was not the breath of fresh air it might have been a few years ago before Telltale and others essentially revived it. A comic fantasy adventure appeared not all that long ago in the shape of the not altogether successful The Whispered World (though I have not played enough of this to really run a fair comparison). The writing was smart and the puzzles were clever, but a little too often KING Art’s influences were a little too apparent.
An example of this is a reference is made in one part to Simon the Sorcerer, not long after which a joke is made that is uncomfortably close to one made in Simon the Sorcerer II: The Lion, the Wizard and the Wardrobe (a reference to Dungeons and Dragons). Elsewhere, having previously met Death and questioned why he does not talk in all-caps (a reference to Death of the Discworld), you encounter a ramshackle collective of undead trying to rehabilitate themselves into the world of the living. This is not just an element of the Discworld novel Reaper Man, but also a feature of the game that used this as the larger part of its plot: Discworld II: Missing Presumed…!?.
This was enough to eject me from the world that otherwise did a lot to captivate. Each screen was beautifully rendered, the characters engaging, the writing and delivery both superb and the gameplay and puzzles far enough from frustrating to be enjoyable, but close enough to afford a challenge. In terms of its length, I would say it was rather generous, spinning an epic yarn involving four very different playable characters. If not for these moments that felt a little too jarring to a seasoned adventure gamer, it was a wonderful story well presented and would be a great foray into the genre for a first-timer, if only merely a pleasant enough addition to a collector’s library.
Summary: The Books of Unwritten Tales is the first in a series that may well take its seat at the table of adventure game staples, though it will first have to start helping itself less from the others’ plates.
Verdict: 7 out of 10
Platforms: PC, Mac
The Book of Unwritten Tales was developed by KING Art Games. It is available to purchase on their website, or via Steam, GOG.com and others. Steam is the more expensive option, so you should only consider it if you want the Digital Extras, or if you desperately need Steam in order to play a game.