Much of the ink spilled about The Book of Unwritten Tales so far has been about its on-again/off-again odyssey towards an English-language release. With deadlines being passed unfulfilled, publishers going bankrupt, and just general pandemonium wherever this game was concerned (or maybe it only felt like that), the fantasy adventure that was so highly acclaimed in Germany seemed destined to remain out of reach for the rest of us. That all changed recently when developer KING Art Games re-acquired the rights to its own game from publishing limbo, proudly proclaiming a localized international release was on the horizon. And guess what? They weren’t kidding, because I just played through two of the game’s substantial five chapters in an early preview version. I’m sure the issue everyone wants answered right away is whether the game is deserving of all the anticipation after such a long delay. Pfft. What a question! Are Critters purple?!
The Book of Unwritten Tales is something of a pastiche of other fantasy works that have come before it. But it’s not a spoof or a rip-off by any means – it’s more an homage with a nudge-wink sensibility that’s playfully aware of its inspirations, yet fully capable of building a significant new adventure with a personality all its own. Its premise and themes may seem familiar, its characters instantly recognizable, and its locales eerily similar to fantasy worlds you’ve come to know already, but it’s all packaged up in a beautiful way, filled with charm and whimsy in an adventure that ultimately manages to feel completely original. Oh, and it’s a pretty darn fun game while it’s at it.
That’s high praise, but it’s not empty hype. The story itself won’t blow you away, but it should certainly – ahem – ring true for many players. An elderly gremlin named Mortimer MacGuffin knows of a legendary Artefact of Divine Fate, and he fears that the evil Shadow Army will use it to control the world if they find it first. Sure enough, a pair of goons appear to snatch him away, but the old archeologist manages to deliver two vital clues to its location into unlikely hands. He charges Ivo the elven princess with unlocking the secrets of his home to access a hidden book, while little Wilbur the gnome is entrusted with a golden ring (hmmm!) to hand over to the Arch-Mage personally. There are two other central characters in BOUT and plenty of cooperative gameplay, but I only just met the human airship pilot/professional treasure hunter Nate and his little purple Critter pal at the end of my lengthy play time. Most of my journey was spent controlling Ivo and Wilbur alone, as each performed their assigned duties for the “Alliance”.
The first two chapters don’t include a lot of thigh-slapping hilarity, in part because of its early chosen protagonists. Wilbur is a personable but timid little gnome and something of an outcast, even in his own family. Born into a family of mechanical whizzes, Wilbur is far more interested in magic, and passes off any unexplained scientific phenomena as such (though so do I, so that’s not saying much). He works at a dwarven brewery, where business is slow but the boss is still demanding, while his elderly grandfather tinkers on technical experiments at home. Much like The Lord of the Rings’ Frodo, minus the furry toes, Wilbur is no hero by nature, but he has a good heart and a willingness to takes risks for what is right. His naïve innocence shines through his observations of the world, which stand in rather stark contrast to Princess Ivo. The ageless, scantily-clad wood elf is as tall and slender as Wilbur is short and stocky, and her years of life experiences have given her a sharpened, almost cynical worldview. Nate, on the other hand, appears poised to be the game’s driving comic force, with an edgy, in-your-face personality that is sure to lead to plenty of spirited banter.
There is still plenty to amuse and entertain in the opening chapters, though it’s more subtle and often revolves around fantasy tropes and clever pop culture references. Beyond Tolkien’s obvious influence, I already caught numerous riffs on The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, and even Psycho and Star Wars. Wilbur must find a rare Magic the Gathering-style trading card, Ivo hums the familiar Indiana Jones tune as she cracks a whip, and there’s a lengthy segment involving a World of WarCraft-like RPG played on a hulking arcade cabinet as two merchants role-play as tax men. It’s all tongue-in-cheek silliness that works for grins yet is never overplayed, much like the few breaking-the-fourth-wall references to adventure games. The world itself provides a humourous backdrop as well: the RPG server is run by a “hairy demon” monkey, a talking mummy displays the intelligence of someone whose brain really was sucked out of his nose, and a masked, rapier-wielding Zorro-like rat is the scourge of the town marketplace. Good stuff.
We all know that nothing kills a comedy or character piece faster than poor localization, but KING Art has nailed that aspect on all fronts. The translation is excellent, the direction fluid, and the voice acting uniformly solid, with a wide range of accents from Nate’s American to Ivo’s lovely English to Wilbur’s light Welsh lilt. There’s only a passing attempt at real lip syncing, but I did notice that all lines are perfectly attuned to the length of the English readings, which must have been adjusted specifically for the localized version. It’s a very small point, but it represents the attention to detail shown by the developers in getting everything right. The music is also pleasant, offering a mix of tunes from tubas and woodwinds in the snowy, mountainous dwarven bastion to more traditional harp, flute, and accordion fantasy fare in the human town.
Of course, no matter how good BOUT sounds, it’s bound to take a back seat to how it looks. This game is a visual treat, with lush, vibrantly coloured graphics covering a range of diverse scenery as you travel from a transport dragon in flight to a postcard-quality forest cottage to the swamps of Death himself, with noxious green hues and trees gnarled like tortured faces. There isn’t a lot of ambient animation, but enough to give the world some life, whether it's grazing rabbits, the Arch-Mage’s orbiting planetary mobile, or a flying mechanical fish that was sort-of, kind-of invented by Wilbur. Even supporting character models are distinctively designed, like the lumbering troll goon and the feisty female Orc looking to arm wrestle all comers. Several interactions trigger seamlessly integrated in-game cinematics, from a mechanical rat catcher pursuing its prey to a drill-like elevator spiralling down to Wilbur’s basement. No matter where you go or what you try, it’s all delightfully rendered in high resolution widescreen, and you’ll want to stop and admire each new scene you encounter.
You’ll have plenty of chance to do that, as The Book of Unwritten Tales is packed with gameplay. The sheer number and complexity of objectives means that you’ll spend a fair bit of time in each place. This can drag the pace down at times, as it’s hard to feel like you’re making much progress, but it’s a small trade-off for having so much to do. Conversations are lengthy, with variable choices to make on occasion, and there are puzzles coming out the wazoo. Most are inventory-based, and many involve multiple requirements, whether it’s collecting travelling equipment (complete with helmet that would do Guybrush Threepwood proud), proving yourself worthy of a mage diploma, or making explosive beer. A couple involve shrinking Wilbur down even further from his already-diminutive size, which is always good fun. There are a few dialogue puzzles as well, including an interactive mapping sequence and one clever scenario involving a Wheel of Fortune at the travelling fortune teller’s caravan.
The tasks are all nicely spread out, giving you several goals to work on at once while never feeling overwhelming. The interface contributes with its own helpful features, like hotspots disappearing after all relevant interactions (if any) are completed, and the cursor highlighting only those inventory applications that will actually be successful, including combinations with other items, saving you a gazillion “that won’t work” comments. There is no hint feature besides a hotspot highlighter, but although I occasionally hit a few “uh oh, out of ideas” moments, they never lasted long, and were usually resolved by revisiting characters to see if they had anything new to say.
If you think I’m exaggerating about the wealth of gameplay offered here, the game clocked me at a whopping SEVEN hours to get through the first two chapters alone. That’s more than many games offer in their entirety, and here it just felt like scratching the surface. United at long last, this small fellowship of four heroes was finally ready to seek out the fabled treasure itself, having only just completed the preliminaries when I left off. Meanwhile, the unseen but wicked-throated Arch-Witch Mortroga plotted from her Mount Doom-like tower to confront them at every turn. Who will win? That’s still to be discovered when The Book of Unwritten Tales releases some time this fall. Who will be there to find out? Well, if its quality stays consistent to the end, you should be, as this game looks to be one of the more enjoyable fantasy adventures in recent years. Who can tell us more in the meantime? Why, that would be the game’s Creative Director Jan Theysen, who took some time to answer our questions in the interview to come. Read on!Continued on the next page...