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Review - The Book of Unwritten Tales

It's taken a while, but going live today is OMGeek's very first game review! We'll be looking at something appropriately different and interesting and hopefully relevant to you guys: The Book of Unwritten Tales, a point-and-click fantasy adventure by KING Art Games. Many thanks to them as well for providing us with a review copy!

Everybody knows that PC gaming is dying.

The heralds have been trumpeting about it for a couple of decades now. With every new console release, the death of PC gaming gets pushed to the forefront of prophecies that are finally set to be fulfilled. It's inevitable, like the-sun-is-eventually-going-to-burn-out inevitable.

You know what, though? Something else has been in the process of dying for even longer than PC gaming has: the traditional point-and-click adventure game. Twenty years ago, the market was flooded with adventure games like the market today is flooded with cover shooters with regenerating health. It was a grand time for adventure games up until the whole thing died under the huge demand for more FPS and RTS games in the late 90s. Even RPGs managed to flourish past the DOS age, thanks to titles like Fallout and Baldur's Gate. Meanwhile, any adventure game released after the year 2000 is considered some kind of retro throwback to the good old days of gaming.

Sometimes, though, a game comes around that attempts to recreate the glory days of the adventure game: high production values, amazing visuals, and superb storytelling. It doesn't happen often, but every time it does is reason enough to sit up and take notice.

The latest case in point: The Book of Unwritten Tales, from German developer KING Art Games. Could this be the adventure game renaissance people like me have been waiting for?

There's a dragon. And a ring. And a quest. And, of course, a book.

Like any good fantasy tale, The Book of Unwritten Tales (BoUT) appropriately opens with a peaceful vista, a sudden chase into parts unknown, and an enigmatic MacGuffin. In this particular case, the MacGuffin is a shriveled little gremlin actually named MacGuffin -- Mortimer MacGuffin. From the game's opening to its final moments, BoUT constantly reminds you that it is a self-aware animal that isn't afraid to take jabs at itself both as a fantasy story and an adventure game. Fortunately, the jokes are clever, funny, and not awkward at all. Anachronisms abound, like a cunningly-placed snippet from the Psycho soundtrack during a scene involving some mischief with sharp objects. At that moment, I laughed out loud at the absurdity and at the appropriateness of it all.

If I had to describe the world in relation to another fantasy game setting, I would say that BoUT feels closest to Westwood's Legend of Kyrandia games, with the added bonus that there is no one nearly as dry and boring as Brandon from that series in BoUT's cast. If I had to describe the world to people who only started gaming less than a decade ago, I'd say it's closest to Warcraft in its cartoony nature and the melding of traditional swords-and-sorcery with steampunk engineering and gnome inventions.

Nevertheless, BoUT is ultimately a game with a setting that is initially derivative, but soon makes it its own through intelligent and thoughtful writing.

I'm going to try to avoid saying "charming" when describing the characters.

I'm going to try to stray away from any spoilers here, because much of the pleasure I got from playing BoUT reminds me of how fun it was to play adventure games back in the day: no internet, no expectations, and no inkling or warning of what's to come. Much like the way it was then, every hour spent brings a new surprise in the form of new scenery, or a new task to complete, or a new character to interact with.

However, I think it's safe to say that you'll eventually be taking control of four distinct characters over the course of the adventure: the capable (and only half-dressed) elf princess Ivo, the gnome tinkerer Wilbur (who actually desires to become a mage), the airship pilot Nate (who is really Han Solo in a fantasy setting), and his partner-in-crime Critter (who is really Chewbacca in a fantasy setting).

Steps were obviously taken to keep the characters distinct and unique, and they really are fleshed out nicely, especially by today's standards. They work off existing archetypes: Ivo is a hot elf and Wilbur is an innocent, unassuming gnome and Nate is a scoundrel and Critter is The Weird One. They're much more than that, though; the writing gives each of them an additional third dimension that makes them well-rounded characters in their own right.

When the story begins, BoUT will automatically shift you from one protagonist to the next as the circumstances that will bring them together play out bit by bit. Later, once the story goes into full swing and you've gotten the hang of playing the game, BoUT will let you switch between certain party members at will, Day of the Tentacle-style. Characters in the vicinity will be able to trade items amongst each other, and each character will have his or her own skills and personality types that will be needed to overcome puzzles as they appear.

It's just so hard to believe this game wasn't originally written in English.

BoUT's localization deserves some special mention, as this is where I have no qualms in calling it superb and top-notch. Admittedly, I didn't follow the game's development and the devs' fight for its localization, but I'm really, really glad that BoUT eventually found its way to the English-speaking market. This is quality localization right here, with appropriately British voices comprising much of the cast.

There are no awkward translations or strange cultural jokes, and I slipped right into the experience with no effort whatsoever. The humor is really, really good, too. All the jokes felt like they were written in their native language. Kudos to the localization team, and I'm hoping they port more games over to the English-speaking community in the future.

Here's how to play a point-and-click game.

Unfathomably, the bulk of this point-and-click game requires you to use your mouse to point and click at objects, places, and characters in the game world that you wish to interact with. Gasp! The game hotspots are contextual, so your cursor will automatically turn into a magnifying lens for things that can be examined, a wrench for things that can be manipulated, and a grabby hand for things that can be picked up.

A new feature that I vicariously avoided for all of two hours was the hotspot indicator, which briefly shows you all the available hotspots in a scene with a tap of the spacebar. I found it a welcome relief from pixel-hunting once I got into the groove, however, though I'll never let it be said that BoUT ever plays unfairly with impossibly tiny and hidden hotspots in any of its scenes. At the very least, the spacebar feature is a boon for players like me who want to squeeze out all the lines and descriptions of a game during a playthrough -- I'm one of those people who like to exhaust every single line of questioning in Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers everytime the interrogation screen comes up. I make it a point to try to "move" Grace whenever she's sitting on her stool, too -- which was all the time, of course.

I can't say I have any complaints about how the gameplay is set up, although a right-click-to-examine feature would have been nice. The puzzles are made no simpler or easier with the context-sensitive action icons, although I never encountered anything that made me cheer audibly after I solved it. Think Babel Fish, or that thrice-damned Spider Chair in Myst IV. Nonetheless, BoUT's puzzles are challenging but not frustrating, and very pleasing to solve. The later ones involving multiple members of your party are particularly gratifying.

The game looks beautiful.

Let's not talk about technology for a moment and just discuss the aesthetics of the game. BoUT is beautiful, as you can see from these stills. Each location is intricately detailed; when Wilbur comments on the masterful stoneworking skills of the dwarves, you can see it and believe it yourself when you examine the giant hearth in the dwarven brewery where he begins his quest. The same is true for every location, from a snow-covered mountain with snowflakes falling all around, to a dark and dingy cellar underneath an archaeologist's home, to the tentacle-strewn cthulhoid nightmare that is the Big Bad Evil Guy's throne.

The animation, however, leaves a bit to be desired. Most of it is workable, but as an animator myself, I feel that most of the animation work lacks a bit of bounciness and exaggeration to properly convey the whimsical-yet-serious-at-times tone that the writing tries to reflect. There are also a lot of generic "use" and "pick up" animations, which are understandable in a project of this scope, but also very obvious. Funny little touches in earlier adventure games come to mind, like Tex Murphy slowly drawing a ten-foot-pole from his trench coat like a magician, or Guybrush Threepwood forcibly stuffing a large dog in his coat, only to have it run wild underneath his clothes for a few seconds. The lack of expression in movement is a bit of a shame in a game that otherwise looks as excellent as this.

This next bit could be slightly disappointing, or it could make no difference to you whatsoever: BoUT is a 2D/3D hybrid in terms of presentation. The backgrounds are pre-rendered and animated with 2D layers, while the characters that populate the world are rendered in real-time 3D. It works extremely well for the most part, and the integration is better than I expected in terms of shadows, light rays, and the like, but the background will look suspiciously flat when the camera starts panning around and in and out. It's no big issue; again, it only sticks out because the game itself looks so good.

Good thing the game also sounds beautiful.

Voice acting is another big issue for localized games, with the expected quality ranging from "quite convincing", all the way down to "the office messenger played the hero". Fortunately, the team went and cast exactly the right people for their respective roles, and the end result sounds like they didn't skimp on anything to ensure the quality of each character's deliveries. Each performance is nuanced and heartfelt and full of emotion, and none of them managed to ruin my suspension of disbelief. Simply put, BoUT has very good voice acting all around.

The music consists of the kind of jovial fantasy fare you'd expect from a setting such as this -- heroic melodies, slightly creepy and foreboding atmospherics, and mischievous tunes permeate the soundtrack. There's some use of classical music too, as Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King" features prominently in the prologue chapter, part of which happens to take place in an almost-abandoned dwarven bastion high in the snowy mountains.

If there's a weak link in the audio department, it's in the sound effects. They're there when required, and a guy wearing a cooking pot on his head being shot out of a cannon (sound familiar?) sounds like you'd expect it to sound, but many times over, an action that I expected would be grand or snappy or painful felt weak and floppy because it wasn't conveyed properly by the sound effect that accompanied it.

Ultimately, The Book of Unwritten Tales is a game worth playing and worth remembering.

It's no secret that KING Art Games set out to rebottle the kind of magic that games like King's Quest and Monkey Island offered by the bucketful long, long ago. Have they succeeded? I have to say yes. It's not a perfect game, but it shines in all the things that count.

The Book of Unwritten Tales is undoubtedly epic in scope, but it's also intricately personal in detail. It's a game that takes the tried and tested point and click adventure formula and updates it for a new generation of gamers. It may be more linear than what we'd had in the past, and the spacebar feature might irk some of the more passionate purists out there, but there's no doubt that KING Art did an excellent job in translating what many believe to be the essential elements of a point-and-click adventure into a format that is accessible to more gamers today.

The question remains if people -- or newer gamers, at least -- still have the attention span for games like this. I'm not worried, though; if Skyrim can captivate the average gamer for hours on end, The Book of Unwritten Tales can effortlessly do the same thing for anyone who's adventurous enough to give it a chance. Try it. You'll probably love it.

The Book of Unwritten Tales is now available for purchase and digital download at the game's web store!

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