The Book of Unwritten Tales

Now this is a bit of a strange one. I never caught any of the marketing for it. Never saw a review (even though I found out later a few of them were out there). No, how I came to own this game was rather simple. I went on Gog.com to find an indie title I could do a review of to attach to a job application. If it hadn’t been for that, I might have completely missed this gem, and my life would have been poorer for it.

Not the best quality, because I took a screenshot during a cinematic.

The best way I can describe the opening cinematic is to say it felt magical.

Though I dove into the title blind, I have nevertheless done some research since I finished it. The Book of Unwritten Tales was made by the German developer King Art Games, and was released in German back in 2009. The English version came out in October 2011, though it only arrived on Steam and Gog.com quite recently. It has even acquired Nordic Games as a publisher. Does that invalidate its indie status? I suppose that’s an argument for another day.

If you are interested in getting and playing the game before you read any further, you can get it from the official site, Gog.com, or Steam itself, where you can even find a demo (which is also here). It’s only $19.99 (well, €19.99 for European Steam users). There will be spoilers, though I won’t intentionally go after the big ones. A few things will be revealed when doing an analysis though.

The Book of Unwritten Tales is a point-and-click adventure game set in a fairly standard fantasy setting with humans, dwarves, elves, orcs and so forth. But instead of trying to play this seriously and grimly, it instead goes the opposite direction and opts for colour, imagination, charm and humour. It takes the tropes we’ve become accustomed to in fantasy stories and playfully pokes fun at them.

The whole experience is saturated with clever writing (and somewhat dodgy translations here and there) and charming characters brought to life by voice-actors who seemed to be having a lot of fun with the material themselves. I have a suspicion they might even have been improvising a bit, because the subtitles (that are on by default for a change, something I personally appreciate) don’t always match what is actually being said.

I suppose this is the book in question.

This is what greets you when you start up the game. The book acts as the menu.

After hitting New Game and getting past the loading screen (I quite like the little text prompts that go with the loading screens, especially that the final item is “Hide bugs”) you get into the opening cinematic narrated by a gremlin who is writing in his diary about the state of the world: The war, the bloodshed, how no one is winning, but he has now found a clue to an item that could end the war. This aged adventurer and archaeologist is the esteemed professor Mortimer MacGuffin. No, really. He is interrupted by an invisible intruder who turns out to be the dastardly Munkus: A green fellow who is the son of the Arch-Witch Mortroga.

After MacGuffin is captured and carried off by Munkus and his pet troll, we see the first of the game’s playable characters: Ivo (Ivodora Eleonora Clarissa, Princess of the Silver Forest Realm). She’s an under-dressed wood elf who is out traveling with her companion bird Tschiep-Tschiep, whom she can somehow understand. They pass MacGuffin’s home just in time to see him get loaded onto a dragon for transport, and Ivo takes it upon herself (after telling Tschiep-Tschiep she won’t) to rescue the poor gremlin from his surely gruesome fate.

Well, clearly the Army of Shadows knew.

Who knew dragons were so useful as transports?

This leads into a short tutorial on the back of the dragon where MacGuffin tries to give you a ring that must be delivered to the Arch-Mage and tells you to leave him there, since he can buy them time by resisting torture for maybe a couple of days. At this point I could choose dialogue options along the line of “you will be remembered” and “don’t be silly, you’d be more useful free”. I wondered if the game was actually giving me a choice here, so I went back and replayed the section up till that, but no, whichever you pick you’ll have to rescue him anyway. If you’re curious, I actually chose the “rescue” option the first time.

The tutorial teaches you the basic stuff: How to use items, how to combine items, and that if you can’t progress you should talk to the NPCs and see if they can help you. And after you’re successful, the intro cinematic starts playing, with credits for the developers, magical words, maps and brilliant music. It felt like I was embarking on something epic.

Next up we meet the second playable character of this game: The young gnome Wilbur Weatherwane. He dreams of adventures and saving the world while working away in a dwarven inn which has no patrons because everyone except his boss, the Master Brewer, have gone off to fight in the war. Unlike the rest of his family, Wilbur is not particularly adept at mechanical stuff, but he is very interested in magic and wants to become a mage. Wilbur ends up with MacGuffin’s ring (which is actually called ‘The ONE Ring’ if you look at it in your inventory) and a mission to take it to the Arch-Mage, something his grandfather is more than happy to help out with. I won’t spoil how.

This poor dwarf had a bit of an accident later in my playthrough.

Wilbur’s daydreaming seems to be a common occurrence.

For all that I like and even adore the Telltale games, this game is something a little different. A bit better, in my personal opinion. First of all it clocks in at between 15 and 20 hours of game-time, which is rare to see in modern point-and-click games. Heck, even a lot of the ones from the 90s weren’t that long. Considering a lot of people don’t really have the time for long games, this is not necessarily a good thing, but! You can save the game at any time, and even name your own save-games, a feature I quite appreciated. So you’re free to play the game in whatever chunks of time you have.

The developers also put a lot of work into making sure the puzzle solutions were actually logical, and giving you the tools to easily perform trial-and-error stuff if you’re stuck. Whenever you can interact with something on the screen the cursor changes, and a line of text appears at bottom centre of the screen with a description. Some things are just there for the sake of examination, and after you’ve looked at them once or twice you can’t do anything more with them (I recommend paying special attention to Wilbur’s chair though). In fact, anything that is no longer relevant will be rendered un-interactable. And when trying to use items, or combine items, you’ll only see text appear if it’s a viable combination. It might still not work, but then it will usually give you a hint as to why not. I guess some people might complain this makes the game too easy, but I just think it shows they were thinking about their players and I appreciate that. I only had to check for a hint online once after walking back and forth in an area for quite a while and trying everything on everything. What I had missed was fairly obvious, so hopefully you won’t have the same problem.

Seems the Arch-Witch likes her treasures.

Mortroga’s throne atop the improbable castle.

There are also quite a lot of references to be found here. The game is practically overflowing with them, and yet I never felt like it became excessive or tiring. They fit in quite nicely. It does a good job at staying consistently funny and interesting. The major inspirations as far as I could identify them are Discworld, Lord of the Rings, World of Warcraft and Star Wars. You will find a lot of references to other things as well though. Sometimes very small: Like a character humming a bit of Indiana Jones after using a whip. And there’s even a rather obscure reference to Asterix of the Gauls that I wonder how many people actually catch. I should also add that they have a fondness of breaking the 4th wall.

There are two more playable characters I’ve yet to mention. The first is Nathaniel Bonnet (Nate among friends), a narcissistic and roguish human airship captain who I honestly think is the least likable of all of them. He did grow on me eventually, and he was never that bad, though there’s a dodgy bit with a metrosexual paladin. I guess he was filling the ‘humans are arseholes’ trope.

And last, but definitely not least we have Nate’s companion, the pink… thing called Critter. He’s a fuzzy creature who possibly has no bones in his body and speaks entirely in gibberish. He’s awesome, though I’m not sure it’s actually a he at all. I mean… how would you tell?

Caged life seems miserable.

That’s Nate and Critter back there behind the fearsome orc. You can probably guess what the next puzzle is.

The characters seem to be very self-aware of their roles, with them commenting on what they have to do as being silly, even as they actually do it. Wilbur is especially good at this, and it makes for a lot of charming and amusing scenes. And there are lots of little details, like how the names for things change as the characters learn more, and even change a bit depending on who you control, making it seem like it’s the character’s personal observation rather than the absolute truth.

There are points in the game where you can switch between two or three characters, and when I had three characters to choose from with different sizes and abilities I got a bit of a flashback to The Lost Vikings. For the most part you’ll only have one character available though.

I am also quite fond of the artwork in this game. Character models and animation can be a bit iffy, especially on the faces, and item interactions can look odd. However the backgrounds and environments look wonderful and appropriately fantastical. There’s good use of colour and contrast and they add a great variety of environments. In certain areas you’ll be going back and forth a lot though, and for some this might be annoying, but if you’re more like me you’ll just think it helps make the world feel familiar.

The music feels well-suited to its respective areas. As a Norwegian I got a special kick out of how they were playing a version of Grieg’s In The Hall of the Mountain King up in the dwarven inn.

OMG BEES!!!

It’s screens like this that makes it seem like the world was lovingly crafted.

I haven’t even mentioned the controls yet, because I feel like everyone should know this stuff by now. You point at things, click them, and stuff happens. I do like that they allow you to double-click on transfer areas to instantly travel to the next screen (with only a few exceptions), and even give you little fast-travel maps for the areas where you’ll be going back and forth the most. Pathfinding can be a little weird sometimes when you ask a character to interact with something. Also no one seems able to run so you’ll need a little patience sometimes. Also in certain areas it can become a pixel-hunt, partly because not everything stands out easy against the vibrant backgrounds.

It’s not a perfect game. It has its issues, niggles and problems. Some I’ve already mentioned, but there are a few more. Like sometimes you know what you have to do, and you might even have the means to do it, but you can’t actually get it done before you talk to the right NPC and ‘unlock’ it. It seems like the developers were running out of steam towards the end, and the game ends a bit suddenly, but in all fairness they never lose their sense of humour and the puzzles are still nice. And they added a stupid dancing minigame that came out of nowhere and actually made me a bit angry. Thankfully that’s the only stupid minigame though. If they’d made a habit of those I would have been a lot harsher on the game. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that it made me appreciate the rest of the game more.

"Is that you Mortimer? My, you've grown."

The game is full of lovely and funny NPCs like this fella here. If you end up not liking him I’m pretty sure there’s something wrong with you.

I could say more, but it’s about time to wrap things up. I think you should definitely put this game on your radar. It’s a great example of how it’s the journey that matters, and not the destination. Even in a world that now has plenty of point-and-click adventure games, this is a rare gem. A diamond in the rough. King Art Games have made a friendly and inviting game with lots of love, and if that’s what you need, you are in luck! Sure it gets a bit silly at times, but that’s kinda the idea.

You can fairly call me biased on this one. I went in blind, and ended up loving it. I even bought an extra copy for a friend afterwards. You get a lot of game for your money, I’ll say that. So you should seriously consider checking it out. Try the demo, if nothing else.

~Wulf 

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Posted on August 11, 2012, in Games, Sorta reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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