Medievil Memes: If you put 1,000 trolls in a room in front of typewriters, they will eventually write The Book of Unwritten Tales 2
Let’s face it: we live in a world that is decidedly both post-Harry Potter and post-Lord of the Rings. Swords and sorcery are in a state of being absolutely and completely defined by the media that has used and over-used them to the point of obscenity. In this kind of media-verse, can a story be told of monsters and magic without it starting to resemble all the other stuff around? Can you make a story about dragons and swordsmen without someone saying how a character looks like Ned Stark? And does it even matter? If that’s the kind of story you want to tell, The Book of Unwritten Tales 2 could be used as an example of both what to do, and what not to.
The Book of Unwritten Tales 2 stars a quartet of heroes, all making returns from the game that came before. The four are heroes who rid the world of a great evil in the first BoUT, and include a a snarky human man, an elven princess, a gnome mage, and what appears to be a pink version of one of the Yip-Yip aliens from Sesame Street. The game takes place some time after its predecessor, and the characters have moved on as well. When a strange magical plague takes the city of Seastone, throwing out “black death” conventions in favor of pink, our heroes are called into action to set things right. Every bit the point-and-click that the first game was, The Book of Unwritten Tales 2 is a big, 25-hour adventure, and almost every bit worthy of its size. It’s also worth noting that the game is entirely standalone, although playing the first game will give meaning to a lot of the name-dropping in early hours much quicker than was my experience as an ignorant newcomer.
TboUT2 (now there’s an acronym) has a lot of humor, both in writing and gameplay. The game opens with one of the heroes plummeting through the sky, hopping between chunks of recently-exploded airship. Even the tutorial is entertaining, showing players the familiar ropes by solving puzzles to keep the opening credit sequence running. This humor in level design is accompanied by witty dialogue that pulls absolutely no punches. A couple sections get bogged down as we hear about things like the political system of a magical school for longer than even a copy of the history of Hogwarts could muster. However, gameplay itself makes players think, just as they should.
What the game has in humor and charm, though, it sadly lacks in pace. After its opening, TboUT slows down to an enchanted snail’s pace, with drawn-out series of puzzles coming along slowly and surely. This has a charm and a curse to it; it does give us plenty of time to get to know our main characters before the action sets in, as well as giving us puzzles that mostly feel fresh; but the fact that this same setup is spread out across multiple characters means that the game takes hours to really get going. Some of that time is spent learning about the characters and their world, and are genuinely interesting and enjoyable. Unfortunately, a handful of bits in the early hours feel padded, just enough to be noticeable and to matter when they are multiplied as much as this game multiplies. A puzzle can be both well-conceived and utterly unnecessary, as TBoUT demonstrates on more than one occasion.
Luckily, the game design and puzzle design are a bit closer to magic. The game is divided into chapters, with each chapter divided into multiple sections across the main characters. Each area is large, with plenty of stuff to interact with and puzzles to solve. While level design is good though, sometimes player objectives can get a little less than clear due to the sheer size of things. The classic strategy of “try using everything on everything until something does something” will become all too familiar when dealing with certain puzzles. You’ve got an inventory, and a space bar trigger to show everything you can interact with in an area. There’s really nothing exceptional or new to note, but what’s tried and true is such for a reason.
Visual design is also a significant strong suit for TBoUT2. Stunning colors and intimate detail run thick throughout, from the eternal-autumn forests of the elven realm to the mysterious city of Seastone and beyond. The game’s cartoonish style has a lot going for it, added to by cleverness in forms like transforming the scenery into a 16-bit version of itself to show that a character has traveled back in time. It’s also worth noting that everything intractable in the game blends in, not standing out in the tell-tale way that can make things just a bit too obvious in some games of the like. Everything feels visually unified.
Even here, though, there is a side of dark magic to accompany the light (but is there a light side to my puns? Probably not). One issue is that although all of the backgrounds and models throughout the game are quite nice, the way some characters are puppeteered are not. Lip-syncing is noticeably bad, probably due to the fact that character lips are allegedly programmed to flap in time to the German audio rather than the English, and movement seems to be a surprising challenge for our heroes. I randomly found ta character walking in a loop or making a surprise U-turn before making their way towards whatever destination I had indicated, numerous times throughout my experience.
On the topic of presentation, the audio has a lot going for it. Voice acting is great, and the soundtrack is beautiful and well-composed. That said, the implementation of these things leave something to be desired. Character voices are usually fine, but will sometimes inexplicably get much quieter than the sounds and music around them, only to bounce back after a minute. The other issue is that, while every track in the game is well-orchestrated, each one is put on a loop within its area, often leading to it blasting its way through conversations and even cutscenes that don’t quite fit.
In writing and visual design alike, TBoUT2 loves its references. When I mentioned the Harry Potter series at the beginning of the review, it wasn’t just out of a general sense of similarity; it was because, for example, that series’ “floo powder” system of traveling fireplaces is directly used in this game. Dialogue, mostly in the cases of characters observations about items, are full of in-jokes and allusions to pop culture. Princess Ivo, the first character who players control after the title sequence, even explores a library containing the three dragon eggs from Game of Thrones, the Ocarina of Time from Zelda, a Minecraft sword, Dovahkiin’s helmet from Skyrim, and even more. References and the like are amusing and charming for a while, but after enough time passes they become a bit of a burden. It’s not that the game isn’t funny on its own, bursting at the seams as it is with cleverness and humor, but jokes meant to break the fourth wall can only stay funny for so long.
The Book of Unwritten Tales 2 gets a passing grade in Charms class, but the rest of its magical education has some gaps. Everything here is a balancing act; the world is populated with plenty of endearing characters, but the story itself takes hours before it really seems to get moving; visuals are gorgeous, but animation needs tweaking; the soundtrack is a genuinely impressive work, but is implemented frankly lazily. Gameplay itself is fine, but sometimes makes you feel imprisoned to an area past its due. For every bit of cleverness, there is something holding it a step or two back. This book is well-written, though, and tightly-bound.
Final verdict: Three and a half adorable pink hippogriffs out of five.
Note: This review was based on a Steam code provided by the game’s publisher, Nordic Games
Available on: PC (Reviewed) ; Publisher: Nordic Games; Developer: King Art Games; Players: 1 ; Released: February 17, 2015; Genre: Adventure; MSRP: $29.99