I would love to be in the meeting where someone nervously raised their hand and blurted out: “What if we made Diablo, except instead of a gritty grim-dark atmosphere, it’s styled like a children’s pop-up picture book. Also, you can only move in four directions… and there’s no combat animations!” I can only imagine the sound you’d hear after this pitch: a cacophony of hysterical laughter, surprised gasps and the thuds of investors fainting onto the floor from the abject shock of such an unconventional idea. Still though, Book of Demons is a lot more promising than it sounds.
Book of Demons casts you as a mute hero whose raison d’etre is ridding a fantasy town of an ancient demonic evil that has emerged deep below the Earth. So yeah, our protagonist is a cardboard cut-out, with the personality and backstory to match. Even though the aforementioned town appears to be merely a hamlet with a population of four, hundreds of floors of treasure-filled tombs have been constructed beneath the local church. Now they’re all filled with ravenous undead. Your two main resources in fighting your living-impaired adversaries is your bulbous red ball of health, and your bulging blue ball of mana, which you expend to use spells. If you think this sounds a bit like Diablo, then you’re right (have a cookie on me) but it diverges in a few key ways.
Not unlike True West or Victor Vran, you have items and abilities, which come in the form of cards. You’re limited in the number of cards you can have equipped by your mana and how many slots you have (which can be upgraded by the village sage). Your basic attack is an auto-attack that increases in speed when you hold down the mouse button. If you equip the shadow strike card, for example, then your auto attack will hit two adjacent baddies at once. Of course, that takes card takes up precious space which might be better used to have a healing potion hotkeyed. But what if you run into an ice-elemented undead? There’s a card which makes your auto-attack cast a circle of fire, burning away any icy armour from your foes. What’s most intriguing about Book of Demons is how it’s this oddly unique mix of a card-battling game and ARPG hack n’ slasher.
There are a few other neat little touches that amusingly involve the User Interface into the gameplay. When you’re poisoned you can click on the gargoyle cradling your health ball to shut his yawning mouth and dispel the poison more quickly. When you’re stunned by a powerful enemy attack, stars will swirl around your vision, and you’ll have to click on them quickly to regain your senses. Likewise, if an evil mage is about to cast a spell, you can quickly click on the spellcasting indicator hovering above his head to frustrate his evil arcana. Not only are is incorporating the UI into the action a novel idea, it also gives Book of Demons more depth.
One problematic issue you’ll notice early on is how the aforementioned quad-directional movement system badly impacts you ability to dodge ranged fire. A lot of the time, the procedurally generated levels will give you junctions to move left and right down the “lanes”, but sometimes you’re left with only one long lane to trundle down. When you’re moving into an area plagued with archer skeletons, they’ll quickly shoot you up, and you’ll have no way to dodge around their fire. Having to just plow through and take the blows feels frustrating. What’s even more bothersome is how you’ll encounter doorways which teleport you into another room upon entering. However, when you get to the other side, you’ll often find yourself immediately boxed in and surrounded by a heavily armoured group of no-good-niks. Sometimes the best you can do in situations like this is to quickly drop into the room, do as much damage as you can, exhausting your health and mana, before heading back through the door and trundling back to the town for a quick refill. This forced to-and-froing in the absence of more skill-based gameplay can frequently be a problem, and it’s one I can only hope the developers will address before the full game emerges from the dank, dismal dungeon of beta status.
Book of Demons is an interesting concept, and is already promising at this early stage. The cardbord cut-out characters slide, bounce and shake across the scenery like they’re being played with by a child, making the proceedings feel like a magical interactive storybook. This unique aesthetic is married to equally novel mechanics, which tie everything together. Stay tuned to Hey Poor Player to find out whether the full release of Book of Demons fulfils its ambition of being as fun as a pop-up book – or if it ends up being as entertaining as a pop-up ad.
Available on: PC (previewed) Xbox One; Publisher: Thing Trunk ; Developer: Thing Trunk ; Players: 1 ;
Full disclosure: This preview is based on a preview copy provided to hey Poor Player by the publisher