Hands On: The Book Of Unwritten Tales

By John Walker on September 20th, 2011 at 5:31 pm.

Good grief, I don't think an adventure has ever looked this good.

I’m not sure what I want from an adventure game any more. I’m not even sure I want adventure games any more. When I play modern adventures I find them too simple and lament the lost art of the 90s glory years. When I replay 90s adventures I rediscover quite what obscure, obfuscated nonsenses most of them were. With my teenage patience for leaving a puzzle unsolved for days lost, while still wanting to be equally entertained, perhaps I simply don’t fit the criteria any more? Maybe the world really does just want the unending bilge of a lady detective solving supernatural crime, or sexist cartoons that endlessly self-reference. Maybe what I’m left with are the bite-sized portions of loveliness like Machinarium and The Dream Machine. And then I find myself rather enjoying The Book Of Unwritten Tales.

Which surprises me, since it does look troublingly like it’s going to fall into the latter self-referencing sexist camp at first glance. I’m pleased to say, having spent rather a lot of time with the first three chapters of the five chapter game, it’s avoiding that pretty well. Most of the time.

First of all, let’s make one thing perfectly clear. This is the only game I can think of that has a Welsh protagonist. A real one, not some incredibly dodgy accent. This is an important step forward for gaming. But the little gnome isn’t the only character you’ll play as. There’s a gremlin, rather confusingly called MacGuffin, and a tall elf lady with spray-on clothes. And all three are remarkably well voiced.

It’s also utterly gorgeous. The backgrounds, a mixture of hand-painted and astonishingly textured 3D objects (Bertram, the world’s fattest hamster being a real highlight of this – see the video at the bottom, he’s on the bottom-left), are remarkably beautiful, and for once the 3D animated characters within them are almost as good. Normally this is where the biggest shortcuts are taken, characters uselessly waving their empty hands around while apparently pouring a bottle or handing over a magic ring. But here a huge amount of effort has gone in to individual animations, and making sure most items actually appear as they’re being used. It’s crazy that this should still be something that stands out, but thank goodness it’s often gotten right here. The character design is also splendid, very detailed, and while very exaggerated caricatures, still impressively engaging.

Set in a traditional fantasy world, with dwarves, gnomes, goblins, elves, humans and so on, it borders dangerously close on pastiching painfully obvious targets like Lord Of The Rings, but seems to swerve out of the way at the last moment each time. The story is deliberately confusing at first, with references to a special book that must be recovered, and a ring that must be delivered, all in order to stop the terrible war that has been raging for years. To do this, naturally you must gather every loose object in the world, and click them on everything that’s fixed down. As it should be.

That’s not to say it entirely avoids more trombone-driven jokes. A mechanical videogame played by two of the fantasy characters is, of course, set in a world without magic or strange creatures, where you must visit the post office and file your taxes. A nice joke, made face-chewing by being over-explained with a punchline of “Why would anyone escape their own world for a fantasy in which you have to complete meaningless tasks?” or words to that effect. Yes, good idea, tell your player they’re an idiot. But in fairness, it’s a joke they keep building on, with some proper groan-inducing puzzle solutions, which is precisely how things should be.

What is currently not precisely how things should be is another extremely common mistake made by translated European adventures, and that’s the occasional gibberish. Sadly, what’s proving to be solid, if rather easy adventure, is being let down now and then by clumsy translation, or just complete nonsense being spoken. It’s one of those cases where the actors are doing their best with the lines given, but when they don’t make any sense there’s nothing they can do. It drives me crazy that this is still happening, that any adventure being translated into any other language isn’t being checked over by a native speaker before release. It’s just basic common sense, and yet it never seems to happen. There’s still time for Unwritten Tales, however, and I’d strongly suggest they address this to stop it from being the game’s biggest, needless failing. Also, hopefully something that will be fixed by the time it comes out will be the rather poor editing on a few of the lines, leaving in the actor’s comments before he delivers it. A line beginning, “Okay, how about…” is a touch frame-breaking.

Talking of which, the self-referencing does start to get a bit more bloated the further I go into this preview build. However, and won’t say how, I rather reluctantly enjoyed the manner in which the “I know I’m a game” business is delivered.

The game is absolutely enormous. If the three chapters I have are really three fifths of the game, then it’s one of the longest adventure games in years. And I’m pleased to say that so far it hasn’t outstayed its welcome.

We’re not talking about something that equals the classics. But we are talking about something that’s massively better than the full-length competition of late, with a lovely attitude, some genuinely funny jokes, and logical puzzles. It certainly relies far too heavily on distracting the guy to collect the object to complete the list of things you’ve been told to gather. Again and again. But then, heck, it’d hardly be an adventure without that.

So I think, perhaps, this is what I want from an adventure. Not impossibly difficult, not idiotically obscure, and not starring a sassy 28 year old with a mobile phone solving the murder of her uncle. But instead a good, long romp of entertaining nonsense. If the unnecessary mistakes in the dialogue can be fixed, and the remainder of the game continues the same without losing the pace, this is likely to come highly recommended.

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53 Comments »

  1. d3vilsadvocate says:

    This is one of my favorite adventure games ever. I played the german version a few years ago. Can’t wait to buy the steam version to play this again in English. I can highly recommend this game.

    • Nova says:

      I agree. Adventure-wise it was the biggest surprise of the last years for me.

    • maha says:

      This looks very good, but I can not seem to find any information if this is coming to Steam. Does anyone here know more about it ?

      PS. Hi this is my first post, I’ve been lurking for a while (<3 RPS)

  2. ResonanceCascade says:

    Wow, I love the art style, it’s gorgeous. Might have to add this one to the pile.

    “I’m not sure what I want from an adventure game any more. I’m not even sure I want adventure games any more. When I play modern adventures I find them too simple and lament the lost art of the 90s glory years. When I replay 90s adventures I rediscover quite what obscure, obfuscated nonsenses most of them were.”

    I generally agree with this, though I think the adventure genre just needs to grow a pair and take some risks and it’ll be fine. It’s stale, stale, stale.

    • Wulf says:

      I think that The Whispered World did that, and it was punished for it by and large. (And not just by John, I’m not picking on John here, there was a lot of critique about it.) It’s a shame that so few realise what made that game so very special.

    • Thants says:

      I think it was punished more for cheap-looking animation and terrible voice-acting.

    • LionsPhil says:

      90s is too recent if LucasArts’ “lateral” puzzles are an issue. Perhaps John needs to revisit the late ’80s Sierra.

      Space Quest trilogy is great.

  3. Aerothorn says:

    Is this a Europe-only release? I can find no mention of it for-sale in a quick search, and it’s not on US Steam.

  4. Grygus says:

    This does look pleasingly nonsensical.

  5. Drinking with Skeletons says:

    So is the gremlin being named MacGuffin confusing because it is a Scottish name applied to a non-Scottish character, a last name applied as a first name (made more confusing if the gremlin is a woman, as “Mac” can be translated as “Son of”), or a so-far-unfounded implication that the gremlin will be somewhat arbitrarily important to the overall plot?

  6. Khemm says:

    John’s anti-adventure gaming sentiments made me shout “BOOOOOOO!!!!!1one!!” at the screen. ;P
    Jokes aside, adventure games these days are waay easier, forgiving and contain less illogical puzzles than ever before. Not to mention than some of them ARE better than certain classics or at least aren’t any worse.
    Lost Horizon is pretty neat, flawed, but deserves a mention. Would have easily been a great spiritual successor to Indy and the fate of Atlantis if it received more polish.
    Machinarium IS a modern classic for me. Ceville is awesome. There are also The Whispered World, A New Beginning or Edna&Harvey.

    Adventure games get ignored by mass media focusing on twitch-based, noisy action games all the time, so that’s where the notion “they’re dead” came from. People have also gotten lazy, a game that requires you to think and take your time? Teh travesty!. Still, it really is a very “relaxing” genre which allows you to “soak” the atmosphere of worlds they take place in like no other.

    As for Book of Unwritten Tales – I have it preordered and can’t wait for the release. It’s been stuck in publishing hell for too long.

    • John Walker says:

      Are you really saying that the broken amateurish Edna & Harvey is as good as the LucasArts and Sierra classics of the 90s? Come on.

    • godgoo says:

      Are you saying boo or boo-urns?

    • Khemm says:

      @John I mentioned it’s “better or not necessarily worse”. E&H is a brilliant game, how is it broken? Solid writing, cool story, nice puzzles, memorable characters, art style is a preference thing. Maybe it’s just me, but I enjoyed it A LOT. I wouldn’t say it beats LucasArts’s games, but easily competes with certain Sierra’s titles, which were often more frustrating than fun.

      Did you like The Whispered World and Ceville, John? They’re really good.

      We had a real drought in the genre in the late 90s and early 21st century, but recent releases were really solid. Can’t speak for Jane Jensen’s Gray Matter, I have yet to play it.

    • blind_boy_grunt says:

      I felt personally offended by the stuttering intro of edna&harvey which is basically two or three pictures copied over each other, still i probably enjoyed edna more than some(a lot) of the old classics(definitely more than the sierra ouvre) and i played those when they were new-ish. Perhaps i was too young, perhaps i started to look in the walkthroughs too early but the riddles themselves for me never were as much fun as they have been with edna.
      Whispered world not so much.

    • John Walker says:

      Here are my thoughts on Edna & Harvey, in which I explain how it is broken:

      http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2011-02-01-edna-and-harvey-the-breakout-review

      And here are my thoughts on The Whispered World, which I thought was let down by terrible puzzles:

      http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/the-whispered-world-review

      I’ve not played Ceville.

    • Wulf says:

      You need to play Ceville, John. If you’re really as hung up on frivolity and less serious games, then Ceville is about as absurd and silly as you get. And frankly? Ceville at least matches a lot of the old LucasArts classics. Yes, I said that. Yes, it is good. It is very good. It’s also funny. And it’s got a great translation, too, to boot. (Which is rare.)

      I agree with you about The Whispered World’s puzzles, some of which were a bit horrid, but in general I still feel that The Whispered World was a clever little game. It was probably not what you wanted, but I still think it was clever. It was one of those few games that tie humour, a fantastic world, and the ability to make you think, to even shock you, or shake you emotionally together in perfect harmony.

      The Whispered World might have worked better as an animated film, but that was its only flaw. Though I feel that it needs to be said that this is true about a lot of adventure games. I’ll say this: The Longest Journey also had some truly horrible puzzles, was very linear at the end, and also would have worked better as a film. In fact, The Longest Journey suffers with exactly the same problems as The Whispered World, looked at objectively.

      It’s also worth remembering that The Longest Journey is ‘one of those European adventures.’

      I just think that both The Longest Journey and The Whispered World in the same breath are examples of how adventure games can be brilliant, and yet at the same time can be failed by execution or technological limitations. They’re both let down by such but neither is particularly less inspiring.

      Whereas I think a LucasArts adventure, like, say Monkey Island II: LeChuck’s Revenge, is a perfect example of a game which is funny and uses the adventure game mechanics to their best effect, but does nothing more than that. Nothing more. The LucasArts games were fantastic adventure games, but they weren’t anything else. They definitely weren’t good stories, they absolutely were irreverent nonsense (I can see what you mean there), and I think this is where a sort of divide occurs.

      At the end of the day, I can see perhaps three breeds of adventure game.

      You have the silly adventure game that is just silly, and nothing more. It’s got the mechanics down, it doesn’t try to be clever beyond its humour, and nothing about it will ever leave you thinking, aside from its puzzles. It’ll be perfectly polished, it’ll last in your memory for those funny moments or the puzzles that absolutely beat you (despite being simple after all, or perfectly logical). Space Quest IV, Monkey Island, Ceville, and Full Throttle fall into this category.

      Then you have the more art house adventure game. It fails at the mechanics and the execution, because it forces the gamification (and the game mechanics in general) to take a back seat versus the story it wants to tell. It may not be particularly funny, but it may be charming, it will be immersive, and it will ooze atmosphere. It’ll be flawed and brillian tat the same time. It’ll last in your memory for those moments of the story that were ambiguous, left open to interpretation, or those times you were truly challenged by something posed by the story. Or those times when it struck you emotionally. The Whispered World, Loom, Beneath a Steel Sky, and The Longest Journey fall into this category.

      Finally, you have the more casual adventure game. It’s very level headed and practical and shares a lot of the same hallmarks as adventures from the above, but it’s much more of a tame effort. It’s never overly funny, and it’ll never challenge you with puzzles, emotional hits, or philosophical dilemmas. It’s meant to be a gateway drug to adventure games. It’ll approach something more mundane, like a real world mystery, or modern day high adventure. It won’t really stick in your memory all that much, but some might be remembered fondly. Runaway, Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars, Still Life, and The Secret Files: Tunguska fall into this category.

      I tend to enjoy all three, really. I wouldn’t cast out one for the other, but I have to admit that of all three the second category is my favourite, followed closely by the first, and then a little more distantly by the third. But that’s because of the sort of person that I am. I enjoy my irreverent silliness, but I love it when it’s tied with something that can make you think and feel. That’s why, despite its broken puzzles, The Whispered World is pretty much one of the most touching, interesting, and memorable adventure games I’ve ever played.

      (I guess what I’m trying to say there is that the adventures I like best are the art house adventures which don’t take themselves at all seriously. Like Loom and The Whispered World. The Whispered World had talking rocks. Loom had Space Swans. But they both had their moments that were touching, and their moments where they really made you stop and think. Those are the adventure games that I like the best.)

      (And now I want to play Loom again. Damn it. I want a Loom HD remake. That would be amazing. Never going to happen, though… :C)

      (Okay, last edit. It’s worth noting what AdventureGamers thought of The Whispered World as well.)

    • tossrStu says:

      A-boooo!

    • Groove says:

      godgoo

      You’re winning

    • I_have_no_nose_but_I_must_sneeze says:

      Wulf, how come you include Full Throttle in the first category? I thought it had a pretty solid story that went beyond silliness for silliness’ sake. Agreed on Monkey Island. I found the fans’ serious speculation on what the actual secret of Monkey Island is or what the “true” sequel to Monkey Island 2 should have been pretty amusing, seeing as the story in those games wasn’t much more than an excuse for a series of silly sketches.

  7. dium says:

    “sexist cartoons that endlessly self-reference”
    What does this refer to, exactly? Despite being an adventure game enthusiast in the 90s myself, I (I think unsurprisingly) am not learned enough about modern games in the genre to catch the reference.

    • brulleks says:

      @ dium

      I’m guessing Runaway.

      Now, can anyone help me out with the 28-year-old mobile phone carrying woman reference?!

    • Shih Tzu says:

      The Longest Journey, clearly.

    • brulleks says:

      TLJ, or even Syberia, can hardly be classed as ‘the kind of adventure games we get nowadays’ though, hence my confusion.

      Is there another mobile phone-carrying woman other than Zoe, April or Kate that is actually more contemporary?

      Edit: And having checked John’s article again, ‘the murder of her uncle’ is definitely pointing to some other character.

    • Shih Tzu says:

      Sorry, I meant that as a reply to dium. Because if there’s anything The Longest Journey is known for, it’s the sexism.

    • Lars Westergren says:

      @brulleks

      I’m guessing the Nancy Drew series? There was a new one just released where she investigates a haunted Japanese ryokan. My finger has hovered many times over those games on Steam sales. I don’t care if they are designed for kids or girls, as long as they are well made and entertaining.

      But judging from John’s comments, I’m guessing “no”.

    • John Walker says:

      It was not a reference to a specific game, but instead the slew of Euro-adventures of the last decade. There are so, so many of them.

      And to those who said TLJ, *slap*.

    • bill says:

      I heard (some of) the Nancy Drew games are actually pretty good… but they always get dismissed out of hand due to the subject matter.

      But I’m with john. Don’t like new adventure games. Don’t like old adventure games anymore.
      Watching Let’s Play videos on youtube is the old valid solution.

    • dium says:

      The Nancy Drew games aren’t bad, but they are very very much for a specific audience. If you aren’t a girl in your early teens, you’re taking a bit of a gamble.

      The very first game also happens to have some embarrassingly bad stereotypes, so I’d be wary of a game set entirely in Japan.

      …I know more about these games than is probably wise to admit.

  8. caddyB says:

    that elf lady looks delicious.
    like pancakes or waffles or something like that.

  9. Squirrelfanatic says:

    Was that a breathing heap of hay there in the video?

  10. Burning Man says:

    In related questions, why hasn’t the adventure games genre gone the route of “Oh we only did these because the technology was awful back then”? (Excusing M.O.N.K.E.Y, of course)

  11. Mr. Icarus says:

    They’ve already got excerpts from your article up on their site too.

    On it, these ones

  12. Cunzy1 1 says:

    The main character in Koudelka was welsh.

    That is all.

    • devlocke says:

      ARGH. I really want to play that game; the last time I spent some time rummaging about the internet for it, all I could find was a rip that I couldn’t get working in an emulator. The first two Shadow Hearts games are my favorite post-90s console RPGs by far.

    • Aerothorn says:

      Score!

      Koudelka was rough and cloogy in so many ways, and yet I ultimately found it much more compelling and tonally consistent than the Shadows Hearts games (as charming as they are). Great ending.

  13. KillahMate says:

    Okay, so the real question: how is this compared to Time Gentlemen, Please?

  14. Aluschaaf says:

    Actually, this one came out in 2009 in Germany. T’is quite fun.

  15. shoptroll says:

    I’m intrigued, but will probably wait for a WIT or full blown Verdict.

  16. Wulf says:

    Well, this is certainly pretty and imaginative.

    You have my hopes up with this one, John.

    I just hope it doesn’t suffer with chronic bad translationitis.

  17. lithander says:

    The game’s coming on steam if steam wants it. We sure hope they do! It’s also running fine on Mac and should come out there too… someway, somehow.

    Sad to hear that there are some glitches with the localization. The guys doing the english translation (http://www.omuk.com) have a working build of the game so technically they can try out each line in context. But to fix a bad line you have to get that speaker infront of the microphone again and that’s sometimes not possible. In other words, those glitches are harder to fix than it sounds. But if you haven’t, feel free to take note of those things and mail them to whoever provided you with the press preview. It’s still not gone gold! :)

  18. JohnnyMaverik says:

    “But we are talking about something that’s massively better than the full-length competition of late”

    –>>> GEMINI RUE. <<<–

    Seriously RPS, it exists and it's fking great. Stop ignoring it.

    If this is massively better than Gemini Rue then it's one hell of a game.

    Certainly looks pretty good granted.

  19. LionsPhil says:

    It looks very pretty yet somehow awkward and stiff, and it’s somewhat incongruous that Death starts talking about being buried in soil immediately after climbing into the hole, despite complete lack of evidence of shoveling progress.

  20. mastrblastr says:

    I’ve played what feels like a lot of adventure games. I like TLJ, but thought it would be far better as a movie. I really enjoyed Machinarium and Time Gentlemen, Please. Other than that, every other one I’ve tried seems to just be lost on me although it FEELS like it should be my style. Anyone have any legitimate suggestions for the best adventure games and where to get said game?

  21. Pyrrhus says:

    So how does this compare to Westwood’s Legend of Kyrandia series from the ’90s? From the article it seems to be aiming in the same general direction.

  22. Xaos says:

    I am I the only one who thought of the starting village in Morrowind after seeing that very first screenshot?

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