By John Walker on October 28th, 2011 at 12:12 pm.
A decent full-length adventure game is as rare as a completely uncooked Banjo & Kazooie developer, so when one comes along it’s time to take notice. That’s what we’re doing here. While certainly flawed, if you’ve ever cared about adventure games, then you should find out Wot I Think about The Book Of Unwritten Tales.
When I previewed The Book Of Unwritten Tales, I mentioned that they still had a couple of months to make some vital improvements, to what seemed to be one of the best full-length adventures in years. Playing the final version I can confirm that no such improvements have been made. Which has led me on an interesting journey, through being demoralised that the game was still jam-packed with poorly translated dialogue, missing elements, and missing logic pointers, then going onto realising I just didn’t care because the game’s so good, and finally resting at a point of pure confusion as to what I think, thanks to the game’s complete falling to pieces by the end.
Which leads to a predicament. How much is it possible to forgive? Unwritten makes mistakes that I would usually drag adventure games into a pit of spikes for making. But it’s also one of the best adventures I’ve played in so very, very long. It’s just, when the final moments of the game have all their text in German, after a stream of puzzles purely predicated on returning to locations you’ve just left for no reason, and a crummy closing sequence constructed entirely out of non sequiturs, it leaves the wrong taste in your mouth.
So instead I’m going to remember what makes this so good. As with any adventure game, the very last thing you should want is for me to tell you about it. Just like you’d have to be mad to read one of those book reviews that thinks it important to tell you the plot until the middle page, you shouldn’t want to hear anything beyond the premise. The very strange premise.
You’re trying to find some thingie. There you go. It’s a traditional fantasy world, more to spoof fantasy than anything else. What’s more interesting is who you are. Which is many people. There are, by my count, four characters you play as along the way, whose stories are connected by a need to prevent the evil baddies from getting the thingie. You play Ivo, a tall, underdressed elf, Wilbur, an adventurous gnome, Nate, a doofus human, and best of all, Critter, a pink… thing. For the first three of five chapters they’re pretty much independent, and eventually you’ll start being able to control two at once, solving puzzles by swapping between them and their specific abilities.
The game is as close to an epic as an adventure game can offer. From little beginnings, you start off with Wilbur in his home, doing his job, mulling around through his chores. The sense of scale is imposing, thinking back to that point in his adventure, and realising it feels so long ago, and the gnome such a different character. (As I previously mentioned, Wilbur is gaming’s first Welsh lead, which we can all agree is progress the gaming industry was desperately needing to make.) It’s an absolutely enormous game. Their own promotional material says it takes 20 hours to complete, but I’d say that’s a conservative estimate. And impressively, little feels like filler.
The sad thing is, the further you progress, the more broken it becomes. By the fourth chapter it seems like QA efforts fainted away, the impressive cast increasingly struggling to read nonsensical translations from the German, for which there is absolutely no excuse. I praised the game for making so much effort with the animations and inclusion of inventory objects in actions, but this pretty much disappears, characters instead just waggling empty arms near the thing they’re supposed to be interacting with, and then everything pinging into place. And where the game had near perfect puzzle logic, it starts to become lazier. (Let me stress the “ier” there – even at its clumsiest it’s a damn-site more effort than most modern adventures bother putting in.)
A puzzle asks me to find some mushrooms, purple with green spots. Long before I’ve reached this point I’ve been finding or making red, blue and yellow paints for reasons unknown, and I have some white mushrooms in my inventory. The puzzle is obvious. I try to paint the mushroom and am told, “Why would I want to do that?” It’s not until I’ve talked to the right random character who tells me they’re rare before I’m allowed to do what I was clearly always going to. Let alone my frustration with one especially complicated puzzle – I need some gold coins. Nearby there’s an area covered in gold coins. Literally hundreds of them, that can’t be picked up. In their midst is a locked chest. When I am finally able to open it, it contains… some gold coins. Headslap.
But this isn’t fair. This is the game at its worst, and it’s mostly at its best. And that scene with the gold coins – that’s very close to the sequence in which you get to play as Critter – one of the best characters in a game for over fifty million years. Speaking only gibberish, the Muppet-like blob of a creature communicates through his gorgeous animations, and is beyond adorable. I demand he receive a spin-off game immediately.
Those later sections also ramp up the game’s spoofing of the fantasy genre, especially World Of Warcraft. And do you know what? For once, as heavy handed as that spoofery is, it manages to be affectionate, and most importantly, often funny.
The game is consistently funny throughout. Although there’s an exception. Sadly when playing as Nate, his boorish attitude leads to some unpleasant moments. His mocking of an effeminate soldier, and his disgust at his pink clothing, is pretty damned uncomfortable, and while his sexism is intended to be his failing, he’s still just a game character being sexist. It’s not much fun to be in control of that.
But let me stress again: this massive game is mostly fantastic. If you can excuse the translation, the writing is really good, the jokes well conceived, and the puzzles well balanced. It’s mostly inventory-based activities, but there’s a pleasing understanding of the unlogic we all learned in the 90s.
It’s also exceptionally beautiful. The painted backdrops are breathtaking, and clearly created with enormous amounts of love. The characters themselves are wonderfully animated, and other than Nate, I’ve come away with a lot of affection for them. And wanting a Critter cuddly toy.
It definitely is one of the best adventures in years. It could have been a proper classic if they’d only taken more care. Those who played it in German probably saw the game at its absolute best. For those of us who require the English, there are compromises that are definitely worth it. An adventure this long is such a rare treat. One this enjoyable at the same time is almost unheard of.