Review – Black Book
The video game industry loves to focus on culturally-specific games, but many of them have been overdone. There are literally hundreds of games that focus on Japanese, European, American, and Nordic cultures, to the point where they have nearly worn out their welcome. Every once in while, you’ll get a game that focuses on less explored regions, such as Raji: An Ancient Epic, set in India, Aluna: Sentinel of the Shards, centered around Incan culture, or Someday You’ll Return, set in the mountains of the Czech Republic. They’re not all winners, but it’s still refreshing to play a game that gives a look into some relatively untapped regions and cultures. Black Book, from indie developer Morteshka, creators of The Mooseman, did exactly this when they created a game focused around 19th century Slavic folklore.
In Black Book you play a Vasilisa, a young girl who has been hesitant to follow in her family’s footsteps of becoming a witch in favor of living a normal life. When her beloved takes his own life, she agrees to learn the ways of the witch from her grandfather in order to open the Black Book. This will grant her the ability to save his soul from the depths of hell and resurrect him. Although, dealing with demons is often more complicated than it would seem.
Black Book is an adventure RPG with card battling combat mechanics, similar to Slay the Spire, but with a larger focus on its RPG side. It’s not an overly complicated card battling system, so newcomers to the genre need not fret. That’s not to say it’s devoid of challenge, as the Standard setting does provide a nice ramp up in difficulty and the Hard mode lives up to its name. There’s a competent tutorial system, but one that doesn’t overstay its welcome either.
That being said, it’s not all card duels in Black Book. A large portion of this game is dedicated to Vasilisa trekking from location to location, investigating strange occurrences or various homes along her journey. Honestly, this is what makes up the bulk of Black Book. Vasilisa will stop by each outpost or landmark and investigate the scene. These make for many short-burst stories, similar to Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, only far more interesting.
This is where Black Book truly shines, as many of the encounters will inform you about some various sorts of Slavic folklore. You’ll be able able to learn the traditional names of certain demons, as well as the rituals and circumstances surrounding their presence. Very early on, you’ll discover that not all demons are necessarily bad. Some are there due to curses binding them to a specific location and some are merely curious about the world we live in. Then there are others who aren’t even demons at all, but merely victims of an unfortunate circumstance that made them that way. Not every case is black and white, and it takes some careful thought to figure out how best to approach each scenario. Then again, there are plenty of demons that are looking to kill you on sight, so tread carefully.
There’s also an interesting aspect of Black Book where you can send the demons under your charge (called chorts) out into various parts of the map to inflict mayhem upon the townsfolk. This might seem harsh, but if you let your chorts hang around long enough without something to occupy their time, they’ll become very destructive. You can send one to poison the livestock at one farm, another to place a disease on another farmer’s crops, etc. You’ll gain experience points, money, and other beneficial items for doing so. Win-win, right?
Well, not necessarily. You see, there’s a morality system in Black Book. Each action and decision you make has a consequence. Killing every demon you come across right away might grant you some nice experience points and items, but you might miss out on additional sidequests, premium items, and deeper knowledge into their lore. That’s not to say every demonic encounter is all sunshine and rainbows, but there is a surprising amount of weight to many of your actions. Sending your demons out for tasks will get you bonuses, but you’ll become more sinful. The more sinful or pious you become will open up various new sidequests and dialogue options depending on which route you take. This also affects the villagers greatly, as well as your ending.
While the small stops and interactions can be a lot of fun and very insightful into the folklore, they can feel a bit tedious after a while. Black Book turned out to be a lot longer than I was expecting, clocking in about fifteen hours to beat. However, a lot of that time is padded out by these micro encounters, which stop feeling fresh after engaging in so many. There are optional tasks in each map you can choose to skip if you’d wish, but that’s where most of the new lore and best items are found. Unfortunately, there’s no option to bypass the rest of the stops on the map, which is why Black Book can feel like it drags on at times. The fact that controlling Vasilisa feels like trying to drive a bus through a vat of molasses doesn’t add to the experience either.
Perhaps the mini interactions wouldn’t feel so monotonous is they were visually appealing. Regrettably, this is one of Black Book‘s biggest hindrances. This game is definitely not a looker. There are a lot of fascinating demons you’ll face, but they aren’t intimidating because they’re so poorly designed and animated. It’s a shame too, because Black Book could have been something truly special if Morteshka had more financial backing. I worry that the poor graphics will turn most people off and they won’t give it a fair chance. When characters speak to one another, they appear in well done hand-drawn stills, but even these are limited.
Thankfully, the sound design helps elevate the experience a bit. The soundtrack is appropriately atmospheric and moody. The vocal performances are pretty strong throughout the game as well. I was actually surprised at how convincing many of the characters’ deliveries were, as I know Black Book didn’t have a huge budget.
I enjoyed my time with Black Book, but it’s definitely held back by some of its shortcomings. This isn’t necessarily due to lack of skill from the developers, but more an issue with such a small budget. However, I think they would have benefited from a different art style, perhaps like the one found in their other game, The Mooseman. That would have disguised many of the poor animations that detracted from the rest of the experience. It could also have been a few hours shorter, which is not something I find myself saying often. That being said, Black Book is a wonderful glimpse into Slavic folklore and well worth your time for that alone.
While Black Book does have some nice hand-drawn images for when characters speak to one another, most of this game isn’t a looker.
Controlling Vasilisa is about as easy as driving a bus through a vat of molasses. Thankfully, the card battling mechanics are pretty solid.
Most of the voice acting is decent and the soundtrack fits the tone of the game well.
Black Book certainly has its issues with player movement and occasional bugs, but the look into Slavic folklore is refreshingly interesting.
Final Verdict: 7.0
Black Book is available now on PC, PS4, Switch, and Xbox One.
Reviewed on Switch.
A copy of Black Book was provided by the publisher.