While PC adventure games don’t usually get nearly as much fanfare in the North American markets, in many European markets, the genre is still absolutely thriving. There is no country where this is more true than Germany. A strong point-and-click audience has made for many newly-minted, modern adventure classics, but not all of them make it to English audiences. One of the most critically acclaimed of these German adventure titles is The Book of Unwritten Tales, a lovingly crafted poke at the rather silly fantasy genre. While an English version of The Book of Unwritten Tales was made available in the UK last year, today marks the release of the game on Steam, which makes it easily accessible to a worldwide audience. Now the question is whether or not this is an adventure worth checking out. If you’re a point-and-click fan, the answer is almost certainly a yes.
First, some background. The Book of Unwritten Tales is a fantasy adventure that begins with a loose tangle of story threads, but quickly comes together into the story of Ivo, the haughty wood elf, Wilbur, the would-be gnome mage, and Nate, the chaotic good treasure hunter. A magical artifact that grants infinite divine power has been uncovered by the appropriately named Professor MacGuffin, who inadvertently drags the three heroes into his quest. Using their unique skills, the band has to recover this long lost treasure and keep it out of reach of the forces of evil, who are locked in a war with the Alliance of good. It’s a cast and story built piecemeal almost entirely out of clichés, but that doesn’t particularly matter in the end. While the story might not be anything special, the writing certainly is. The characters may feel a bit like clichés, but that doesn’t stop them from being endearing.
For the vast majority of adventure games, particularly the top-tier examples, writing is always going to be the most important focus. The Book of Unwritten Tales definitely does not disappoint, though it may surprise. While the game adopts a more serious tone for the first handful of segments, the straight fantasy tropes quickly get peeled back for a more satirical look at the genre. If you’re the kind of person who loves references, quips, in-jokes, and some genuinely clever lines here and there, the well done translation and energetic voice cast really helps to sell the satire. The game seems to have endless fun winking at the player with elements and references that range from big obvious targets like Lord of the Rings to cult favorites like the Discworld novels. While reference based humor isn’t always the most clever way to make a joke, the game usually manages to find a way to perform homages without losing the satirical edge. Think less Scary Movie and more Shaun of the Dead; it’s a parody that makes fun of the inherent silliness of the genre, but clearly the developers really love the source material. Not every joke lands, and sometimes you’ll find yourself rolling your eyes, but many of the quips are genuinely hilarious thanks to the amusing writing and zippy delivery. While the writers deserve a lot of credit, the voice actors certainly earn their keep, as well. Every sentence of the game is voiced, but surprisingly it’s also voiced fairly well. Most of the actors really commit to every line, and it’s not unusual for a lame homage to be redeemed based on the delivery alone.
While the writing is clearly a labor of love, it’s no good if the actual gameplay doesn’t work well. Adventure games can live or die based on how well the puzzles straddle the line between challenging and frustrating. The Book of Unwritten Tales largely manages to keep things relatively balanced through a couple of useful gameplay tricks. The cursor subtly indicates what you can click on, and your characters tend to be pretty firm when a bit of scenery isn’t going to help you along. The chapters are all heavily gated and only unlock as necessary, so you never really need to run around anymore than half a dozen areas at any given time. There’s no hint system, but the UI is friendly enough that scouring each screen doesn’t feel like an impossible endeavor The puzzles are all rather logical, so it’s rare to be truly stumped. The only real fault is the occasional clickable object that is just way too small. One particularly unique quirk is the multiple characters. This is used to get different perspectives on the same story, but puzzles are often co-op affairs that require lots of swapping between characters.
While many recent adventure games return to an older pixelated 90s aesthetic, The Book of Unwritten Tales is a game that decides to flex as much graphical prowess as possible. This means extensive, lush environments and highly detailed models across the board, and it looks really excellent as a result. While there are hardly any action scenes or other strenuous moments that might tax a more kinetic game, the general art style does a fantastic job of capturing the slightly cartoonish fantasy RPG style immediately recognizable from Warcraft and other such games. The only real fault with the graphics is the occasional bout of messy, clipped animation. This most often comes up when either two characters interact with each other or a character takes an item out of his or her inventory. It’s rather unavoidable—Ivo’s skimpy leather armor doesn’t have a lot in the way of pockets, so stuff just appears in her hands—but rarely becomes a major annoyance. Overall, the environments are absolutely stunning and the characters are just detailed enough to compliment the charming dialogue.
If you have room in your heart for one more fantasy parody, The Book of Unwritten Tales is a really excellent and clever piece of satire. It certainly keeps the adventure game tradition live and well, and manages to feel suitably epic in scope. The Steam page claims over twenty hours of gameplay, but I only really took twelve or so to reach the end. Still, that’s quite a length for an adventure game and it managed to stay engaging throughout. Any adventure game fan should certainly pick this one up if they haven’t already.
[xrr rating=9/10, max_stars=10]
This review is based on a review copy of the Steam version of The Book of Unwritten Tales provided by KING Art and distributed by Nordic Games.