The Book of Unwritten Tales is a graphic adventure game in the traditional LucasArts style. It has been favourably received pretty much everywhere. Unfortunately, it doesn’t successfully emulate much of anything the Lucas games did and it’s a largely charmless, witless pixel hunt from beginning to end.
I finished it yesterday. Somehow managed to push through after many stalls over the past couple of years. Wanted to see the end in case I really was missing something… but I wasn’t. Pretty much every time I got stuck it was because I hadn’t picked up something. This will often happen no matter how much pixel hunting you do. It’s the game. As you progress you learn the little tricks the designers use to artificially extend the game’s life. New items are added to scenes you’ve already scanned when you’re not around. Sometimes they’ll be items that were already there but were part of the background (and couldn’t be picked up). They’ll be tiny and probably near an exit, or very close to (and perhaps obscured by) a much larger object. It’s the game.
The puzzles aren’t hard but they can make little sense and it often isn’t clear what’s in the minds of your characters. This is especially true when you’re dealing with enemies. In these instances the solutions just flat out wouldn’t work in any other reality or fantasy. Some of these solutions are barely animated… probably because it couldn’t be done convincingly. Sometimes you need to perform the same action several times to get a result (this is an absolute no-no in adventure design). There are plenty of little annoyances with puzzle solutions, too. You’ll need to find a key to open a chest to get some gold coins… even though there are piles of coins all around the chest. On the ground. You’ll need to make a pick axe even though there are plenty of them about. You’ll need to find a cluster of water pixels somewhere obscure rather than use any water you come across elsewhere, where it’s more plentiful. There’s a puzzle where you need to enter a combination of symbols. One of the characters you actually control reads out a really bad description of something he sees (but you don’t). The puzzle is to work out what the hell he saw. Are they bloody serious? That’s complete horse shit! There’s also a button you have to press when you enter the combination and this isn’t entirely obvious. Oh, and there’s a bug you may run into where you can get the combination right but it never works, resulting in a dead end where you can never finish the game. Not sure, but I think it may happen when you read ahead and keep skipping through the dialogue before the actors are finished. Keep separate save slots. There’s one interesting bit where you have to plot out a route to an island on a map… but it becomes trial and error when you realise the description of one of the steps is deliberately obscure (even though all of the other ones are very clear). There’s one part where you need to hit key combinations at the right time (like in Dance Dance Revolution). It’s not really that hard but it is a pain in the arse. Took me three goes (it’s many years since I played FFR). I don’t want to have to put up with this nonsense when playing an adventure game – get lost! Beyond such annoyances and pixel hunting there’s little challenge due to the over-simplified interface. There’s pretty much no game other than the annoying bits!
The writing is abysmal. There are plenty of references to things that have been funny in other games and media: references to D&D, Tolkien, classic adventure and role-playing games. Unfortunately the writers don’t seem to realise that you’ve got to do more than point a finger at other things to make a joke. They carbon copy that bit from the first Monkey Island where a lot of fantastical stuff happens off-screen several times. It’s never funny. It was only (very) mildly amusing in the first Monkey because of the novelty… nineteen years before this game! There are a couple of bits reminiscent of Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (stone rings, fixing and using “Atlantean” technology, forging metallic objects using your trusty stone cup) but there’s no thought required. They just put the art in and some lazy, unsatisfying puzzles. You can often change characters like Day of the Tentacle but there usually isn’t a clear skill distinction where you can have more than one of them in the same place at the same time. There’s one brief section where you choose one of three characters to proceed with, but other than how you open one door it’s the exact same for all three of them. What’s the point? There’s even a bit that’s like the kobold caves in Baldur’s Gate. That was probably one of BG’s low points, though. Does anyone even like kobolds? Going back to the script, it’s hard to imagine anyone’s saying anything terribly clever in the original German version, either.
The game’s characters are largely devoid of charm. There’s an uppity, annoying, supremacist elf; a Welsh gnome who’s actually a teeny bit of a scamp (but could do with being a lot more mischievous or even anarchic); a Yellow Pack Indiana Jones/Han Solo type with an annoying voice whose cynicism and frustration is only matched (and eclipsed) by your own; this annoying creature whose section makes almost no sense (why roll that bloody cannon ball the exact same way every time? Make sure you find that goddamn cushion behind the throne!). The minor characters are all pretty unmemorable, as are the baddies. I’m not sure you even ever see the main one – it’s a bit like the chair from Inspector Gadget. One that I do remember is the two-headed ogre mage that’s a bit of a take on the one from Warcraft II (and perhaps other games in the series – I wouldn’t know). His heads argue with each other all the time and have vastly different personalities. It’s far from inspired but it’s a lot further from terrible. There was one line I laughed at in the entire game: Han Solo is asked why he wants to go to a certain place and he replies with something along the lines of: “I want to examine every item, one by one, then take everything that isn’t nailed down”. It’s not that funny but when living in a comedic wasteland laughter will sometimes find a way.
There are certainly many games that are much worse than this. One of the frustrating things about The Book of Unwritten Tales is that it should be so much better. The graphics can be attractive enough, the music does the job and the voice acting is sometimes good enough (and rarely terrible). The Han Solo guy does have a voice that grates but I did get used to it after a bit. There’s often quite a lot of detail in any given screen. It’s so they can hide things, though. Things that, contrary to the LucasArts philosophy, look identical to the background. The 2D art in the end credits is sublime – too bad they didn’t go with that instead.
My final verdict is that while the actual game part of this adventure is far from the very worst the genre has to offer, it is bad enough that it should be avoided. The many ways the designers try to wrong-foot you with pixel hunting is trolling, pure and simple. The other puzzles that take up your time are those that give you a poor description of the situation and have you bang your head against a wall until you get it right. No thanks!