Analysts and prognosticators always love to blab on and on about how adventure gaming is dead. Such proclamations are, of course, a complete load of horse crap. Just because millions of gamers are lining up to buy the next Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto and not the latest game of point-and-click puzzle solving doesn’t mean an entire genre has gone extinct.
Adventure gaming isn’t dead, and it never died. On the contrary, I don’t think adventure gaming has ever been stronger. Sure, the genre doesn’t have the same notoriety as it did in its heyday when Tim Schafer and Ron Gilbert were making folks laugh their point-and-click-loving asses off with games like Grim Fandango and Tales of Monkey Island, but developers like Telltale, Daedalic, Frictional Games, Pendulo, Wadjet Eye and various other indies are banging out one great adventure after another. Just poke around on Steam and other digital download services, and you’ll discover an incredible selection to choose from.
Be sure to now add KING Art to that list, as the German Studios’ The Book of Unwritten Tales can hold its own against any adventure game released within the last decade, I say.
Lots of pointing, lots of clicking, lots of reading/listening to dialogue. That’s what you get from this classically-formulated adventure, and fortunately it all holds up under the weight of modern scrutiny due to the strength of its clever writing, witty character banter, and enjoyable voice acting performances abroad. You won’t find photo-realistic graphics or lots of killing and explosions, but what you will find is something that many of today’s most popular games lack: soul.
The Book of Unwritten Tales is a whimsical fantasy yarn about a ragtag trio of adventurers (plus a Critter that looks like a Fraggle Rock castaway) brought together by an extraordinary series of events. At the heart of the story is Wilbur Weathervane, a Frodo-like gnome who sits at home doing odd jobs at the local pub (like hunting rats!), always dreaming about magic and going off on grand adventures. Early on he’s even burdened with the task of delivering a ring to a powerful arch mage. Gee, that sure sounds familiar.
Joining Wilbur on this journey of utmost importance are Ivo, a scantily clad forest elf princess who gets caught up in the plot when she stumbles upon a gremlin archaeologist named MacGuffin being kidnapped by an evil mage and his brutish troll servant, and Nate, a brash treasure hunter type who’s generally only concerned about himself and how he can save his own keister. Together, this mismatched bunch sets out to recover a legendary artifact that will help end the war against the Shadow Army.
Wilbur is a lovable little fellow, but I thought the other two protagonists were mostly forgettable. However, the strength of this game’s narrative comes from its silly sense of humor and from the many memorable side characters you will encounter throughout the lengthy quest. I still vividly remember conversations with a meek dragon reading a book on how to become a beast of fear like her kin and snobby, talking termites with an appreciation for munching on vintage wooden boards of a particular year. Then there was the time I saw Nate get rescued by a zombie and a harlequin ghost who had decided to form an organization to show that beings of the undead aren’t all out to eat brains and terrorize people. I’ll also never forget Wilbur’s run in with an old mage teacher and a shopkeeper obsessed with playing some strange political MMORPG together. To break the addiction and get them back to work, you literally have to pour bugs into the servers operated by a monkey, and then watch as the two disgruntled gamers go off the rails about how unforgivable it is that the developers could release such a broken game.
If I haven’t made it abundantly clear by now, Unwritten Tales is constantly poking fun at itself and the current state of gaming, and is also keen on parodying/referencing major plot points from The Lord of the Rings and other entertainment franchises. Off the top of my head, I recall fun spoofs of iconic scenes from Star Wars and Mission Impossible, not to mention countless jabs at fantasy RPG tropes like tedious fetch questing and other menial tasks.
Like many adventure games of the point-and-click persuasion, the pace can plod along in a few spots when you’re stumped on a puzzle or have to backtrack through environments to chat up NPCs until you trigger the exact line of dialogue that opens up the next scenario. Sometimes all items have been collected and you’ll have already figured out the solution to a puzzle, yet you won’t be able to proceed because you missed a new line of dialogue that only became available after first going through the original conversation. This can lead to wasted time and, of course, frustration.
Depending on your skills of deduction, some trial and error may also come into play at times when you feel the need to systematically go through your inventory and randomly drag items over one another to see if any go together. But by and large the item combinations and subsequent puzzles make complete sense. Somehow the game manages to throw a lot of goofball conundrums at you without breaking logic, and that’s a remarkable accomplishment in design balance for any adventure game to achieve.
Puzzle diversity is another highlight. Early on you’ll be jumping between the different characters during their solo portions of the game, but later in the story, once the heroes have formed their fellowship, you get the opportunity to control multiple characters and utilize a form of solo cooperation that has you trading items and switching back and forth to access areas the other character(s) may not be able to reach. The developers also do a fantastic job of regularly changing perspective. Most of the lavishly detailed environments are presented in a traditional third-person 3D view, but as the adventure progresses the camera will sometimes shift to a bird’s eye view or have you looking in at the world like a 2D side-scroller.
Regularly the bane of the genre, monotonous cursor hotspot hunting is negated–if you choose to take advantage of it–by the ability to hold down on the Space Bar to have all interactive objects within a given scene marked by a magnifying glass or some other pertinent icon. This would seem to make the game too easy, but it doesn’t; it simply cuts down the tedium of combing over the screen with the mouse pointer, pixel by pixel, until you discover a clickable thing. Challenge in an adventure game shouldn’t come from forcing the player to spend hours scouring a scene with a fine-toothed comb to find the items they need to get by but rather the design of the puzzles that have the player figuring out how to combine the items they’ve gathered to solve the perplexing impediment at hand. This is an area where Unwritten Tales excels.
For an adventure game, Unwritten Tales‘ five chapters make for one thick virtual story book. As a seasoned adventure game player, I was able to finish in right around 12 hours, only getting stumped in a couple spots, but most average players should expect to spend 15-20 hours helping Wilbur and gang save the world. This lengthy runtime is definitely a good thing because, as usual, there is nothing—not even Steam Achievements–to inspire you to immediately want to play the game again. But even if you only play one time, $20 is a great value for the size and quality of the game you’re paying for. Fork over an extra five bucks and you’ll also score a pack of digital bonuses, including the full soundtrack (which is excellent, by the way), a “Making of” video, and a nice PDF art booklet.
Outside of Heavy Rain, adventure gaming really hasn’t been innovated upon since the genre’s LucasArts golden age, which is probably why the mainstream routinely fails to recognize its continued existence. This game certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel either, but what it does do is hone every common adventure game design convention into an experience that is both mentally engaging and artistically captivating. Simply put, The Book of Unwritten Tales is bursting with heart and personality. It may not win you over with groundbreaking innovations, but I dare you to resist its endearing charm.
+ Puzzles are often goofy yet still have logical, intuitive solutions
+ Fun use of parody and self-referential humor
+ Memorable character encounters and conversations
+ Beautifully realized video game world, visually and aurally
– Familiar genre drawbacks like backtracking and scripted scenarios occasionally bog things down
– No inherent replay value; Achievements would have been a nice touch for the new Steam release
Publisher: Nordic Games
Developer: KING Art Games
Release Date: 7/31/2012
Source: Review code provided by publisher