I feel as if I’ve opened a sort of time-capsule that provides evidence for time travel. Is Hitler dead? No. Was J.F.K.’s assassination prevented? No. Did someone develop a sexually tense relationship with a younger version of their mother? I’d rather not think about it. What definitely seems to have happened though is that today’s video game graphical technology was given to adventure game designers from 1995, the result of which is The Book of Unwritten Tales.
Despite that impression, the game’s background is much less fantastical. Released in Germany in 2009 by developer KING Art, the game was subsequently translated for a broader European release in late 2011 and is finally coming stateside. The ambitiously traditional game follows in the footsteps of the LucasArts style of adventuring, where characters, plot, and environments take precedent over puzzling. That’s not to say the puzzles are bad, as they are in fact some of the better ones I’ve played in an adventure game in a while. These mean little without the context of narrative elements though, and Unwritten Tales provides that in spades.
Plot-wise, the game is intentionally thin and points that out by naming the plot’s prime mover after a fiction technique- MacGuffin. Meta-narrative humor is quickly joined by its close cousin—referential humor—when an unsuspecting hero of halfling stature is given a ring of great importance and pushed into a journey he didn’t expect to go on. This same style of pop-culture allusion remains strong throughout, with Indiana Jones, Lord of the Rings, World of Warcraft, and Star Wars being the main sources. The writing remains sharp enough to give life to the world in a real way, despite the fact that the fantasy setting which the game takes place in is the epitome of conventional, filled with dwarves, orcs, humans, wizards and dragons. This is often done through the side characters that populate the world, which consists of enamored zombies, dismissive magicians, and a female dragon trying to make it in a male dragon’s world.
Thankfully though, Unwritten Tales doesn’t take the lazy route of relying on making fun of itself and other things and makes a genuinely interesting character in that of the gnome adventurer Wilbur Weathervane. Is his charm of being an ordinary person who accomplishes extraordinary things when placed in unusual circumstances lifted directly from Frodo? Yes, but it’s a charm so rarely used in a medium that insists on fulfilling power fantasies that it ends up being refreshing. Other characters are placed under player control as well- the wood-elf Ivo, the scoundrel with a heart of gold Nate, and a pink creature reminiscent of the Muppet Beaker named Critter- and while each has their own mechanical advantage, none quite match up to Wilbur’s relatability as a character; the world is as foreign and strange to him as it will be to the player.
I fear to reveal more of the story than I already have, but I can say that aside from a hurried, unsatisfying ending and a particularly lengthy third act that drags the game with a dull character, the narrative is quite charming. What may push people away will be the referential and meta-narrative humor that sometimes comes a bit too heavy-handed.
As I stated earlier, the puzzles in Unwritten Tales are quite good. Perhaps it’s in part that the last game I reviewed- Anna- had puzzles disconnected from the surrounding narrative, but each puzzle here felt natural. Much of this is due to the fact that there are quite a few item combination solutions. It may be a lazier form of puzzle design- complaints about simplicity are justified- but it kept me from using the process of elimination technique that plagues the genre far too often and let the pace run smoothly. While these simpler puzzles make up the bulk of the game, the title has flashes of brilliance where players are given control of the three main characters and have to use their individual skills and knowledge to move forward. The game is even bold enough to include a small rhythm game, a stealth section, and potion making that involves manual brewing.
Despite its prodigious length- the game clocks in at around 15 hours- I don’t want to dive in more so as to not spoil anything else of the story (and trust me, there’s much more to be seen than what I’ve told here). The game looks great, has well-realized puzzles, and tells an engaging tale that’s blended with quaint humor. If you’re looking for an adventure game that feels very much like the games from the genre’s heyday, The Book of Unwritten Tales is worth a look.
Here’s the Rundown
+ Great visuals
+ Traditional with a hint of modern design
+ Puzzles are great…
-… but can sometimes be too easy.
- Ending is unsatisfying
- Third act drags
8 and 8.5 represent a game that is a good experience overall. While there may be some issues that prevent it from being fantastic, these scores are for games that you feel would easily be worth a purchase.
The Book of Unwritten Tales was developed by KING Art and published in the United States by Nordic Games. It was released for the PC on July 31, 2012 on Steam. A copy was provided to RipTen for the purposes of review.