Title: Black Book
Release Date: August 10, 2021
Reviewed On: PS4
Publisher: HypeTrain Digital
Genre: Adventure RPG
Indie games excel most when they explore new concepts through unique means or whatever budget they have access to, which is generally what sets them apart. Black Book falls into the category of “interesting concepts” as it mixes the mechanics of a turn-based card-battling RPG with elements of point-and-click adventure games. The result is an experience that I found myself invested in.
In Black Book, the player takes the role of Vasilisa, a young orphan woman who is destined to become a witch after being taught the craft by her grandfather, Old Egor. However, she refused this fate in favor of being with her beloved and eventually marrying him. But, sadly, things aren’t happily ever after, and, unfortunately, he took his own life and found himself sent straight to hell.
Unable to accept this outcome, Vasilisa becomes a witch and obtains a relic known as the Black Book, a demonic artifact containing spells and the power to grant the wishes of those who break all seven seals that the book holds. This mission takes Vasilisa on a journey to solve the mysteries behind the seals in hopes of reviving her lover.
The narrative is well-written and presented with full voice acting with Russian and English dubs. The voice acting itself is decent and adds charm to the experience. Still, I noticed that the English dub didn’t sync with the written dialogue at times. A few characters join Vasilisa along the way, such as Old Egor, Nikolay, and Proshka, who each have their own personality and effect on the narrative. A few twists line the narrative, which are decided on the choices players make during dialogue.
Black Book includes Slavic mythology and folklore in its narrative, but there’s a handy encyclopedia available the fills up during gameplay. There is also a hint option during the dialogue that translates some Russian words. I appreciated these inclusions as I didn’t know much about the lore the game is based on.
Additionally, there are scenarios where you’re tested on your knowledge that nets experience for the correct answer. These queries can be challenging to understand without checking out the encyclopedia. However, you can opt-in for hints, but doing so will lower the experience gained.
Admittedly, the visual style is somewhat rough. The character models look minimalistic, especially from up close when compared to the well-illustrated artwork. However, despite this, the various locations are breathtaking in ambiance and coloration. Further, the soundtrack is well-composed, with several atmospheric tracks and some vocal ones that fit the setting relatively well.
Black Book’s gameplay has you explore the rural countryside of Russia as you are given main and optional tasks to handle by visitors of Old Egor’s house, where Vasilisa works towards breaking the seals of the Black Book. This requires you to head to areas on the map to complete tasks. Along the way, events occur, such as meeting other villagers who may need help or discovering new items or demons.
While the exploration works well, some of the mandatory events before the main location felt more optional than mandatory. I would’ve appreciated if there was a way to visit the more relevant areas to the main tasks regardless if I visited a particular place that’s seen as mandatory or not, as that would improve the game’s pacing.
During exploration, you will be able to make choices. Some choices influence the morality system that affects notable parts of the experience, such as the ending. This system counts the number of sins you have committed by making questionable choices or sending out demons to torment villagers. This may be a necessary evil since if you don’t send out demons to torment other villagers, they will instead torment Vasilisa with negative status effects or debuffs.
It can be difficult not to sin as you need to make morally correct choices which occasionally lower the number of sins on top of managing the demons you keep around or send out in the early game. Later on, you can use certain items and skills to keep the demons from tormenting Vasilisa. I would have liked a method to send out demons to torment villagers during exploration, as some can join you as you level up.
Black Book‘s combat is turn-based and allows you to pick up to four spells from your hand and draw from up to thirty-three spell pages to use during your turn. Black spells are used for offense and debuffs, and White spells are used for defense and buffs. These are divided into Orders and Keys. You can also use items, and if you are accompanied by a companion, they can perform a skill that’s unique to them which has its own cooldown timer.
Combat can be rather challenging, especially during the puzzle battles, which give you a preset deck to solve puzzles and certain encounters on some of the greater difficulties. You can also choose to skip battles on the lowest difficulty, which is a neat inclusion in terms of accessibility, but it’s odd since enemies go down rather swiftly.
As you break the seals of the Black Book and progress, more powerful spells become available to use and add to your deck. Some have additional effects such as boosting power when paired with spells of the same name or color, staying on the field for a few turns, or allow you to play extra cards in a turn. On top of that, you can also learn various skills from a few different skill trees by leveling up and spending the skill points you gain from those levels. These features offer a few ways to strategize around certain encounters that you may come across.
The battle system is easy to pick up, and the RPG elements are well-implemented. I had a good amount of fun figuring out which spells worked well together in a deck, though only 1 deck is allowed, which you can customize. I would have liked the option to build more of them and swap out one deck for the other. There is a decent and enjoyable game loop here that could have some quality of life improvements.
During gameplay, you have the option to play Durak, a card game that requires you to play until no cards are left in your hand to win. In some scenarios, such as playing Durak with a demon or a magic-user, you and your opponent can use magic to cheat to turn the tides dramatically. It’s a very straightforward mini-game that serves as an aside from the main story.
Black Book is an adequate adventure card-battling RPG experience that focuses on telling a well-written story and teaching players about Slavic mythology and folklore, which is handled with a lot of insight and respect towards the subject. As a result, it boasts undeniable charm but also shows a few rough edges when it comes to visual style and pacing.
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