There is always a fine line between subtle references to well-established genres, books, movies or other media, and obvious parodies trying too hard to be funny and only ending up rather tame in humor. The German sense of humor is as different to American humor as it is to British. While there are some universally ridiculous themes like bureaucracy, fantasy tropes are maybe the most recognizable. So does KING Art Games’ The Book of Unwritten Tales excel in making fun of these while also offering its own unique sense of humor and delivering the point-and-clicker goods?
Gremlin archaeologist Mortimer McGuffin is captured by the evil forces of villain Mother, and it’s up to the unlikely heroes of the Alliance with dwarf cook, wanna-be magician Wilbur Weathervane, elf princess Ivodora Eleonora Clarissa, human adventurer Nathaniel Bonnet, and alien creature Critter, to save the world of Aventasia.
Standard fantasy fare with jokes
For the most part, the writing succeeds in laying bare traditional fantasy and adventure game mechanics in particular, e.g. the quest system and why it’s always so hard to accomplish something if all kinds of people want a specific object delivered to them. The same holds true for the various races who always have prejudices against each other. So far, so Terry Pratchett. There are also some memorable NPCs, e.g. two shopkeepers who play an online RPG, but with the twist of being rather boring office workers, or a rat who’s reminiscent of Zorro, stealing from the rich population and giving it to the poor (rats). The main characters aren’t bad either, but they’re quite problematic, as they stay very superficial, and in the case of rogue Nathan, they’re not the most likable ones.
While there are a few funny dialogues, the quality varies. This has to do with forced humor, be it slapstick or too many references to classic games (like LucasArts) or Tolkien lore. Sometimes the use of swear words is too much as well, making a character like Nathan even less enjoyable to listen to. Another problem in addition to the uninteresting character development is the unexciting plot. Even if it’s a general problem of high fantasy, at least one should have a main villain who’s a bit intimidating, or a plot that isn’t as predictable as every pulp fiction novel. The story is neither suspenseful nor particularly engaging. Of course as a comedy game, that’s okay, but if the humor isn’t up to scratch either, those long hours of play can become as tiresome as the jokes and character interactions. It’s also telling that the funniest moments are with Critter whose gestures and indistinguishable sounds are more memorable than the whole bickering between Nate, Ivo, and Wilbur put together.
Fantasy worlds and stories
This is really too bad, because the world the player moves about in is quite wonderful to look at with some interesting background stories, even if the generic plot doesn’t use them to full effect. The pacing of the story is also quite good at the beginning, introducing new locations and characters. How the individual stories are interwoven in the tale isn’t the most original or convincing in some parts, but at least the player’s interest is kept up with each new chapter. Unfortunately there could have been a few more cutscenes, as the transitions between locations and scenes is often very abrupt. More ideas like time travel in the latter part of the game would have made the journey of three unlikely heroes much more enjoyable, as Aventasia provides enough opportunities with weird characters and great-looking vistas.
A plethora of puzzles
Humorous point-and-click adventure games don’t necessarily have to be bad because of an uninspired story if the puzzle design is good. Fortunately, it is quite good this time around. Most of the conundrums are logical and even easy to solve for beginners, while they usually fit the story progression. They’re not the most memorable though (at times trying too hard to imitate classics like Monkey Island, as can be seen with the creation of a voodoo doll), but nevertheless fun to work out. With a high number of puzzles, the possibility of less successful ones is high, and it shows in some parts. For once, there’s a horribly sensitive potion mixture puzzle which does not only require the right ingredients but exact mouse movements. Another annoying and frustrating experience is the stealth scene in a mine. It tries to make fun of the Baldur’s Gate isometric perspective and is about evading small creatures. However, it turns out to be simply stupid and as superfluous as a mini dance game with keys pressed at the right time.
At least the puzzles rarely become too obscure and switching between different characters and working together in a team of 2-4 is never overwhelming. A very handy feature is that hotspots disappear when they can’t be interacted with anymore, making it easier to concentrate on specific goals without having a cluttered inventory or too many environmental objects to worry about. It’s only too bad that going from one to the other character always involves unnecessary walking animations, while running is out of the question as well, making navigation and controls cumbersome.
Pleasing sights and sounds
Presentation-wise, the game still looks great today with some lovingly detailed backgrounds and characters whose animations are fluid and artwork colorful. The few cutscenes are okay, but could have been used for better storytelling effect. What really sticks out though is the terrific voice acting. Unlike many German games which get localized in English, this is even better than the original with various accents and perfect performances throughout. The music is also a joy to listen to. While it doesn’t have the same memorable quality of a Monkey Island (and the same jingle played each time when completing a quest gets tiresome), it’s at least varied enough and usually fits the current situation.
Not a classic, but a good effort
KING Art Games’ The Book of Unwritten Tales is a perfect example of how the German games industry can get stuck in the past when it comes to adventure games. Using references to classic LucasArts titles and constantly poking fun at fantasy and popular culture doesn’t guarantee that the end result is funny. While some jokes work, most of them come across as either too tame or forced. Fortunately, the puzzles are varied and mostly very enjoyable for beginners and advanced players alike, while the presentation with its great graphics and sound design sets it apart from contemporary titles. If there were only more memorable characters like the Critter or originality in the plot, then this book of Adventure Games 101 would be more than just another generic, even if quite lengthy with 12-15 hours playtime, addition to the genre.
If you liked reading this article, make sure you pay a visit to Future Sack which kindly features it as well, and every LIKE or comment is appreciated on EMR’s Facebook page or FS’s Facebook page :). Or FOLLOW the blog on EMR’s Twitter page.
Using the GOG or Amazon links and buying the product also helps ;).