Black Book Review (Switch)
Release Date: August 10, 2021
File Size: 1.6 GB
Publisher: HYPETRAIN DIGITAL
Click here to view on the Nintendo eShop.
One of the most empowering qualities of a deck-building game is the ability to create very optimized and mechanic-driven combat styles. Games like Slay the Spire, Monster Train, and Griftlands capitalize on this feeling by using run-based roguelike design, resulting in players frequently experimenting with new deck ideas upon starting from scratch. However, there is another niche to this subgenre, which is that of a long-form narrative utilizing deck-building mechanics. Games like Baten Kaitos, SteamWorld Quest, and Hand of Fate 2 offer the player the opportunity to reshape their decks on the fly based on what challenges they encounter. While this might seem like a way to streamline or force what builds are possible, this can also reveal the versatility of a deck-building game.
The last component to this long-form narrative RPG is… well, the long-form narrative. While deck-building is addictive and engaging in its own right, the accompanying story can be just as essential to the experience, heightening or potentially endangering the overall quality of the title. Though fantastic or futuristic scenarios are sure to entice, sometimes a solid foundation for lore and narrative can be found in legend and folklore itself. Black Book attempts to blend the strategy and nuance of deck-building titles with deep and morally conflicted writing based on Slavic folktales. Does it manage to succeed in this regard, or do its control issues mar the experience? Read on any find out.
Black Book is equal parts classic adventure and deck-building RPG. The former of these genres implies a degree of dialogue navigation and limited environmental exploration and puzzle-solving, which comprise the bulk of the game’s narrative progression. You are given a mission each evening to complete, and do so by leaving your mentor Egor’s abode and encountering a number of predetermined stops on the way towards your objective. Unlike other run-based roguelikes, your path is very linear, though you’ll need to complete each encounter before reaching your goal, with several optional side encounters opening up as you progress. These encounters often involve enemy skirmishes, but you will frequently be faced with NPC scenarios where you’ll be presented options to help or curse individuals. You must evaluate the pros, cons, and prior clues related to their standing revealed from previous scenarios.
Similarly, you will be able to control protagonist Vasilisa directly during story-based vignettes that take place in miniature three-dimensional areas, during which you can seek out and interact with elements of the environment in order to unlock new solutions to problems or story progression. The game makes this easier on the player by giving Vasilisa a selection field of influence: you may have the move closer to a certain prompt in order for it to be selectable via the quick-snapping feature mapped to the right control stick, but you don’t have to be right up against the object or element in order for your player character to notice it. These story vignettes are sporadic, but happen often enough that you won’t forget how to control them, or that details litter each small area.
The game also claims to possess deck-building strategy similar in depth and customization as Slay the Spire, which is setting a rather high bar. But the mechanics present here are just as deep and exploitable, with the added bonus of a much longer run and multiple crafting and purchasing options in order to create the deck of your liking. When stationed at Old Man Egor’s house, you can use your collected funds to craft new copies of cards you have previously encountered. The Black Book, the device that acts as your deck, expands its collection of cards after each completed chapter, so while you are able to drastically modify your deck based on the new cards offered with each successive chapter, the cards you’ve used previously synergize well with all new expansions and may be necessary in order to have a well-rounded set of skills.
You will occasionally encounter merchants that will sell you healing items, cards, and equipment, which can be placed on Vasilisa in small numbers until you spend enough skill points to unlock more slots. The game does have a leveling system and a slew of skill trees related to various in-game systems: you can improve your combat and card-drawing abilities, add new equipment slots or increase the amount of items you can use, and even reduce shop and card crafting prices, but there is yet another aspect of Black Book worth noting: the sin counter. Your chorts, the demons that grant your cards their power, are unfortunately pesky critters, and will inflict debuffs on the player should they be left idle when Vasilisa ventures out each evening. In order to mitigate this, you’ll have to task them with various kinds of mischief, much of which will negatively impact your sin counter if they should end up successful. The game rarely doles out opportunities for you to reduce sin, so you’ll need to evaluate the nature of the task you send a specific chort to complete, as they have affinities for certain chores and will fail- thereby avoiding sin- t/hose of which they lack proficiency with. The amount of sin you accrue can impact the ending of the game you receive, so play carefully… and morally.
Black Book’s narrative may seem straightforward on the surface, but the deeper into the game you delve, the more winding and uncertain it becomes. As Vasilisa, your beloved has passed away suddenly and without warning, leading you to suspect foul play. This is because in her world, Vasilisa knows that witches and warlocks are a very real thing, and becoming one means signing a contract with chorts and relinquishing any chance of a simple existence. Even so, Vasilisa decides to make a pact with the chort within the Black Book, a powerful and dark artifact with seven seals that, when broken, will grant the bearer a single wish.
Though her intentions are pure, the player can choose to embrace a more jaded side of Vasilisa, cursing and tricking others for her own benefit, or they can attempt a righteous playthrough as well, torturing themselves and saving others rather than inflicting demonic fury. As you explore the world, you will uncover various terms, songs, and encyclopedia entries that will further flesh out the concepts and laws that are at play, and you’ll meet a very colorful cast of characters with their own motivations and schemes. Allying oneself with some of them will open side quests to learn more about their past, and making certain decisions will cause suspicion, sow seeds of doubt, and frighten others. After all, you are a Knower, an individual feared and respected for your understanding of the dark arts.
Black Book’s visual novel roots are at their best here, when conversing with the unwashed, unhappy, and at times undead, and the game does an excellent job at presenting a very morally gray world with a variety of inhabitants. You’ll meet rival Knowers, demons of all sorts, and townspeople at their mercy, all with reasons as to their inclusion in the plot. On one hand, the game offers a relatively intimate look at this world that feels as if it should have much greater implications, but it uses the small cast of characters successfully and economically.
Black Book has several different kinds of presentation, and though this threatens to result in something aesthetically clashing, all of its pieces come together to form an effective package. There are the dialogue sequences that feature cartoonish, but dour and often unnerving portraits for some characters, which cycle through a limited variety of poses in order to communicate mood. Then, there are the maps of your nightly routes, which are vein-like routes criss-crossing over dark backgrounds, giving the impression of a parchment map with low detail that feels authentic, in a way. Finally, there are the diorama vignettes, during which all characters are presented in a low-polygonal, simple texture fashion that lets the imagination fill in the blanks and conveys a childlike horror of details not-yet-filled-in. That chorts appear as shadowy wraiths with little detail allows the mind to wander and consider their true nature. It’s an effective technique and plays to the storybook nature of the tale.
What’s more impressive is the extensive voice acting featured, with most parties giving convincing slavic dialect throughout their many scenes. While the in-game text and the performances don’t always match up, the amount of voice work here is impressive. Even the scenario descriptions are voiced, though a few are reused. It gives a professional edge to an indie title in a way that not many can contest, and it’s paired with a dark fairytale soundtrack that is further bolstered by some lovely and authentic folk singing. There is a moment when the game simply revels in its nightmarish stylings by allowing these slavic songs to echo over a despairing Vasilisa. Black Book is bleak, but beautiful in its aesthetics, but the game can be a bit too visually dark for its own good, with text that is sometimes too hard to read. This can be improved in the game’s settings, but they will only do so much.
All of this mechanical and presentational praise might make Black Book an easy buy, but the game has a few strange issues that stop it from being utter deck-based perfection. The control stick is hyper sensitive, and while you can use the D-pad in some situations like combat, you have to use it in order to scroll through menus. This is especially aggravating due to the specific selections you’ll want to make to your deck, and again, while many choices have the “hold A to proceed” option, others do not. It’s inconsistent in regards to its interactions, which makes it hard to sit with for a long time. The 3D dioramas also have inconsistent control for Vasilisa, with some offering very fluid and free movement while others are stilted, each press of the control stick only sending the player character forward a few steps. It is sometimes easier to let the automatic pathing do the job, but that can get tripped up in its own ways, as well.
Still, there’s a surprising and impressive amount of content on display. This is not a quick-run roguelike in the same camp as Slay the Spire, the narrative here is protracted, in-depth, and offers plenty of choices throughout that are worth reexamining on a second playthrough. The game encourages experimentation with its card battles through side quests that limit your deck to specific turn limitations, encounter types, and even certain cards. It’s a similar concept to the side quests presented in Little Town Hero, except executed far better. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to reflect on your current deck and consider how drafting new cards will benefit it even further.
If you’re looking for a full-length, dark and atmospheric, and mechanically sound RPG, Black Book is without a doubt one of the best offerings on the Switch. There are other titles that go for Lovecraftian or Soulsborne-like horror, but Black Book stands out in its unique premise and inspiration, blending the genuinely fascinating elements of slavic folklore with a turn-of-the-century, rapidly changing rural society. There’s nothing quite like Black Book on Switch, and if you think you can overcome its cumbersome control issues, you will find a complex and rewarding experience well-worth the price of entry.