Wilbur, Ivo, Nate and Critter are back — well, they’re not yet all the way back, but they’re on their way back, piecemeal. The official release of The Book of Unwritten Tales 2 is slated for early 2015 sometime, but at the moment (as of September 4th) the developers have started releasing the “unpolished” game bit by bit, or chapter by chapter, on Steam “early access.” This process appears to be some kind of cross between episodic gaming, à la Telltale, and beta testing. You pay your money (after signing up for a Steam account) and you get the game downloaded in sections to your computer. As of now, the first of the eventual five chapters is available.
Future installments will arrive as the developer, er, develops them. At least, this is what I make of this admittedly garbled scheme. Players can provide feedback, both technical and critical, on the game as it goes along, the same as a beta tester. There have already been two (as of September 12th) technical updates to the game.
But enough of the marketing mania. What’s the game itself like, you want to know. Not too surprisingly, it’s a heck of a lot like the first two official games. Three years ago (four if you’re German), the first TBoUT came out and roughly a couple of years after that the “prequel,” named Critter Chronicles. I reviewed both of those excellent games at the time, so I won’t go into deep particulars here...except to remind everyone that Wilbur (a gnome), Ivo (an elf princess), Nate (a charming rapscallion) and Critter (species undefined) teamed up to save their Tolkien-inspired fantasy world from the evil Munkus and a few other creeps. In CC we then learned how Nate and Critter met and teamed up and, again, defeated Munkus.
Now, it’s about a year after the first game, story-time-wise, and matters are once again troublesome in Aventasia. So far, the early access has permitted access to two sections of episode one, the first showing Ivo at home in the palace having issues with mom, the Queen; and the second chronicling Wilbur’s first day as the sole professor at the Seastone magician’s school. Once again, a player needs a scorecard to tell which particular magical tale the writers are ripping — uh, riffing — off at any given point — Lord of the Rings? Harry Potter? Monkey Island? Simon the Sorcerer?
The Wilbur portion ends (at least for now) rather abruptly, not even at the end of the chapter. But what there has been of the game thus far is of the same high quality as the earlier two games.
The artwork is rich and beautiful and unapologetically LucasArts-ian. The orchestral music is lush. The writing is both intelligent and often very amusing. The voice characterizing, predominantly British, is Old Vic-level.
The gameplay is also primarily of the LucasArts vein — wacky inventory puzzles spiced up with the occasional dialogue tree conundrum. My one complaint is that the dialogue can get a bit torrential. I got itchy to get back to the gameplay proper. Critter Chronicles experimented with a “hard” mode, but thus far that has not shown up in the settings panel here. However, since everything is still theoretically “in development,” who knows?
For now, TBoUT2 includes most of the modern adventure game conventions. Which is to say the developers have attempted to configure the game so that you can complete it in your sleep. Hit the space bar and the hotspots light up. Both inventory items and hotspots evaporate (magically!) when their use is expended. There’s a somewhat quirky tutorial that appears to have nothing to do with the game’s story.
In the last few years I’ve grown weary of carping about how easy adventure games have gotten, so I won’t moan further here. Even I have to admit that some of these new conventions make sense, even if they do reduce gameplay to just progressing through the few available possibilities. At least the “help” here, as in the two earlier games, is blessedly unobtrusive. And, once again, the puzzles are clever and even occasionally challenging. Many of them force you to think outside of the box. The puzzles aren’t hard, exactly, but they are fun and intelligent, even creative at times. These days, that might be the best that can be expected.
Being essentially a beta version of the game, I did run across a handful of glitches. Though I found only three serious ones, where I was unable to advance. I gallantly went to Steam’s forum for the game to impart my experience but balked at the user profile requirements. Is data mining getting just a wee bit out of control, or is it just me?
So I’ll just save myself the trouble and list the bugs here. The first occurred in, of all places, the tutorial! How ironic. Can you imagine buying a game and not being able to move past the tutorial? This is why games should either not have tutorials or there should be a handy dandy button that lets one skip the durn thing.
Perhaps the trouble was my admittedly underpowered laptop, but the cute little robot (ripped off from Pixar) got stuck doing this little dance, back and forth, back and forth, on its way to pull a lever. I finally managed to tweak (though sheer guesswork) the settings and found a combo where he would make it to the lever.
The other two, rather similar, bugs occurred in the Wilbur section. First, Wilbur couldn’t make it out of the doorway to the hall, getting stuck in another endless loop. Once again, fiddling with the settings came to the rescue. And finally, after lighting the fire in the library, the “cut scene in progress” action icon refused to quit and return control of the game to me. More settings panel fiddling ensued. Whew. At least I did make it through to — well, to where the game abruptly quits, for now.
This is the first I’ve run into this “early access” process. Perhaps it’s already the rage in other areas of gamedom, but it will be interesting to see if it does both “improve” and polish the game before its official release. And of course it grants the franchise’s fans the early look at a game that they always crave.
I recently reviewed the similarly "Kickstartered" adventure game Tesla Effect, the latest Tex Murphy adventure. This also garnered a great deal of feedback and input from super fans during the game’s development. In that particular case, I didn’t think the fan input helped the game any and might have weakened it. Politics can benefit from public discussion. Artwork, not so much. This “early access” process might be a bigger and better beta testing system, however. We’ll get a good idea when the finished game comes out next year.
I’m reluctant to provide a grade for The Book of Unwritten Tales 2, considering that this is indeed a beta version and only one-fifth complete at that. I will say the game appears on track to be as excellent as its two predecessors, both of which were in the A minus range. According to the developers, the game (and the grade) might even change dramatically before it’s all over.
If this sort of dynamic, unpredictable gaming appeals to you, then by all means try out the “early access” version. If, however, you like your games as finished and as stable as possible, you might want to hold your fantasy horses until the new year.