Publisher: King Art
Reviewer: Nick Stewart
Overall: 8 = Excellent
Win XP SP 3 (32 bit)/Vista SP 2/7 SP 1, P4 2 GHz or AMD Athlon 2.4 GHz, 1GB RAM (XP)/2GB RAM (Vista/7), Direct X 9c compliant video card with 128MB RAM and PixelShader 2.0 support, 6 GB free hard drive space (4 GB more to unzip downloaded file)
While every genre has its fair share of plot-borrowing and cookie-cutter characters, few others are able to match the outright stylistic thievery as that seen in the fantasy realm. For every terrific writer capable of putting a new spin on the swords-and-sorcery concept, many more are more than willing to trot out the same old tropes and beat them to a pulp. The gaming world is most definitely not exempt from this curse; however, where most fantasy-themed games are more than happy to dredge up every hackneyed plot and “save the world” theme possible, The Book of Unwritten Tales tries to have something different to say. With shocking and less-obvious amounts of silliness, the game tries to turn the fantasy-game world on its head, if just a little.
The plot, for whatever it may happen to actually be worth, is as standard as standard gets: an evil faction known as the Shadow Army—laden with all sorts of trolls, snickering warlocks, and tentacled queens—is duking it out with the virtuous-as-expected Alliance, and the back-and-forth of a prolonged war is taking its toll on both sides. However, one Alliance gremlin sage’s discovery of an item that could turn the tide of the war forever is inconveniently interrupted by his kidnapping by the Shadow Army—though not before he’s able to cryptically gift a ring of mysterious importance to a young janitor of a gnome by the name of Wilbur. This strange hint leads Wilbur on the road to find allies and the item in question, and it’s this journey, packed as it is with magic and trickery, that ultimately defines the game itself.
It’s important to note that this intro sequence is decidedly misleading, as it sets itself up to be a derivative and generic fantasy adventure title—which it is really anything but. Once you punch through the decidedly average “young would-be hero dreams of seeing the world, and then he gets an excuse to do so” intro half hour, the game transforms into a fairly witty and entertaining satire of the adventure genre as a whole. What’s more, it does so while carpet bombing the dialogue with an endless succession of references to geek culture, but in a way that can only be done from writers who know it well. In preparing for this review, I started to keep an active log of all the references I could notice, and here’s what the notes looked like before I stopped being able to keep track: Indiana Jones, Lord of the Rings, Monkey Island, Star Wars, Discworld, the Three Musketeers, Magic: The Gathering, World of Warcraft, Monty Python, the Simpsons, and even a terrifically fantastic and obscure Maniac Mansion reference. The list is well and truly endless; and that’s a good thing, as this incredibly dialogue-heavy game bounces rather skilfully between these references without really ever missing much of a beat, or waiting for you to really get what it’s pointing at.
And really, this is what Unwritten Tales is about: its sense of humor and deft skewering of the adventure genre. There are several belly laughs to be had here, not to mention countless smiles and smirks; it’s a superbly written game, and the massive amounts of dialogue are a benefit, rather than a crutch. The hints come early: the gremlin who susses out the Mysterious Item to End All Wars is called “MacGuffin”, and this wittiness comes fast and furious as the game develops, offering you such characters as a pair of gamers who enjoy a role-playing game in a world bereft of magic or trolls, where you must avoid tax audits and apply for passports (run by a monkey named “Server”). Some of the jokes are ham-handed, most are downright silly, and almost all are worth listening to at least once.
As mentioned, this goofiness is very often directed at the adventure genre itself. It’s safe to say the game works quite hard to poke serious fun at standard genre tropes and plot holes, and most of these are clearly and sharply observed from what can only be the voice of experience. Wilbur’s out-loud wondering to another character about why wandering from the city to the swamp changes the background sky from day to night results in a shrug and an off-hand, “I dunno…magic?” Even with the profuse winks at the player, the game becomes especially meta at times; without ruining it, there are some goofy musings on the nature of point-and-click adventure games vs. RPGs, and on the types of people who play them. It’s all pretty great stuff.
Unfortunately, this self-awareness doesn’t preclude the game from making some of the very same mistakes that it so openly mocks. Although the game often goes out of the way to point the ridiculous and sigh-inducing frequency with which adventure games force the player to “get Item X in exchange for Item Y so that you can in turn get Item Z,” Unwritten Tales all too often indulges in that vey same behavior—and not just mockingly. This is often wincingly so: an early quest even branches out into an eye-rolling “get eight different items” sub-quest, which is in itself accompanied by two other sub-quests, and if you hadn’t guessed, will lead to many, many, many sub-quests just like it. This becomes the game’s primary modus operandi, as the overwhelming majority of quests boil down to that very same pattern. On occasion, the game will even go so far as to make fun of itself for doing so, but that doesn’t alleviate the now-and-again sighs you’ll experience as yet another quest giver refuses to help you unless you retrieve some bizarre and seemingly obscure series of objects.
The only redeeming thing about the otherwise teeth-grinding quest set-up is that the puzzles themselves are actually extremely easy. None of the combinations of items or solutions are particularly obscure, and most can be guessed the instant you see a certain item in your inventory or in the gameworld itself, leaving you to find the matching item to complete your puzzle. In fact, that is actually the toughest part of the game by far: pixel-hunting to find the necessary items. It’s true: Unwritten Tales unwittingly revives one of the most annoying adventure gaming habits of yesteryear, where any seemingly unsolvable puzzle can be dealt with if you travel to each location and sweep your cursor back and forth across every inch of your screen until the text prompt turns up an item you couldn’t even tell was there in the first place. Easily, 99 percent of all otherwise challenging puzzles were resolved in this way, which would be disappointing in any other adventure game.
It’s a testament, then, to the quality of the writing in Unwritten Tales that none of these otherwise game-sinking flaws are enough to reduce its sheer entertainment value. It’s a great-looking game, with solid voice acting, which would be enough to carry any number of inferior adventure games; luckily, this one has a sense of humor and a profound reverence of the genre and its geek roots that make it worthwhile to plow through the dross and the lesser gameplay. It has a spirit that manages to break past its poor puzzles, misleading intro, and bizarre pacing, and makes you want to see just what lies beyond the next set of conversations.
All in all, The Book of Unwritten Tales is a great and rare example of an adventure game whose sharp, silly, and satirical writing is worth infinitely more than its questionable gameplay. Its stellar writing and generally fun voice acting are surprisingly capable of overcoming a series of puzzles that are stereotypically tedious, if straightforward. Punching through its deceptively derivative first half hour eventually opens up a surprisingly strong set of jokes that call back to nearly every major genre and geek culture touchstone imaginable, and then some. It’s a flawed game, to be sure, but one worth the time you’ll put into it. It’s lengthy, goofy, and smart, and what it has to say about genre icons—and itself—is well worth listening to.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)