Black Book: facing your demons

Is there a standard mechanic used in video games that you just can’t seem to gel with? Maybe it’s tricky timed jumps in platformers, pixel-hunting and in point-and-clicks or having to stay behind cover in shooters (I’m speaking for my other-half here).

As I’ve written before, it’s turn-based combat which does it for me. It just doesn’t feel representative of a real fight: if you’re confronted with a huge monster, you’re not going to politely wait while it considers its options and then takes its turn to strike. This says an awful lot about my personality and it’s obvious I don’t have the patience required for the genre. I’d much rather run into the battle with a scream and swords raised, and hopefully come out victorious. No guts, no glory as they say.

So why on earth did I decide to back Black Book on Kickstarter last week? Morteshka’s project is being advertised as ‘an adventure game with deck-building turn-based combat’ so you’d think I would have run away screaming. The truth is that I’ve had this one on my Steam wishlist since it appeared in my recommendations at the beginning of the year and when I found out about the crowdfunding campaign, I headed over become a backer and cuoldn’t wait to try the prologue.

This game tells the story of a young girl named Vasilisa, destined to become a witch and left heartbroken when her beloved dies in mysterious circumstances. She is given the Black Book, an ancient artefact which is said to be powerful enough to grant any wish to the person who is able to unlock its seven seals, and sets out on a quest to bring him back to her. Her journey will see her face the destructive influence of dark magic: will she surrender to its forces and become a lost sorceress or will she atone for selling her soul?

The prologue begins as Vasilisa becomes initiated and prepares to fight her first shadowy demon. She must choose three cards from the Black Book during each round (at least, it’s this number at the start of a playthrough) and use them to cast both defensive and offensive spells against her foe. The cards consist of two suits called Orders and Keys, and it’s necessary to select the correct amount from each for your turn to drive your opponent’s health down to zero while protecting yourself.

You can get a feel for the enemy’s intentions by checking out the symbols displayed over their head. This enables you to think strategically about your actions and plan the best spell response. Some cards work better together – for example, I came across one which gave an additional attack point for every other card of the same colour used in that round – and you’ll obtain further spells during the game by completing quests, receiving them as drops from encounters or buying them from the shop.

Once I’d completed Vasilisa’s initiation, it was time to take on several tasks and help the people around the province of Cherdyn. We banished two demons in Kusheva Village so a family didn’t have to spend the night sleeping on the streets and battled another who tried to ambush us at an Old River Bed. In other locations, it was possible to make a choice upon entering and this affected what happened next; for example, reading a prayer at Kachevo Lake caused two silhouettes to immediately disappear without a fight.

Black Book features a variety of Northern Slavic mythological creatures and Morteshka say they took extra effort to achieve authenticity in their portrayal. The development team grew up with these folk-tales and remember them fondly, but also took the time to consult with historians and anthropologists to make sure their project’s narrative accurately reflects the beliefs of their ancestors. You can see from the images provided on the Kickstarter page how they used illustrations from old books as reference for their artwork.

Towards the end of the of prologue, we encountered our biggest challenge yet: a larger foe called the Thirteenth Brother. Thankfully I’d had the foresight to collect as many medicinal herbs as possible in previous locations so we were well prepared. After impressing him with Vasilisa’s knowledge, he asked us to take him into our service and I accepted – but now I’m not sure it was such a good idea. The Steam page advises that you can recruit a flock of demons to do your bidding, but idle creatures will torture you if you don’t find them something to do.

When we returned home with our rewards of roubles and knowledge points, our grandfather Egor updated us on his research into opening the Black Book. As ‘every single piece has its meaning’ and ‘every seal needs a devil’, it sounds as though many more battles are going to lie ahead for Vasilisa. Will she be able to defeat every enemy that stands in her way? Will be able to stay strong and not succumb to the dark forces of black magic? And most importantly, will she be able to bring her beloved back from the dead?

Black Book, video game, witch, spell, circle, candles, Vasilisa, old man, Egor, dog, demon, dark, night, forest

It’s these questions that caused me to become a backer for Black Book. Turn-based combat won’t ever be my favourite mechanic, but I liked how the narrative for this project was darker than a lot of the fantasy stories you usually find in the genre and I’m genuinely intrigued to find out what happens to the protagonist. Forget knights battling against the forces of evil, because I’d much rather spend my time with a young sorceress who’s brave enough to battle demons.

As my other-half pointed out too, this could be a good game for us to play together in the evenings once we’ve finished work. Having to wait for your turn means there’s no rush to respond and you can take as much time as you need to think about your next move. Maybe it’s time I faced my own demons and finally learned enough patience to see a turn-based title through to its conclusion; who knows, there might even be a stream once the title is released next year.

The Kickstarter campaign has already far surpassed its £28,916 target and three stretch goals have been unlocked. There are still over two weeks to go before the deadline (at the time of writing) so if Black Book appeals to you, there’s still time to make a pledge. Check out the official website and give Morteshka a follow on Twitter for more details.