Video game adaptations of various mythologies from cultures around the world has been on the rise this gen. Hades and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey bring their own renditions of Greek mythology to the table, while God of War 2018 and Jotun try a hand at Norse folklore. While Slavic myths, in general, aren’t too uncommon (like the Witcher games for eg.), they have been more focused on the monsters and gods aspect than the occult side of things. Black Book, an upcoming supernatural adventure RPG by publisher HypeTrain Digital and Russian indie developer Morteshka, looks to address that.
Taking place in the rural countryside of the Perm Governorate in 1879, the game follows the tale of a young woman Vasilisa raised by her grandfather Egor who taught her the ways of magic as a “koldum” (sorcerer). After her beloved dies via suicide, she vows to bring him back by means of the titular Black Book – a demonic artifact that is said to grant any wish if all seven seals on it are broken. Thus, after her initiation as a witch after her encounter with the Devil, she sets out to find a way to open the rest.
As previously mentioned, the game draws heavily from supernatural beliefs from Russian folklore in its world design and that’s reflected beautifully throughout – the brooding cel-shaded art style, character and demon designs and just the overall ambiance is top-notch. The game even includes an encyclopedia to explain the terminology players will come across, as well as a collection of “bailichka” (Russian folk tales). All in all, it does a good job of familiarizing uninitiated gamers with the Slavic culture and lore with good writing. In fact, pouring over these text entries is vital to the overall gameplay as they contain clues as to how Vasilisa must proceed with a given dilemma – definitely a clever way to make players pay attention to each new entry that pops up.
The prologue lasts around an hour and familiarizes the player well with the mechanics. While Vasilisa can be controlled via keyboard movement, a vast majority of the game is controlled by the mouse – from combat to moving around the map. Exploration is done in a self-contained level dotted with points of interest that Vasilisa can interact with to learn about her surroundings. Interacting with objects or coming across scenarios (with or without NPCs) could be either helpful (eg. providing extra XP or health items) or detrimental to her (taking damage). And yes this game occasionally offers decisions to be made (including dialogue choices), and those decisions have consequences – including a Sin meter which tracks the number of bad deeds done by Vasilisa, and that can affect the game’s ending.
Combat is a turn-based affair, driven by the Black Book itself. The Book features numerous “zagovor” or spells, each of them acting as a “card” and they are split into two categories: Order and Key; this adds a neat deck-building element to the game. These spells can have either offensive, defensive, or support roles and the set of spells you get to pick from is randomized each turn. The player must observe enemy attack cues and strategically use zagovor combos to manage Vasilisa’s defense and offense to vanquish enemies – an assortment of vile demons – by reducing their health to 0. Successful combat encounters reward the witch with exp, money and new spells.
Vasilisa can also use consumables once per turn during combat (eg. to recover HP) – but there is one problem; the game does not provide a way to monitor her health stat when out of combat (even though it allows healing) so that’s one overlooked design element the devs hopefully address with the final release.
Besides that, the gameplay is engaging enough in a nutshell, and the prologue has enough encounters to get the player used to the system as well as varied set-pieces at each map node to keep things fresh.
Verdict: I like it. It’s rare to see such a fresh experience both thematically and gameplay-wise, even in the indie scene and I definitely look forward to the full release of Black Book to see how Vasilisa’s perilous journey ends.