The Book of Unwritten Tales 2 Review
Reviewed on PCAlso available on Apple Mac, Sony PlayStation 4, Microsoft Xbox One and Linux
Remember Discworld? Not just the series of books by the late Terry Pratchett, but more specifically the adventure games that were released in the 1990s. Any of you who do will feel a flash of nostalgia playing through The Book of Unwritten Tales 2. It will also remind you how frustrating that game was to play while also adding a helping of boredom, which is a shame because the game has all the ingredients to work so well.
Following on from the first game and its prequel, The Critter Chronicles, The Book of Unwritten Tales 2 is a traditional point-and-click fantasy adventure game that doesn't take itself at all seriously, using every chance it can to parody both the fantasy and adventure game genres, as well as a lot of other things. The game's setting, Aventasia, immediately brings to mind the aforementioned Discworld universe because it so heavily draws from - and makes fun of - the stereotypes created by The Lord of the Rings as well as Dungeons & Dragons. We also get a healthy dose of Game of Thrones and Harry Potter thrown in too. Straight away, any fantasy fan is going to have a ball spotting all of the spoofs and jokes; often they are sprinkled through the game's dialogue but we also get some really big, fun stuff such as the opening credits being done in the style of Game of Thrones, except that the cogs and machinery keep breaking down and you need to repair them. We're not just restricted to epic fantasy parody though, expect nods to Monkey Island, Final Fantasy and a dozen other franchises to pop up. It's very self-aware and even takes opportunities to remind you that you're playing a computer game.
You play several characters as you progress. Mostly you'll be in control of Wilbur, a gnome who wants to be a mage, but you'll also play as elf princess Ivo, swashbuckling adventurer (criminal) Nate and his odd sidekick creature, Critter. These are all returning characters from the previous games so if you played them then you'll have a good idea of what to expect as these guys haven't changed at all. Ivo is courageous and adventurous but feels trapped by her position and generally is the most rewarding character to play as she is immediately likeable. Nate, on the other hand, is egotistical and somewhat misogynistic and really doesn't have the charm to pull it off (unlike Han Solo whom he appears to be loosely based on) while Critter (Chewbacca much?) can only speak gobbledygook which wears thin after his first sentence. Fortunately you don't spend very long with them. That leaves us with Wilbur who should be our unlikely hero, the underdog, but unfortunately only comes across as whiny, weak-willed and mostly confused.
Our heroes have all split up and gone back to their lives after their previous adventures but it won't be long before events conspire to draw them back. Elf princess Ivo gets a surprise piece of news and learns of a mysterious malady taking over the town of Seastone. Wilbur is now teaching there in the mage school, but a new headmaster and council election threaten to have him removed. Eventually Wilbur is in serious trouble as he's framed by an old enemy. Throughout the game characters from the previous titles continually pop up and while we feel it is meant to simply be a nice nod to what's gone before, it does end up feeling a bit contrived to repeatedly just run into old faces - especially those who weren't that interesting the first time around (yes, you have to deal with the forgetful mummy again). Adventure games need memorable and enjoyable characters and this is The Book of Unwritten Tales 2's biggest flaw - you simply don't want to spend time with any of these people or creatures. While the game tries to inject a lot of humour into every situation and does manage to raise a few chuckles, it never really progresses to laugh-out-loud funny. A saving grace is that the whole experience is very light-hearted, otherwise it would be a very difficult game to stick with.
All this storytelling is surrounded by some of the most fiendish puzzle-solving we've encountered in an adventure game for quite some time. It's not that they are extremely difficult or illogical, but more that there are so many of them and they all end up being so unnecessarily convoluted. Back and forth fetch quests appear consistently and travelling between locations is often a slow chore until you get hold of quick-travel devices. Your goals are always made up of series of three of four smaller tasks - which in turn are each made up of five or six other micro tasks - and while there is quite a bit of variety in them, it makes for heavy going. This may sound unfair as traditionally this is the system that all adventure games have been built on, but other games never make it stand out like this and manage to weave puzzles and goals together organically. The Book of Unwritten Tales 2 does not succeed at this. It makes the game seem unnecessarily padded, contributing to the excessive play time needed to finish. It's almost unheard of these days in the adventure genre, but you'll need twenty to thirty hours to complete the game unaided. For many games this would represent good value for money and is exactly what you may want, but here it’s only a result of the game being exceedingly slow.
It's all the more disappointing because the game looks absolutely gorgeous. The backgrounds are overflowing with detail and dripping with atmosphere. Huge care has gone into setting the vibe for this game. It also means that objects are hard to distinguish, which is why it's very good planning that you are able to highlight anything that you can interact with. There's a fantastic section where the graphics revert to an old 1990s adventure style with a lovely pixellated resolution, which then continues back to 1980s style with far fewer colours and less animation, finally ending up as a text adventure. The transition back to the modern graphics really hits home how good this game looks. The voice acting is a mixed bag but generally works well when it comes to primary characters, and while Wilbur is whiny he is nowhere near as bad as Sadwick from The Whispered World. The voice of Nate is provided by Doug Cockle, but you would never guess that it's the same person who voices Geralt in The Witcher games.
The game is made up of five chapters, and the final chapter of the game does begin to show promise as it's far more direct and brings back memories of classic adventures. The problem is that it takes a huge amount of time to reach that point. The Book of Unwritten Tales 2 should have been a much better game than it's turned out to be. The original was a fun adventure and this sequel works to progress everything from that, but it's missed the mark by becoming very unfocused. If you were a particular fan of the original you will find things here that work for you, but this time it's unfortunately lacking in soul or charm.