Knowing The Knower
HIGH Wonderfully rich cultural content rarely seen in games.
LOW Some of the puzzle battles are incredibly tricky.
WTF *That’s* how you become immortal??
As an American game player of 40-plus years, I’m well-versed in the themes we get in the West over and over and over again. Muscle-bound military guys with guns? Can’t avoid ‘em. Ninja and samurai? We’re constantly steeped in swords and honor. Medieval-style knights and armor? It’s baseline stuff.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy these archetypes — I do! — but the world is a big place and there are more cultures, ideas and perspectives than what we see in the “new this week” tab of any online store. Game developer Morteshka agrees, and they used their Kickstarter success to launch Black Book.
Drawing from Slavic and Russian folklore and supporting that content with a mixture of visual novel and deckbuilder gameplay, it’s hard to imagine a traditional publisher taking a risk on it, but their efforts to offer something new (along with some bravery from Hypetrain Digital) have resulted in one of the best titles of 2021.
The story begins with a young girl, Vasilisa, at a crossroads at midnight with her grandfather. Her betrothed has just died under questionable circumstances, so she’s seeking to become a literal make-a-bargain-with-the-devil witch in order to bring him back to life.
Beyond the powers of witchcraft, she’ll also need to use the Black Book – a tome locked by seven seals that can only be opened by performing seven great tasks. Once open, the book will grant any wish – but is saving the life of her beloved worth the price it will take?
The adventure that follows is more vast and epic than I would have ever expected, especially knowing that it comes from a small team building on a crowdfund foundation. Vasilisa will travel through the darkest corners of Russia visiting villages, helping townsfolk and battling demons every step of the way while capitalizing on the unique blend of myths, folklore and stories native to the region.
This cultural content and how it’s integrated into the world is one of the most striking things about Black Book. Despite being a witch, Vasilisa greets most people with “God be with you!” or “God helps!” and displays a nuanced neither-one-but-both dichotomy allowing her to embody both dark magic and Christian belief. This sort of sophistication rarely makes it into Western games. Going further, the script frequently incorporates pre-Christian indigenous beliefs from the region and allows those to exist alongside the rest. It’s a wonderfully rich glimpse into a fascinating multi-layered culture.
This context influences every aspect of Black Book in marvelous ways. Take, for example, the main form of narrative interface – a visual novel-style setup where Vasilisa will meet people, engage in dialogue, and then be presented with a series of choices. Many of these choices absolutely hinge on knowledge of Slavic superstitions and stories, and since most of the audience will likely be clueless, the devs provide several encyclopedias’ worth in the menus.
When meeting a leshy, how do you recognize it? When trying to escape from a mazelike forest, what tricks will see one home safely? Reading these entries not only provides players with the answers they need, but also greatly enriches the world. However, this content isn’t here just as a way to quiz the player — it also informs the player as to how to navigate Vasilisa’s world and guide her into being the kind of person they wish.
Once the player starts learning the rules and realities of this Russia, Black Book provides ample opportunity for Vasilisa to become a good witch, a bad one, or to land somewhere in the middle. It’s constantly possible to help or hinder, to give or to steal, to exact revenge or forgive. It’s also important to note that many acts (like digging up a grave) have ‘sin’ inherent to them, and this is especially true when dealing with “chorts” – the Slavic term for demons.
As a witch, Vasilisa will amass a small army of chorts via gameplay, and if they’re not sent out to do harm, they’ll harm her. Will she let them loose on local villages to sow misery if it keeps them out of her hair, or will she endeavor to mitigate their evil deeds?
This wonderful character development and constant internal tug of war between good and evil forces is also reflected in the other major part of Black Book — the deckbuilding combat.
While traveling across points on a map, Vasilisa will often come across demons. Sometimes they’re benevolent, sometimes they’re up to no good (but willing to let her pass – or join them!) and sometimes there’s going to be a fight.
As seals of the Black Book are gradually broken during play, unlocked pages represent different types of spells, both white (defensive and curative) and black (offensive.) Combat happens in turn-based fashion, and the player can cast several spells in a row, often creating combos as certain spells buff or trigger others. It’s not possible to win without being skilled in both types of magic, although some of the most devastating spells will either harm Vasilisa physically or stain her soul with sin. Power comes at a price indeed!
Between the cultural context, the masterful balance of elements, and a story that had me gripped from start to finish, Black Book hits all the right notes. If there are any criticisms to be made, it would probably be that the English translation could use a little tightening up.
The script’s wordings aren’t generally an issue (and I adore the quaint voice performances) but there were a few times when a choice was unclear because it was phrased a little vaguely. Even more noticeable is that during combat, the wording on some cards leave their effects or proper usage unclear. A little experimentation generally cleared things up, but I’d love to see a more accurate translation overall, especially given that many of the concepts, events and norms (church… towels?) will be totally unknown to most players in the West, meaning they won’t have any personal context to fill in language gaps.
Honestly, I love Black Book. This marvelous piece of work consistently avoids the expected beats, and I have no doubt that many aspects of the story and how it’s told will be quite surprising – hell, simply being exposed to the attitudes and views of the characters is eye-opening all on its own. Morteshka has brought us a title that offers a glimpse into a time and place that we rarely see, and has couched it in the incredible journey of a humble Russian girl.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Morteshka and published by Hypetrain Digital. It is currently available on PC, PS, XB and Switch. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the XBX. Approximately 40 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated E10+ and contains Fantasy Violence and Mild Blood. I’m honestly a bit surprised at how low this rating is. While there’s nothing too graphic in terms of visuals, the content is quite dark at times and many of the concepts can be frightening. I’d feel more comfortable with this game being rated at least a T, honestly. There’s no sexual content and no salty language.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: All dialogue is subtitled, but the text cannot be altered or resized. (See examples above.) The game is turn-based, so no audio cues are necessary for play. This game is fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable. There is no control diagram. The game is mostly text and menus, with choices selected with the left stick, ad the ‘confirm’ and ‘cancel’ being one face button each. Occasionally Vasilisa will walk around a small open area, and in these sections, she is controlled with the left stick.