In the Literary World of the Bookbound Brigade, all stories reside in a mystical central library, safely ensconced within the Book of Books (affectionately known as BOB). However, this depository of all things literary and fantastical is, and I quote, “nicked by some toerag.” The ensuing chaos leaves all stories and characters unbound and therefore radically changed from their true form. It is your quest to rescue BOB with a clutch of literary characters in tow and put things right to ensure that there can be a happy ending. So, is the Bookbound Brigade a page-turner or destined to be a dusty tome left on the shelf?
Bookbound Brigade’s Italian developers Digital Tales promised a hand-drawn take on classic Metroidvania conventions, and they succeed in offering a distinctive and largely beautiful aesthetic that manages to combine clarity with cartoony caricatures (and isn’t pixel art). Characters are immediately recognisable and environments are relatively well varied, but there are occasions where the style makes foreground and background difficult to separate, which can be a little frustrating as you struggle to make your way through devious traps.
The writing here is pretty enjoyable on the whole, although it does require a tolerance for the kind of overwrought ‘spiffing’ vernacular of a particular pastiche of English. Characters have distinct personalities and there are many humorous exchanges between them. This is especially the case when meeting NPCs around the various book worlds and when completing their optional quests. There is a vast cast of characters from across literature and history, ranging from Quasimodo to Socrates, and they are written with genuine character. I was never entirely sure why real life figures were included alongside fictional though, and this never quite gelled for me.
Rather than a single character under your control, you play as a team of famous figures. Beginning with King Arthur, Dracula, Dorothy Gale (from Oz), Robin Hood, and Monkey at your disposal, with Queen Victoria, Cassandra, and Nikola Tesla joining you later for a total of eight. They’re all predetermined, so that their specific talents and skills can be unlocked as you work through the game in traditional Metroidvania fashion. Those include Dracula being able to glide, Tesla operating electrical switches, and Monkey swinging on rings with his tail. The different skills are unlocked on a fairly regular basis which keeps things interesting, but there is a huge amount of backtracking involved in returning to areas which were previously inaccessible.
Controlling your squad of characters is made more challenging by the inclusion of four different formations, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. This provides a welcome dose of strategy to your exploration as well as enabling a wider range of skills to be available using standard button configurations. There has clearly been a great deal of thought put into the overall design and gameplay here and that should be applauded. It is therefore a real shame that some glaring issues prevent the game from really reaching the heights that its setting deserves.
The aforementioned backtracking is exacerbated by a dreadful map system which is little to no use in navigating the world. This results in lengthy, often aimless, treks through a series of doors and tricky platforming sections only to arrive back where you began or at a different blocked off area. To make matters worse, the structure of the game involves you constantly being blocked off and having to travel to another world to gain the next ability before the pattern repeats. This quickly becomes tiresome and, since there are only four worlds, repetitive. Such an issue could easily have been solved by a more player friendly system for returning to the library hub, rather than the overly infrequent portal books. Having to traverse some fiendishly difficult platforming and sequences of traps is fine at first but finding yourself doing the same area multiple times gets old fast.
There is also a huge amount of combat in Bookbound Brigade. This would be fine were it not for the fact that the combat is almost entirely one dimensional and dull. Combos are activated by repetitively hammering the single attack button which rapidly becomes tedious, and whilst your new abilities can offer some assistance, the cooldowns for these are torturously slow. This becomes particularly annoying in some otherwise nicely designed boss fights as you play cat and mouse waiting for your powers to recharge. A few times I found that just rushing in and spamming attack worked far more effectively than trying to fight the boss properly, an approach assisted by the seeming lack of standard attack patterns in a boss’ offence.