I love games that teach me things. Whether that’s Persona teaching me about the gods of the old world on the other side of the planet, or Magic the Gathering simply teaching me new words, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of walking away from a game all the wiser for your time spent.
That’s what you get with Black Book, a text-based adventure RPG with deck-building and card-based combat.
In Black Book, you play a young woman named Vasilisa. Her husband dies under mysterious circumstances, and — you know how the story goes — in a bid to get him back, she makes a deal with the devil becomes a witch. It turns out that Vasilisa was always destined to become a witch, and a powerful one at that. The crux of the game is that she inherits the titular Black Book from her grandfather, a koldun (sorcerer) who was fairly powerful, but leagues below Vasilisa, even fresh out of the gates of hell.
The Book has seven seals. Break all seven and you get your wish. Your grandfather spent decades trying to break the first one but failed miserably. You broke it the second you touched it. What ensues is a romp around 19th century Russia, trying to break the seals by defeating powerful demons, helping (or cursing) the local peasantry at your leisure along the way. Witches and kolduns, also known as knowers, aren’t the pointy-nosed broomstick-riding sort of Grimm’s fairytales. Instead, they are often-venerated members of the community who can be turned to in a moment of need.
Help the villagers and they will give you gold. Send chorts (demons) after them and the demons will give you gold, but rack up your sin count. Of course, some of the villagers are less pleasant and ask you to do underhanded things like cursing their neighbours. How the game plays out, and how the locals treat you, depends on how you play the game.
The Black Book is more than just a plot device, however. The source of your power, this artefact aids you in your battle against the demons and bandits that roam the towns and villages after dark. Each page of the Book is effectively a card in your deck, containing spells that damage opponents, cast protective wards or heal you in the middle of combat. Even the spells you cast are steeped in folklore and ritual and must be cast in a set order, ending with a key phrase that brings it all together.
Combat — especially using touch screen controls — is overall very satisfying, particularly as you soak in the beautiful, gloomy artwork that makes up the backdrop. However, it can be a little finicky when it comes to certain things, like trying to ascertain what a bunch of enemies are about to do, or working damage to each enemy, rather than a total across all enemies, which is a little useless. As you break the seals, new, more powerful spells get unlocked, helping you take on bigger, badder demons.
But, as mentioned, this is a deck-builder with RPG elements, too. You can add and remove pages to suit your style, and level up your character to do more damage, hold more items that buff your spells, or — my personal favourite — send your chorts on meaningless tasks, such as making a rope out of sand. Because, as we all know, the devil makes work for idle hands. If you don’t keep your chorts busy, they will negatively affect you in combat, making your hits less effective or lowering your max health.
My favourite aspect of the game is the devotion to Russian folklore that is lovingly spread throughout the game. As you explore the game you’ll meet folks that tell you stories, filling your in-game encyclopedia. It’s vital that you read this because you will be tested on your knowledge. The sheer volume of text does impact pacing — especially when you stop to read an entry mid-conversation — which is unfortunate.
At one point, for example, you need to prove that a baby has been switched out for a changeling — an aspen log in the form of a baby that hasn’t grown in 18 years, and which the mother is devoted to because the obderikha (bathhouse demon) cast a veil over her eyes. You’re presented with four options at this point — all of which may seem a little odd. Savvy kolduns, however, will know to grab the baby and throw it over their left shoulder. Sounds weird and violent, but it’s the correct way to break the spell and turn the ‘baby’ back into a log.
All of these little tasks and titbits are based on real Russian folklore, and that of the Chud tribes of Northern Europe, which I absolutely love. The devotion and dedication from the developers really shines through here. Of course, the game isn’t quite perfect. I’ve frequently found myself accidentally clicking through text too quickly and shooting myself in the foot, picking the wrong option before it’s even on the screen.
Additionally, like with most card games, there’s a puzzle quest system, which gives you a set hand of cards and makes you win within X turns. Sadly, it chucks you cards you don’t understand because they’re normally sealed until higher levels, and which, on occasion, don’t fit on the screen — docked or undocked.
Last but not least, Xhibit must have influenced the game because there’s an additional card game in your card game. Durak (fool) makes an appearance as Russia’s traditional card game. You can kick back with your grandfather and play, or you can challenge demons on the road if you so wish. For me, this side game is very poorly explained and doesn’t add any benefit to the game. Fortunately, it’s entirely optional.