|Dev: King Art|
|Pub: Lace Mamba|
|Release: October 28, 2011|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p|
by Robert VerBruggen
For years, the point-and-click adventure genre has been sitting contentedly in a comfortable little rut: Publishers, most prominently Telltale Games, push out games in episodic format, with cartoonish graphics, witty dialogue, and a detailed hint system. Sometimes a great license is involved (Back to the Future, Strong Bad), and sometimes the content pushes a few boundaries (Hector), but when it comes right down to it, you always know what you're getting from a point-and-click game.
The Book of Unwritten Tales, a two-year-old German game that has now been translated into English, destroys this entire template. This isn't a clever little diversion that will entertain you for a few hours each month until the episodes run out, because it's not in episodic format. It's not always simple, and there's no hint system. While it's certainly lighthearted, it tells a complex story. And most important of all, it's a 20-hour-plus adventure told from the perspective of several different characters. This is, in short, a real gamer's point-and-click game, an "adventure" in the fullest sense of the word.
Unwritten Tales' plot carefully navigates the intersection of parody, homage, and originality. You will see witty references to other fantasy stories constantly. In fact, one of the main plotlines is the quest of Wilbur Weathervane, a gnome, to bring a ring to the person who needs it. It's clear that the script writers love fantasy, simply because they know so much about it, but they are also keenly aware of how ridiculous it can be. The developers devote entire puzzle sequences to making fun of World of Warcraft and Magic: The Gathering, two of the genre's sacred cows.
But make no mistake: This is not just a hodgepodge of well-crafted references, but an intricate and epic story in its own right. From the very beginning, you're cast into a world under siege by evil forces, and you meet a stunning cast of characters who are trying to stop it. There's Mortimer McGuffin, an aging archeologist and gremlin who has stumbled upon an artifact that could save the world but has been kidnapped by dragon-riding members of the Army of Shadows. There's Weathervane, the gnome who dreams of adventure until McGuffin crashes down right in front of him and hands in the ring. There's Ivo, a sexy elf princess with an irresistible British accent who gets swept up in the fight when she tries to rescue McGuffin. And there's Nathaniel Bonnet, a handsome human adventurer.
All of this is presented in colorful 3D graphics, and while the visuals look more dated than they should after just two years (the overall look reminds me of Psychonauts: cute but not cutting-edge in 2011), they are lovingly crafted and a joy to look at nonetheless. Each character model oozes personality, the settings are varied and colorful, and the cutscenes truly bring the story to life. While Unwritten Tales might not have the most technically impressive graphics, it's clear that the developers put effort into perfecting every last corner of this large and complicated world.
They put some effort into making the game funny, too. Obviously, different countries can have different senses of humor—just look at the British and American versions of The Office. If jokes are steeped in parody, an audience in a different country might not understand the references. And if two countries speak different languages, as Germany and the United States do, that introduces a whole new set of problems. The English-translation team for The Book of Unwritten Tales had quite a challenge in front of them, and it would be understandable of some of the humor here just plain didn't work.
But somehow, amazingly, it works perfectly. Either the jokes naturally translate well for American audiences, or the team carefully adjusted them to fit the new culture. It's possible that I missed some references, but so far as I could tell, all of the fantasy culture that the game draws upon will be familiar to American players. The dialogue is amazingly well-written, and the voice actors have terrific comedic timing. Here, the developers didn't just make the best of a tricky pitch; they knocked it out of the ballpark.