I wanted to like The Bookwalker: Thief of Tales. I really did. I was happy to post the news on the site and excited to crack open a good story under the promise of diving into the legends of Excalibur and Mjolnir. But if I'm honest, this game lost me in the opening moments when my control scheme was upside down and I cracked open the settings to invert my Y-axis and the option was not to be found. It's 2023. I've been playing inverted Y for 30 years since controllers moved to joysticks over d-pads. Give me a break. I don't know why, but playing backwards, non-inverted Y actually makes me feel physically off. This was my introduction to the Bookwalker, a game that has failed in the very first step of translating what was obviously meant to be a mouse and keyboard experience and making no effort to cater to the consoles it was ported over to.
So I'm already disappointed, a little bit motion sick from the movement restriction, and unimpressed. The visuals are competent, but nothing noteworthy. I'm in a fictional world that lacks most detail like... arms on my body for example. Other NPCs get arms, but not our protagonist Etienne. I'm just a camera angle. I interact with the world by allowing objects to just float into my view. The world is confusing. I've just been thrust into it with no real backstory. I guess that's fine if the rules make sense, but they don't.
Apparently this is a writer's world, or something. I'm facing a 30 year sentence. What kind of sentence, you ask? Jail? Hard labor? No, I have to work at a publisher instead of getting to write. Maybe it's all some sort of inside joke or a play on the writing industry. I don't know. It is a "sentence" after all. But I'm thrust into it, and it has nuances and differences that aren't explained. If the clues are hidden in the world and asking me to interact with it to do all the work myself, then you lost me with the Y-axis debacle. All I really see is a sparse apartment, and the stairwell of a drab apartment block. There is dialogue to be read, some nonsensical voiceover delivered with all the painstaking care of the adults in a Charlie Brown movie, and I get so lost in my very first dialogue conversation from a lack of clear visual or audio clues as to who's even speaking, I can't even tell if I'm asking or answering the questions.
I think the attempt is to wrap the player in a mystery that slowly unfolds, but it hasn't yet been earned. It's just plunged the player into the deep end of a world with no swimming lessons. The dialogue states "But Vince said it would be a one-time thing?" and I'm thinking (who the hell is Vince, why should I care?) "Have you done this before?" "No" "Do you know what to do?" (cue the tutorial right...) "Yes" (Huh?! As the player I don't even know what I'm doing let alone how to do it.)
But I get my first book and am quite eager to dive in, if only because the game has promised I can leave the first person view and play the levels in the third person perspective, freeing me from my Y-axis induced torment. Things do get better here. The books, there are six of them - one for each level, become isometric adventures. Fetch this McGuffin, use it to open this door, listen to the next dialogue, go find the next McGuffin, complete the level. You quickly find a companion who helps narrate the world and are often faced with the illusion of choice that usually narrows down to the only option you were intended to choose as the others don't succeed.
You are also tasked with having to return to the "real world" to fetch a missing item to bring back into the story world to pass some checkpoint. I cringed the first time at the thought of having to return to my backwards first person nightmare, but then the game returned to that same missing item back in the real world trick for the next three levels as well. Four times replaying the exact same mid-level loop... really?! I cringed again and again at the lack of creativity in the design. If the attempt was to weave the written world in with reality, it fails. It's just creating unnecessary backtracking, probably to pad the playtime. For example, first encounter with a workbench, can I craft something? No, but if I travel to the next room the game introduces that I now need an item I don't have. Aha! Now I can backtrack to the bench and interact it.
The game crashes just before my first battle. Uh-oh. But credit to the design on this one; I do not lose progress. I load back in at the doorway of the last room I entered. The game would crash a few more times as well, really anytime I first encountered an event that would significantly change the map in a story world. If some part of the scene's tableau needed to move other than my character, crash. Reload and it always worked on the second attempt. Not great, but not catastrophic.
Battles are pretty basic turn-based stuff. There are a series of moves to use, stamina to balance with damage and defense. Skills level up after each successful book level is cleared. But the battle is made up and the points don't matter. The game is so generous, if you lose a fight, you not only return right to the room, the enemy actually starts with whatever reduced hit points it had left when it "won," and you come in with full stamina and full hit points. None of the fights were particularly challenging anyway, but I lost once or twice in the beginning when my skills weren't powered up and I was experimenting how to play a mode that, like the rest of the game, it had no interest in teaching me.
I soldiered on to the final level. The story was slowly being revealed on my individual character. My companion was still a mystery as well as most of the real world that waited outside of the stories. Why was I a writer? Why is there a writer's police? Why was working for a publisher so bad? The mystery of the world revealing itself was never really unfolded. There was a consistent audio bug in the last level where the murmur of the marketplace I was meant to explore kept cutting out into silence. Then, after exhausting all the exploration and dialogue options I could find, I got a bit stuck and unable to progress. Did I miss something? Or was this just another bug?
Honestly, I wasn't bothered to figure it out. I already had one big reveal on why my character faces his excessive sentence, and it was just as underbaked as everything else to this point. I'm sure there is another reveal around the corner with who my companion is, but it's not even clear why I've kept them around this long. They promised to really help me in my quest early, but I can rarely remember times after that first level where they provided much benefit to my actual progress. They just became a storytelling device to act as a narrator and conscience. I don't really care how this ends. I think we're just done here.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
First picked up a game controller when my mother bought an Atari 2600 for my brother and I one fateful Christmas.
Now I'm a Software Developer in my day job who is happy to be a part of the Gaming Nexus team so I can have at least a flimsy excuse for my wife as to why I need to get those 15 more minutes of game time in...