Mon. Jun 17th, 2024

I’ve been taking full advantage of Summer Game Fest 2021, and all the wonderful demos that Xbox has to offer. With so many to choose from, it was difficult narrowing it down to decide which ones to play. And whilst Tunic has undeniably been my favourite, there are some hidden gems in there such as BattleCakes and The Tale of Bistun. I’ve gotta say, I was really looking forward to Black Book as I love turn-based combat that uses cards. Slay the Spire is probably one of the better known card-based combat games, and I love that one, so I was curious to see how they’d compare. Of course, they’re in separate genres, as this demo contains more than just combat, and there’s a lot of nuance to the game. So, here are my first impressions of the Black Book demo.

Story

This game has rather dark undertones, and has references to hell. A lot of the concepts are based on Russian folklore, and so it talks about hell and the devil, but not from a biblical perspective, and there are also spirits and demons. The demo opens with a cut scene. It talks about how a young girl rejects becoming a witch so she can be with the man she loves. However, the young man ends up taking his own life, and is now destined for hell. The young woman is distraught with the loss, and turns to her witchy heritage. She’s determined to rescue her beloved, whatever the cost. It’s a moving tale, and we learn about a powerful artefact called the Black Book, which will allow her to retrieve the young man if she can break all seven seals.

Black Book backstory
A tragic backstory sets the mood for this game.

Once the backstory has been explained, we start the game, and we play as the aforementioned young woman. Her name is Vasilisa, and her pain is evident in her words. Her grandfather also possesses magical abilities, and she goes to him to learn the ways of the Black Book. They draw up a protective circle and then summon demons who Vasilisa has to beat in order to prove herself. After you defeat them, you break the first seal, and you visit the devil, who makes you a witch. As a witch, you have a duty to the townsfolk, and you take visitors to assist with their issues. All the while, you’re trying to learn more, and enthral demons, so that you can break the seals. The demo ends after you defeat a boss demon and take charge of him.

Becoming a witch
We’re granted our witchy powers by the devil himself!

Gameplay

One of my first impressions of the Black Book demo was the fact that you can choose your difficulty at the start. I really like having that option, as it allows people to play the game at their own level. For the purposes of the review I chose normal difficulty. The game features a lot of dialogue, and story is integrated deeply into the experience. I have to say, the movement controls were a little unusual. You use the left analogue stick to move around, but you can’t change the camera angle, and your view of the surroundings is limited. Instead, you use the right analogue stick to identify focal points. You can then move towards them to interact. Moving allows you to enter new locations, or find useful items such as herbs to help in battle.

Choosing the difficulty level
It takes a special kind of skill to be able to play on Nightmare difficulty.

Dialogue with other characters is incorporated into the gameplay. You can choose your responses, and these will affect the progress of the game. Once you’ve been sworn in by the devil as a witch, the gameplay changes. You can navigate between areas using the map, and make story decisions. Usually those decisions end up with you fighting demons. There’s also a morality system, and you can make selfish decisions for short term gains that earn you sins. These will affect your choice options later in the game. One issue with the map is that you can’t reopen it if you accidentally close it. This leaves you stuck in an area, unable to progress, and you have to reload an earlier save. It is cool that you can save though, as most demos don’t allow for this. The pacing can be a little slow, but otherwise the gameplay is solid.

First impressions Black Book demo gameplay
This is where it all begins, no turning back after this!

Combat

So, as I mentioned earlier, the combat in this game is turn-based using cards. My first impressions of the Black Book demo were pretty favourable, and the fighting seems to present a decent level of challenge. It starts off relatively simple, but when you beat a demon, you gain a card of your choice, and they have a varied range of effects.

Gain a card
Choose which card you think will best suit your deckbuilding style.

As well as being able to attack and defend, there are also buffs and debuffs. Some cards have an effect called ‘Waste’ which means an enemy takes damage every turn, and it stacks when you use another Waste card, making it an extremely effective long-term strategy. You can also play cards that make the rest of the cards you play that turn more powerful. All cards are either black or white, and some of them gain power if you play multiple cards of the same colour.

You can play up to 3 cards per turn as part of a ‘zagovor’, which translates as ‘spell’. Of those, two can be ‘order’ cards, and one can be a ‘key’ card. In general, the order cards are more powerful, but the keys can be useful if combined smartly. The game conveniently shows you what your enemy will be doing on their turn, so you can plan ahead. When you defeat an enemy, you gain roubles (money) and knowledge (experience), as well as a new card. You can also upgrade skills to make your combat more effective, or gain more roubles.

First impressions Black Book demo knowledge tree
Choose your new abilities wisely!

The Black Book

From the same menu where you see the map, you can access the Black Book. This allows you to fine-tune the construction of your deck. There must always be a minimum of 13 cards, and you can’t exceed 33, but other than that it’s up to you. So if you get a better version of a card, you may choose to take the previous one out, to have a sleeker deck. It’s challenging to find a good balance, and requires smart strategising.

From here you can navigate to the Black Book or Skills menu.

Once you’ve got at least one copy of a card in your deck, you’re then able to craft more. You do this by navigating to that card in your ledger, and paying roubles to duplicate it. The better the card is, the more roubles it costs to produce. Personally I chose to craft extra cards with the Waste effect, and that served me well in the final boss battle. You can adjust the search filter to only show black/ white cards, attack/ defend cards, or order/ key cards. This makes for quick navigation, and it’s easy to get the hang of creating a deck. You can also base your deck around which items you own to use in conjunction with it.

You may choose to tinker with your deck depending on which enemies you’re planning to face. A boss fight will likely last longer, making Waste effects extra useful, but if you’re facing smaller demons with lower HP then you may wish to focus more on all-out attack to get it over with faster. Also, if you’re facing multiple enemies, you may wish to have more defence cards available. The only criticism I have is that some cards have unclear descriptions. It would be convenient to have the card effects explained more simply in a few cases.

Adam's Head healing herb
You could use one of these herbs instead of a defence card.

Graphics and Audio

From the moment I opened the front menu screen, my first impressions of the Black Book demo were that they’ve put a lot of effort into making it look good. There’s a lot of visual detail, and they’ve even chosen a font to match the theme. The font is slightly tricky to read, but they only use it for certain words, and not for dialogue. The cutscene looks like hand drawn watercolour, and is beautiful to look at. Within the game itself, there’s a similar art style, that appears hand drawn but is deliberately less detailed. I really enjoy the aesthetic, and it matches well with the mysterious themes of the story. The cards in the Black Book are monochrome and minimalist. It looks very professional and arcane, and was a fantastic design choice.

First impressions Black Book demo watercolour art
The art style in the cutscene is truly beautiful.

The game doesn’t utilise much music, but instead there are ambient sound effects. We hear the wind rustling through the trees, or footsteps, and it sets the scene. The cutscenes use spoken narration, and the voice actor comes across very confident. All the dialogue is spoken too, and the voices are powerful and emotive. One thing I did struggle with was trying to place the accents, though. They’re very unusual, and it sounds almost like someone putting on an accent, whilst their own is coming through. It affected the immersion, but only slightly, and I’m really glad they went with spoken dialogue. It makes characters feel so much more real when I can hear them speak. There’s also simple background music every now and then, which sounds like a guitar being plucked in a minor key. It suits the game, and helped bring everything together.

Breaking the seven seals of the Black Book
The audio fits with the ominous vibes of the story.

Overall

My first impressions of the Black Book demo were mostly positive, on the whole. I was particularly impressed with the length of the demo, as they gave us nearly an hour of gameplay. Admittedly the pacing is a little slow given all the dialogue, but it still was a great insight into what to expect from the full game. It provides plenty of lore about historical Russian culture. It also introduces you to the card-based combat style, which feels like something that would only get better as you collected more cards. I definitely really enjoyed this game, and would happily get the full game when it’s released. Don’t forget to join our Facebook community to discuss all your favourite franchises with likeminded fans, as well as gain access to exclusive discounts and giveaways! You can also enter our current giveaway to win a copy of Sonic Mania!

Black Book Demo

8.2

Verdict

8.2/10

Pros

  • Excellent card-based combat style
  • Alluring art style that fits the theme
  • Plenty of varied aspects to the gameplay

Cons

  • A few small typos/ inconsistencies in the writing
  • Pacing can feel a little slow
  • The character accents feel fake

By Screen Hype

Hi! I'm Melika Jeddi, a content writer and aspiring author. I've created Screen Hype to share my unique brand of entertaining articles with the world, and to create a fun space that everyone can feel a part of :)