Take a page out of this book and give it a go!
Black Book is a card-based RPG adventure set in 1800s Russia. It follows the story of Vasilisa, a young girl who is to become a witch but turns away from sorcery to marry her love. This doesn’t last long, as her betrothed suddenly dies. Heartbroken, Vasilisa turns to witchcraft and hopes to use this magic to revive her lost soulmate. To do this, she must seek out and use the Black Book: an ancient, demonic text that is powerful enough to grant those who uncover its seven seals a wish. Throughout Black Book, you play as Vasilisa, facing demons, assisting (and potentially terrorising) town folk, and traversing across a world heavily inspired by dark Slavic mythology and folklore.
Black Book is developed by Morteshka, who are a small Russian independent studio. At the time of writing, they have one other released game, The Mooseman, which also draws from Slavic folklore and Russian history.
The story and folklore are incredibly fascinating and carry the narrative well, albeit at a very slow pace. There is a lot of information packed into this game's 20+ hour run time, but Black Book is still accessible for those who have no prior knowledge of Slavic tales. There are times in which Slavic terms are used, and these are highlighted in yellow for you to select and learn a description of what they mean. Throughout the game, there are also instances in which the in-game encyclopaedia updates, providing much deeper information and tales on the subject discussed. I found these inclusions very interesting, and at times, in between missions, would read through the updated entries to learn more about this world.
On its surface, the gameplay in combat is straightforward. It’s turn-based, with the aim to reduce your foes health to zero. In combat you always go first, and you use the pages of the book as if you would use cards in a deck, to make your moves. These moves are on white or black pages, and each page has a single spell you can use. Black pages are usually focused on attacking or negatively affecting the foe, whereas white pages are focused on gaining health or increasing your defence. Your hand of pages changes each turn, so any unused pages are put back in the book and a random set of pages appear for the next turn. Each turn you can combine pages to create a zagavor. This is where you can select multiple pages, whose effects will all take place in a single turn of yours. Depending on what you choose, you can stack effects that can deal extra damage or further protect you. The combat is simple and easy to pick up. I found it fun, especially in looking for ways to stack effects or find unique combos to quickly defeat an enemy.
Outside of combat, you will either be in dialogue (which is beautifully voice acted) where you have multiple choice answers when responding or asking further questions or else you’ll be in the open world of a specific area. When traversing the open area, you use the left stick to move Vasilisa around and the right stick to highlight points of interest where she will auto-run to. I found the auto-run to be slightly problematic. If there was a tree, or fence, or anything in the way, Vasilisa would just run into this and not move around, essentially locking her in place. This can be stopped by manually moving her again, and honestly, it’s just easier to always move her manually.
Alongside the main story, you will get side quests and tasks from visiting villagers. These are useful to help gain experience, earn money, and encounter new demons. Once tasks have been set, you head to the map to begin your day. Each day, different locations are open to you depending on the available tasks. You usually cannot access the main task until you travel through several locations, which can offer their own tasks, riddles, or demons to fight. During tasks you can sometimes acquire these demons as familiars, who are then known as chorts. Chorts can be sent out on tasks to wreak havoc on nearby villages and towns should you wish to. By doing this, among other “negative actions,” such as stealing or refusing to help others, you will increase your sin counter. These actions have consequences and will affect the story ahead of you such as future choices, as well as alternative endings. For my playthrough, I was the most sinful witch alive and, on my replay, I plan to do the opposite. Sending chorts on these missions is optional. However, if you choose not to do this—to avoid increasing your sin—these demons will instead wreak havoc on you, by taking health from you or weakening your pages or even adding status effects to you. This will make combat harder, but at least your conscience will be clear. I like this mechanic as it feels like all decisions you make really do impact the story and how people perceive Vasilisa. An example of this is during one particular task, I chose to steal some money from high on a shelf; the following day, the man from that house came to me saying that the demon I slayed must have taken his life savings, when it was me all along!
The bulk of each day starts in your grandfather's Izba (house), which acts as the base between tasks. In the Izba, there are a handful of actions you can take before you set off on your next task. Here, you can: speak with visitors, who will either thank and reward you for tasks completed or come to you seeking help, edit and manage your items and pages of your book (which acts as your deck), send chorts off on their own tasks, speak with your grandfather, Proshka (a chort who acts as a house cat) and other visitors who can provide additional details on the task at hand, or play cards with visitors. This is all neatly laid out along the base of the screen and easy to navigate.
At first, I found the graphics and visuals quite pretty and incredibly charming. The opening shots look especially fantastic, seeing the wheatfield landscape and town off in the background. This charm, however, slowly dissipates, and the low-quality character models really harm the aesthetic. For a dark tale, and the threat that some demons possess, the poor and sometimes awful-looking 3D character designs really detract from the atmosphere and sometimes takes you out of the seriousness of the plot at hand. The 2D sprite work is gorgeous, fortunately, with no character looking alike and the demon designs being varied. On the topic of graphics and visuals, in combat there is only a default action for the two or three types of spells. It would have been nice to see some variety in these spells to maybe correspond more with the images linked to them. As an example, one image is seen to have a bolt of lightning and would have been cool for the animation for this to show a bolt of lightning attacking the foe. I do appreciate that the art style could be described as minimalistic, so the lack of spell animation variety is a very small issue.
Even though the load times are rather fast, I noticed on many occasions that trees and other objects within an initial scene would pop in a few seconds after the scene and narration has already begun. There was also a slight stutter in animation at times, where the speech or dialogue would begin and then the visuals would spend a moment playing catch up.
Black Book is a very slow-paced game, but I want to stress that this isn’t a negative. The deliberate pacing really does allow you to spend time learning the story, and the lore that it offers you. This pacing is across the board very slow and done so in a peaceful, yet eerie fashion. It is rare that daylight is included throughout the adventure, and the darkness of nightfall infused with the steady creep of the game provides a great experience. The pacing gives time for the player to really learn and study the world they are playing in. Whether this is reading up in the encyclopaedia, speaking with your grandfather and other villagers, playing cards, or organising your book or chords, Black Book gives you the time to ensure everything is intact and prepared before you set off on your task.
If you can immerse yourself into the story early on, Black Book will be your go to for many, many gaming sessions. Black Book is structured in a way that you can spend hours on end playing through it or pick up and play it mission by mission without losing your way in this incredibly well-crafted RPG adventure.