Games can take us to picturesque places. Plenty of us would choose to experience Mass Effect’s Citadel or Myst’s island. But they can take us to some terrible places too, and Black Book’s world is one that we’d avoid like the plague, mainly because plagues wouldn’t even hit the Top 5 Things to Avoid. The people of Black Book have to contend with possession, drowning by mermaids, being dragged to hell, getting eaten by demons and becoming a forever-slave for a fire spirit.
This isn’t the Black Books that you might recall with Bill Bailey and Dylan Moran as a grumpy book store owner. This is a deckbuilding tale of the capital B ‘Black Book’: a tome of witchcraft that is owned by a ‘Knower’; a Knower being a witch who can see demons when other people cannot, and can cast Zagovors: spells that damage demons and send them cursing back to Hell.
You play a Knower, Vasilisa Fyodorovna, who has lost a boyfriend to Satan and is not particularly happy about the fact. She’s recently gained the title of Knower and the Black Book from her father, Old Egor Evlampovich, so this is her first test. All she needs to do is break seven demonic seals, travel the sulphurous wastes of Hell and defeat the Devil. Piece of demon piss.
While we wouldn’t want to live in Black Book’s demon-strewn landscape (you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting a demon here, and the cat would likely be one too), it’s a fantastically original setting. It’s not easy to pinpoint a century (mentions of guns and industrial machinery narrow it down a little), but we’re guessing anywhere from the early 19th Century to mid-20th. But it’s the location that gives Black Book an unusual texture: this is a Slavic fable, and it doesn’t hesitate to ladle on elements that make that setting unique. Every sentence is thick with izbas, uyezds and kolduns, as developers Morteshka are determined to make you work to understand the setting, tapping a helpful Y button (mislabelled as ‘hints’, making it seem like you’re cheating by using it) to get a footnote of what these terms mean.
The same goes with the demons, who aren’t your usual Baals and Beelzebubs. These are chorts, leshys and banyas, all with deep roots in the mythology of the region. It’s fantastic to dive into their background, because they’re clearly based on real world superstitions, but we haven’t been exposed to them in any media, let alone games. They’re mostly riffs on things like mermaids and poltergeists, but they’ve got fantastic quirks, like demanding a Fibonacci-like sequence of coins to be sacrificed to the sea. It’s lovely and authentic.
The presentation of them is sumptuous too. The individual pieces of Black Book’s art aren’t necessarily all that special: yank out a demon’s model, for example, and it would be jagged and lacking in detail. But there’s something in the lighting, composition and richness of Black Book’s world that makes it entirely effective. It’s capable of memorable moments like a rotating tunnel of stars, and a walk through long grass to a grave. Black Book is a lyrical, powerful game in places, and Morteshka gets a couple of thumbs up for achieving it with simplistic component parts.
Playing Black Book is harder to describe, as there are roughly six games here, woven together. At its heart, Black Book is a deckbuilding card game, and this card game represents combat with the ‘chorts’, or demons that you come across. But you’ll actually be spending more time moving Vasilisa on a world map from node to node and participating in pitched ‘events’, which are more like Choose Your Own Adventure sequences. Within these sections are other sub-games, like riddle-like sequences where you have to answer a question based on your accumulated Knower knowledge so far, and you’re even occasionally handed control of Vasilisa, as you explore 3D spaces in a rough-edged Resident Evil, looking for herbs and completing simplistic environment puzzles.
Want more? Well yes – you also get to return to your izba, your witch house, at the end of each chapter, and it’s here that you can do a bout of resource management, moving your personal demon pets to different regions of a map, cursing and tormenting humans to keep them busy (or leaving them in your demon stable, adding debuffs to your deckbuilding sections). That’s without mentioning variants of the battles, where you complete battle-puzzles that give you a set deck and time limit, plus boss battles that require you tune your deck to a specific battle style.
You can probably see where this is going. Black Book attempts way, way too much. Only a handful of the sub-games we’ve mentioned are successful. Black Book is such a powerful love potion, and it had us under its spell multiple times, but it keeps on adding ingredients which dilute that power or even reverse the effect.
Take the deckbuilding card game, for example. The basics are similar to the Slay the Spires and Monster Trains of this world, as you’re dealing damage while protecting yourself with defence, but the framework is extremely unusual. You are effectively creating a spell each turn, and the sequence of spells all combo with each other. Cards benefit from being next to others, or having a certain proportion of black or white cards in the ‘Zagovor’ or sequence. You can’t just slot in elements willy-nilly, either, as there are ‘scroll’ and ‘key’ slots, which can only feature certain card types.
It might sound complicated, but it’s comparatively simple, and games whistle past. There’s a lovely perk and relic system attached to the deckbuilding, where you can outfit Vasilisa with some crazily overpowered benefits like dealing damage to everyone on the first turn, and it only helps to make you a Baba Yaga who can churn through chorts in a couple of turns. So far, so fantastic.
But Black Book’s ‘too many cooks’ approach to game design means they occasionally ruin it. Battle-puzzles lock you into a specific deck and time limit, but it expects way, way too much from you. It hands you a deck absolutely packed with cards that you won’t have encountered yet, with keywords that make no sense (Black Book loves a keyword), and card descriptions that are too inexact and poorly translated. Battle-puzzles take too long to understand, let alone solve, yet they will often gate you from progressing. Almost every time that we got stuck in Black Book, it was because of these sections.
Bosses are similarly niggly. A few can be blitzkrieged through with your current deck, but most need you to tailor a specific deck. Except Black Book doesn’t have additional deck slots, so you’re having to change your one deck back and forth. When changing decks is also fiddly (you can’t remove all the cards in your deck, as Black Book forces you to keep a minimum number at all times), it becomes a pain.
The Choose Your Own Adventure stuff, too, is absolutely brilliant, a real joy as you steep yourself in the culture and mythology. Characters bring you ethical quandary stuff that wouldn’t be out of place in Fallout, while it has a side-quest structure which means that you can do as much or as little of the chatting as you want. We found ourselves in The Witcher 3 mode and couldn’t help but do all of them.
But then it spoils. Black Book loves to test how much you’ve paid attention with mini-tests. These will challenge your knowledge so far, or push you to investigate the codex in your Black Book to find information. You might be asked which kind of demon has caused a rot, kidnap or sacrifice, and you’ve got piecemeal evidence to go on. The problem here is that scanning through dozens of codices is far from our idea of fun, and – often – the information just wasn’t there. There are rough-edges to the translation, so you’re often wondering if the cause is a mistake in the text, rather than a mistake with you. It felt like we were back in secondary school, answering a question from the teacher, yet they hadn’t taught us it yet. Anxiety dream fodder, that.
Every step forward has a step back in this way, and you wonder what Black Book would have been if it arrived in early access or as a Game Preview first. Much of it is entirely solvable. Autosaves put you much earlier than you’d like; cutscenes and dialogue can’t always be skipped, so death can mean thirty seconds of tapping A to get where you were; and you can skip dialogue only to find that you’ve accidentally made a dialogue choice. We just wanted to reach inside Black Book and solve these issues, as there’s a wonderful, original game under the foibles.
Which brings us to Black Book’s length. We don’t often complain about a game being too long, but Black Book is gargantuan. Admittedly, we played every subquest and dived into its innards as much as we could, but upwards of twenty hours is longer than we wanted to be playing a linear, single-player deckbuilder, if we’re being honest. The content stays rich throughout and there’s very little repetition, but the numerous stopping blocks in the form of bosses and battle-puzzles meant we were fatigued by the end. The rough edges nicked us too many times, and we ended up more frustrated with Black Book than satisfied.
There’s an original, fantastic deckbuilder here, surrounded by an even more original, and just as engaging text adventure. But Black Book doesn’t stop there, and adds more and more layers until you’re left with a huge, unwieldy onion. If you can stomach its design quirks and scattershot understanding of what is fun or isn’t, Black Book has some of the best moments in modern card games. Only you will know if you’ve got the patience to get there.
You can buy Black Book for £20.99 from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S