When mashing goes too far
Genre: Action, Adventure
Developer: Digital Tales USA LLC
Publisher: Intragames.Co., Ltd
Release date: 30 Jan, 2020
The Book of Books, and the literary world is in danger. If the B.O.B. gets destroyed, then all of literature might be ruined!
So beings Bookbound Brigade, a metroidvania where you control a group of character from literature and history, as they try to restore the B.O.B. to its rightful place. To do this, they need to fight their way through several major areas, inspired by history & literature, like a steampunk-inspired London or the Caribbean. And through their journey they’ll run into a bunch of different famous characters.
Full disclosure, I had to cut my playthrough a bit short. I got 13/16 skills, which means that I was probably relatively close to the end of the game, but the amount of button mashing I had to do actually caused me a bit of physical pain, something that has never happened to me before. This might hopefully improve with later patches, but at the time of writing, which is just before the game launches, I can’t keep playing.
Story & Setting
Bookbound Brigade takes place in the world of literature, and with the Book of Books being stolen, it’s starting to become unbound. Not only is the literary world itself in danger of disappearing, but the different characters in it are losing their memory. Things are generally pretty bad, and so it’s up to a band of characters to go in and save the literary world.
That’s hardly the deepest story ever, but it does give the developers a lot of freedom in regards to what situations they can put the player in, and what characters they meet along the way. It also gives a good excuse for why there are so many varied locations, something that some metroidvania titles don’t even try to explain.
Most of the games humour comes from run-ins with different literary and historical characters. These are pretty famous characters that you most likely heard about in school, like Don Quijote, Nebuchadnezzar and The Red Baron, and they all have a few lines of banter with the party, which is, for the most part, played for laughs, and which reflects who they are. But for a game about the entire literary world, the cast of characters is surprisingly Eurocentric, only a few characters are from non-European sources.
The writing does leave a bit to be desired. Some of the dialogue feels quite stilted, and the game has a tendency of lingering at jokes that don’t quite land. Humour is of course very subjective, but having King Arthur use the word LOL repeatedly feels like the kind of joke that’s more likely to make people cringe than laugh. There are also puns in this game. Lots of puns…
Graphics & Sound
Bookbound Brigade has a very stylized look to it, and does not shy away from using bold colours. The different environments look distinct, yet consistent with each other. You can go from inside an active volcano, to the catacombs, and still easily tell that these areas belong in the same game. All the characters also look consistent, and yet visually very distinct. The character designer deserves credit for having created characters that you can for the most part identify just by looking at them. Even the slightly more obscure ones were for the most part rather obvious in regards to who they are.
While the different areas all look distinct, each area has a rather limit look to it. One part of the catacombs will look pretty much identical to any other part of the catacombs, which makes navigating a bit harder than it should. This is even worse, as this is a metroidvania, and you’re expected to backtrack and pick up things you’ve missed, but there are very few significant landmarks, you can’t remember where something is based on a special statute or unique looking rock formation. There’s a map that shows the rough location on everything you can collect, so this is not a game-breaking issue, but it would have been nice if the game made it easy to remember the different locations that have goodies you can’t reach the first time you get there.
The music is overall pretty decent. While no track might be outstanding, they do work well as background music for the different areas, and don’t feel intrusive or annoying. The sound effects are also for the most part pretty decent, although as you’re controlling a “blob” of characters, some of their sound effects can stack when something happens, and that gets a little bit annoying, particularly when you have Sun Wukong’s monkey sound in the mix.
Metroidvanias are a pretty well-established genre these days, so a game needs to do something special to really stand out in the crowd. And Bookbound Brigade does this by having you control several characters at once. These move as one big blob, rather than as individual characters, but each character interacts with the environment as its own entity. You can’t split up the group, but one might look like it’s about to fall off a ledge, while another grabs on to it, or the group can get squished together. The group also learns 4 different formations through the game, which have different uses. one might be a straight line, which allows them to get under things, or reach buttons that are under a platform, another turns them into a wheel that lets them move faster and so on. Each formation also has certain skills associated with it, like a straight charge attack in one direction, or the ability to raise some shields, which protects the group from damage. But there’s one big issue with this, and that’s that formation changing can at times be very unresponsive. If you try to change formation and the new formation would not fit, you get a red outline indicating this, but sometimes the game does not seem to follow commands to change formation, despite repeated key presses. And there are places where you need to be able to change from one formation to another quickly.
While Bookbound Brigade relies more on platforming and light puzzles for its challenge, there’s a fair amount of combat in here, and here’s where the game kind of falls apart. You’ve got some skills that can help you in combat, but you’ve got a limited amount of energy for them, that recharges slowly, and apart from that, combat requires a lot of button mashing. Each attack you make deals very little damage, and this is particularly bad with bosses, that have far too much health. If there are small enemies nearby, you can throw them at larger enemies, for bonus damage and a temporary stun effect, although throwing it requires you to mash the attack button as well, and while most regular combat encounters have enough small enemies to defeat at least most of the larger ones, against bosses you need to use mostly normal attacks. On top of that, enemies don’t seem to have a cooldown period between specific attacks, and some bosses have attacks that make them invincible or hard to reach for a period of time. Having a boss go invincible for about 15 seconds 7 times in a row is rather frustrating.
The level design also does not do a great job at guiding you to the next place you have to go. Everything looks so similar that the only way to know that you’re going the right or wrong way is if the game puts a roadblock in your way. And at least one point the game expects you to know that a skill can be used in a way that it has not told you about (the “testudo” skill can be used while the party is in the air, so you can jump through obstacles). The map does at least help, and you usually get told which section of the map you’re supposed to be in.
I do almost feel bad about giving this game a negative review, because there clearly been a lot of love put into it. But this game actually caused me a bit of physical pain, and that has never once happened to me before. I don’t have a problem playing games like Mario Party, which has intense bouts of button mashing. The button mashing and the unreliable formation changing really pulls down what would otherwise be at the very least a decent game. It would not reach the lofty heights of games like Hollow Knight, Axiom Verge or Super Metroid, but it would at the very least have been a fun playthrough.
Speaking of issues with playing the game, people with poor eyesight, or who are sitting far away from the screen might have issues with the text size. It’s a bit on the small side, but at least the contrast between text and background is good
None of the worst issues these games have are unfixable though, so it might be worth taking a look at this game a bit down the line and see if things have improved with patches. But at the time of writing, I just can’t recommend this game, unless you’re really fond of button mashing, and can stand repeatedly dying because the game ignores your input when trying to change formation. At least there are no instant death situations, falling down into a spikey pit or getting scorched by flames will just warp you back a little bit, with some lost health, but it still gets frustrating when you repeatedly fail at something because the game does not respond to your input.