I never expected The Book of Unwritten Tales to get a sequel. It was a fairly enjoyable adventure game with a few clever puzzles and an interesting motley crew of protagonists, but the fantasy-parody format was a bit too generic, the humor was mostly lackluster, and far too many puzzles fell into the same repetitive structure of “find three items to progress.” It clearly garnered a fan-base as KING not only produced a prequel, The Critter Chronicles (which I have yet to play), but was also able to successfully fund a sequel through Kickstarter. I was curious to see how KING would move the story forward and how they’d learned from their previous mistakes, but ended up disappointed as the writing quality and puzzle design have taken a downturn.

Having vanquished the Shadow Army and safely sealed away the Artifact of Divine Fate once more, the heroes of Aventásia have parted ways. Princess Ivodora Clarissa, Wilbur Weathervane, Captain Nate Bonnet and his faithful companion Critter were content to return to their normal lives, only to find that normality continues to elude them. Ivo is trapped in an arranged marriage to an elven prince she’s never met, complicated by the revelation that she’s somehow become pregnant despite remaining a virgin. Nate and Critter, in their quest for fame and treasure, ran afoul of the mad Red Pirate while attempting to rob him and are now imprisoned in his domain. As for Wilbur, he had enough to worry about as the first gnomish professor at Seastone’s Mage Academy, looked down upon by his peers for his inexperience, but his problems become much worse when he’s accused of murdering Arch Mage Alistair. Aside from their personal turmoil a much greater threat is brewing; a strange magic has begun to corrupt the land, transforming everything it comes into contact with overwhelmingly cute and effeminate.  Aventásia’s saviors must again rise to the challenge in order to save their home, assuming their individual struggles don’t defeat them first.

I appreciated how the developers tried to expand on the lands of Aventásia. It was impressive to see new regions like the Elfburrow, Ivo’s mystical homeland where time passes so slowly a single season can last 30 years, and the Red Pirate’s floating island base of Tugator. Yet these areas do little more than provide set dressing without any substance. Ivo hears rumors that the Elves have been manipulating history and art to make their people seem much superior to mortals, but there’s never any evidence shown to suggest this is true. The town of Somberville offers nothing but a generic horror area with a decrepit town permanently shrouded in nightfall which is conveniently near a mystical dark woods and an ominous gothic castle for an added “eerie” atmosphere. The expanded world also leads to an issue of more backtracking to find objects necessary to solve a puzzle, though quick travel maps keep this from becoming too much of a chore.

 

Even areas seen in the first game make an attempt to seem new but ultimately fall flat. Seastone, for example, has exploded into social unrest between the upper and lower classes. However this socioeconomic struggle is only paid lip-service with a few occasional mentions and some puzzles involving an unseen rebel group; there’s never any deep analysis into the root of the problem or any direct conflict between the opposing factions. Considering how lengthy the chapters are, not devoting any of that time to deeper exploration of the world was a waste of effort.

As with the first Book of Unwritten Tales, the game’s weakest aspect is its humor. KING promoted the title as “spoofing” other classic fantasy works, which did apply somewhat in the first game since it was a comedic take on the standard “quest for a mystical artifact” storyline, but much of the jokes are derived from referencing other material rather than parodying it. The game makes shout-outs to other media such as The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Discworld, The Neverending Story, and A Song of Ice and Fire, almost always just for the sake of discussing an element from those works instead of having it serve the game’s story. Seeing an iron helmet from Skyrim on display in the Elfburrow’s library is a cute Easter egg; when that library also contains a Companion Cube, Cloud’s Buster Blade and a diamond sword from Minecraft, then it becomes overkill.

The game relies too heavily on referential humor as a crutch. In some cases it provides a chuckle or two, such as a book on Aventásia’s plant life discussing how the sharp petals of steel magnolias are softened by tragic women’s stories or giving the scientific name for a species of carnivorous plants with baritone singing voices as “Virgilia Audriensis.” Far too often however these mentions are used as a substitute for original writing instead of supplementing the story. There’s a section in Chapter 3 where Wilbur enters a riddle contest with a god who asks conundrums directly lifted from The Hobbit, and in Chapter 5 a plot-relevant item turns out to be a PKE Meter. It’s used to such a massive extent that it makes the writers look lazy for relying so heavily on references instead of coming up with their own material

Regretfully, the game’s original jokes almost always fall flat. The cuteness plague sweeping over the land, while an interesting subversion of common plagues, isn’t so much amusing as it is another example of “lol so random.” There’s an excessive amount of meta-humor with characters very unsubtly breaking the fourth wall concerning the bizarre occurrences they encounter as well as trite commentary on the oddities of fantasy video games like repetitive fetch quests and skimpy female armor that offers as much defensive potential as a full body covering. These observations have all been made before and the game doesn’t offer any new insights on them.

 

Surprisingly there’s far more toilet humor than in the first Book of Unwritten Tales, including a section where hippogriff dung is needed to complete a puzzle and several fart jokes made when trying to collect flammable gas from a plant. I don’t know if the writers thought these were funny, but their execution came off as simplistic and juvenile. The running gag of people reacting to Ivo’s pregnancy by instantly assuming she’d put on weight and then questioning how she became pregnant without having sex got old very quickly.

I won’t deny there were a few amusing moments. I enjoyed the dialogue segments with the troll Grunder Klimpus provided some funny insults and twisted logic as he lived up to his nature by trolling others (ex. “Your parents were siblings. All three of them.”) There was some mild social satire such as how the news editor in Seastone spreading propaganda and manipulating the facts to help Cybil van Buren’s election campaign is an anthropomorphic fox (FOX News) and how the socially active protesters have yet to write up a list of demands because they’re having difficulty making all the words neutral. In a dark cave with various depictions of fears, one of the images is a normal man with a nametag reading Claus (it took me a while to realize it was a pun on “claustrophobia.”) An optional task in the Mage Academy involves Wilbur looking through the student records and finding information on pupils like Ohmadon Muhdillo, who was expelled because he was actually an armadillo in a penguin suit wearing a sign that said “Moo”, Elmar Frog who had several pages torn out of his file so his father, the local executioner, would believe the boy was doing well in school, and Sascha Schaleshuculatsch, who was only added to make things difficult for anyone reading the files out loud. The jokes aren’t the best I’ve heard, but they’re leagues ahead much of what tries to pass for comedy in the game. I don’t understand why the writers only put forth their best effort for these few instances instead of trying to maintain a constant level of quality throughout each chapter.

Just as it struggles with humor, The Book of Unwritten Tales 2 also has difficulty effectively convey more serious dramatic moments. Whenever a character is at a low point, they’re almost always reassured with the standard “believe in yourself/ you have friends who are there for you” platitudes that have been used so often they’ve lost all meaning. Character deaths never really have an impact because of melodramatic presentation. Arch Mage Alistair’s sacrifice late in the game is supposed to be heroic, but there’s no real weight considering he was absent from the plot for most of the game and Wilbur’s reactions upon learning of his mentor’s fate lack a sense of shock or distress. Rémi gets a few poignant words in during his death scene, though any pathos elicited is almost immediately done away with when it’s revealed that this was one of Munkus’ tricks.

 

There’s only one section of the game that truly achieves any level of depth and serious emotional engagement – the fourth chapter when Nate and Ivo are reunited. Before their chance meeting there’s been considerable discussion about their troubled parting, so when Ivo confronts the man who abandoned her she’s understandably furious. Nate tries to explain himself but quickly jumps to conclusions when he notices Ivo is pregnant and also reacts stubbornly. Admittedly it follows a fairly stock premise where they’re initially very hostile towards each other, then realize they must reluctantly work together to save the world, resulting in some awkward situations between the two.

As the chapter progresses, however, the truth is gradually revealed. Players learn why Nate left the Elfburrow without a goodbye, the truth behind Ivo’s miraculous conception, and the feelings they’ve been hiding from one another. It’s nothing new, but it’s truly heartfelt. I was genuinely happy to see these two overcome their emotional baggage and grow closer, which made what happens to Nate at the end of the section much more shocking. It’s this single chapter that elevates the game to slightly above average. Again, I wish the developers had put this much effort into the rest of their work.

Of the central trio, Nate (voiced by Doug Cockle) has undergone the most character growth. It’s mentioned near the start that his leaving Ivo was tumultuous, but he still has considerable feelings for her. He’s returned to his roguish ways not purely for selfish reasons; he wants to accumulate wealth and prestige so that he’ll be more appealing to a royal lover. Some parts of Nate’s personality remain unchanged: he’s still selfish, conniving and opportunistic, but there is a greater overall depth than there was in the previous game. He isn’t just an amoral treasure hunter in it for himself anymore; he wants a joy that physical treasures can’t provide.

 

My favorite character from the first Book of Unwritten Tales, Ivo (voiced by Jess Robinson), is relatively unchanged but still has all the qualities I liked. She’s proactive in the face of danger, being the first to learn about the unknown magic affecting the world and determined to try and stop this danger from spreading. Her wits are as sharp as ever, whether she’s talking her way out of a difficult situation or delivering an acerbic putdown to someone who’s annoyed her. As I mentioned earlier, she and Nate both show strong emotional development in the fourth chapter, though it’s not as pronounced for her as Ivo was quite compassionate when the need arose in the first game.

 

While Ivo and Nate have progressed in their character arcs, Wilbur (voiced by Nicholas Aaron) ended up regressing. He’s almost always timid, uncertain, and self-deprecating no matter what situation he’s in. Whether he’s trying to keep the attention of unruly students or helping friends escape imprisonment, he always needs reassurance and encouragement from others to push him into action. I’d assumed that Wilbur would have gained some additional confidence after the role he played in defeating Mortroga, but he’s still unbelievably timid. It creates a dissonant character portrayal when contrasted with scenes where he steps up to take action and has a hand in solving a serious problem. This would work if he showed some doubt while remaining determined, but his prevailing lack of spirit prevented me from taking those moments seriously.

 

None of the new side characters really stood out as very impressive, but the majority of them had memorable personalities. Primary antagonist Cybil van Buren isn’t much more than a typical rude snob who has no qualms about exploiting or harming others, but her horrible behavior is motivated by a desire to have order in a troubled world; her ego just leads her to believe that she is the only one suited to provide this order, and anyone who voices dissent must be “dealt with.” Her descent into darkness may seem a bit extreme when she’s actively imprisoning or transforming people who oppose her, though considering her manipulative behavior before her rise to power, it makes sense – this is a person who will abuse power, and players are seeing what will happen when she has nearly limitless power. I just wish she wasn’t always accompanied by her daughter Chantal, a stereotypical whiny, spoiled, self-proclaimed princess. She was intentionally created to be annoying, and while this can sometimes work for humorous effect, it’s rarely successful when that character is a child.

 

Headmaster Bloch was one of the more surprising characters. He’s unbelievably strict and by the book, hostile towards Wilbur because he doubts the gnome’s magical proficiency, and loyal to van Buren’s political campaign. I assumed he’d be an active antagonist, but was surprised to see that he actually has a sense of honor dictated by his adherence to order. Despite his affiliation with van Buren he won’t allow her to distribute campaign material in the Mage Academy as it violates protocol. When Wilbur and his friends are falsely accused of being traitors, he’s gladly willing to look the other way so they can escape since he knows the charges are false. Bloch was much deeper than I initially gave him credit for. The same can be said for the Red Pirate, initially depicted as a drunken hedonist, only to later be revealed as a sad, friendless man, a victim of greed and paranoia.

The Oracle is probably the most interesting member of the secondary cast. A multi-eyed sentient brain preferring to communicate through mirrors, he offers cryptic hints about what the future holds and suggests what actions Ivo and her friends can take to change things. The Oracle bluntly admits that if his advice is followed the situation could potentially become worse, but it doesn’t bother him. He’s a being who cares nothing for arbitrary concepts of good or evil; he just wants to see how interesting the outside world can become. I have a strong feeling the developers are setting him up to have a bigger role in a future installment, and I would like to learn more about him and his true motivations.

Ivo’s mother Feodora could have been fleshed out a bit more. The queen is a stock overbearing mother that’s been seen countless times before, regularly putting down her daughter and planning out Ivo’s life in advance because “she knows what’s best.” I did like that once Feodora was shown the error of her ways and apologized, Ivo wasn’t immediately ready to forgive her, a refreshing show of realism. I also wish there could have been more done with the inept djinn Benny and the tough gnome bounty hunter “Tin Lizzy” as they had potential to be interesting characters but were rather abruptly dropped after getting in a few jokes. There’s a chance they’ll be returning in the next game as well, but I would have liked a bit more development.

There isn’t really much to say about the peripheral characters returning from the first Book of Unwritten Tales as almost all of them are basically the same: Munkus is still a conniving manipulator operating behind the scenes to advance his agenda, Shieldhand hasn’t become any less lazy or corrupt, and Rémi remains a dashing hero cut from the cloth of French chevaliers. Not every character remained static though; some changed for the worse. Bill the merchant has become truly reprehensible, exploiting and threatening others to maintain his near monopoly on Seastone’s trade industry. The senile mummy from Macguffin’s home (my most hated character from the first game) also returns, more annoying than ever, and to my dismay he has a much greater role, meaning more time spent dealing with his inanity. The only NPCs who really showed any positive growth were the zombies Gulliver and Esther, now married and trying to find a new life for themselves in the face of prejudice against the undead.

Puzzle design, like world building, suffers from introducing impressive concepts that aren’t effectively expanded upon. In the first chapter Wilbur has to gather pages from a spell book to overcome various obstacles, but with the exception of the fire spell each incantation only has one specific use and is never again utilized after the chapter ends. A similar problem arises with the magic slate, a fantasy equivalent of a smart tablet. It occasionally offers tips on how to approach a multi-step puzzle, and in one creative touch is used to record someone’s speech to bypass a voice lock, yet it’s never utilized for anything beyond these tasks and again feels like wasted potential.

Far too many of the puzzles again fall into the same trap as the first game where they feel more like fetch quests with an excessive reliance on gathering three items to proceed. In some instances, such as brewing potions, players need to get three items to make an object which belongs in another set of three items. In the third chapter Wilbur actually has to track down several fireworks just to gather enough gunpowder to make a stick of dynamite. There’s also a lack of complex tasks that require characters working in tandem, with just one area in a desert tomb where Nate, Ivo and Critter are required to perform simultaneous actions to bypass traps. Other than that, most multi-character challenges just involve switching back and forth when one is incapacitated while occasionally swapping items.

 

Another issue is that some puzzles are set up in a way to unnecessarily draw out the game. In addition to the frequent backtracking mentioned earlier, certain dialogue trees cannot be exited from until every option has been selected, even if the right solution was found earlier. When trying to get an enchanted mirror from the Oracle I knew I had to trade him another mirror and did so as soon as the chance presented itself, yet the option to leave the conversation didn’t come up. I had to go through all the other dialogue selections, including one where I ask for the mirror and get rejected because I had nothing to offer in exchange. The worst example of padding was in the third chapter when Wilbur has to run a machine by performing several tasks in a specific sequence. There are no hints as to which order the steps must be done, some possible actions aren’t used, and making a mistake once will set back progress significantly, leading to some very annoying trial and error.

I won’t deny there were a few enjoyable puzzles. One problem that emphasized some creative lateral thinking involved beating the mummy in a subtraction game. Players can either try to win legitimately, or distract the mummy’s guardians so that the rules can be altered, tricking the senile mummy into thinking that whoever takes the last ball is the winner instead of the loser. There’s also a “spoof” of RPG leveling systems in Chapter 1 where Ivo can only catch a fish after reaching a fishing level of 20. The lengthy way to do this is by simply casting the rod in the fountain over and over again, but she can level up more quickly by consulting a book, talking to Arbor the gardener, and baiting the hook with worms. It’s refreshing to see an adventure game that allows multiple approaches to solve a puzzle rather than one rigid solution; I just wish there were more examples like this. A few challenges required sequence memorization without automatically ingraining the steps into the character’s memory or carefully timing movements to avoid detection, again requiring active thinking rather than just randomly combining items and hoping they’ll work. (EDIT: Thanks to wolvandbats for providing additional information about the fishing puzzle)

 

The Book of Unwritten Tales 2 presents itself as the Empire Strikes Back of its franchise, not in terms of quality but themes and structure. Malevolent forces still threaten the land, key characters have either died or are presumed dead (Nate’s petrification is very reminiscent of Han Solo being trapped in carbonite), and though the heroes are vulnerable and uncertain about what the future holds, they try to hold onto the hope that they will be able to overcome the challenges which stand in their way. The problem is that the denouement isn’t fitting considering what happened beforehand. With the exception of the events in Chapter 4, the inconsistent tone and lack of convincing drama didn’t effectively build up the finale.

It’s clear that KING is planning a future installment to possibly wrap up their adventures in Aventásia. If they want their trilogy to end on a high note they will need to pull out all the stops: strike a better balance between humor and drama, better flesh out the world without leaving too much unanswered, incorporate some more intricate puzzles, and keep players invested in the stakes of the characters. I truly hope they’ll be able to step up their game; if not, then The Book of Unwritten Tales will most definitely fall into obscurity.

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