Black Book Review: Cards, Book, Witchcraft

Slavic mythology is rarely seen in video games. Unlike many other myths and legends. Strange, isn’t it?

We remember that Zeus did not get along with the Hero and gave birth to Athena personally from his head, we know who the kitsune and bakeneko are, we will tell you without any problems where and from where Odin shed the honey of poetry while flying to Asgard. But why do we know so little about our own past? Okay, mythology, okay – kikimors, leshaks and banniks, but who will immediately answer what are “canopy” and “barn”? (No, not hay and ram.) What are polati and mother? What is “growing up”? Yes, obsolete words, but they weren’t all that outdated a hundred years ago.

Black Book by Morteshka (creators of Mooseman) successfully fills this gap. And not in the form of a boring encyclopedia, but in the form of an exciting and creepy RPG. The action takes place – suddenly! – in the Perm province, in 1879. Dark, cold time. The northern backwaters of the country, where for the peasants and Cherdyn is a huge city, and even about Perm itself, it’s scary to think about. First action – start!

Too many men’s stories begin with “and now the hero went in search of feats.” Too many women’s stories begin with “Once upon a time, it was a girl’s fault.” Especially in Russia, and even at the end of the nineteenth century. The girl Vasilisa grew up an orphan, in the care of her only relative, an old man-sorcerer, grandfather Yegor, who lived on the outskirts of the village. Yegor also offered her to become a “connoisseur”, that is to say, a witch. Vasilisa refused, because she fell in love and wanted to get married.

But when her betrothed hanged himself for no reason and was buried behind the church fence (as it should be for suicides), Vasilisa decided – that’s enough! As they say, to Hell with this! In a literal sense: she has to undergo initiation into a sorceress, descend into Hell and pick up the Black Book, which used to belong to the teacher-Yegor. According to legend, if a “noble” person manages to open all seven seals that lock the Book, then the artifact will fulfill his most cherished desire. Of course, Vasilisa’s cherished desire is to return her lover. The rest is the tenth thing.

(Who hinted in the back row that you shouldn’t indulge in necromancy without a license? Don’t stand in the way of an angry woman!)

The plot is divided into chapters corresponding to the seals on the Book. The seals are very diverse: water, aspen, wolf … You will also have to open them, of course, outside the box. Well, it doesn’t matter: the mentor Yegor will advise something, in some places there will be other assistants! The stories are really exciting, and each tells about completely new evil spirits, about sorcerers, about local superstitions and omens.The cards are pages from the same Book, so at first, while only one seal is broken, only basic “spells” are available to Vasilisa. The number of spells that we can cast in one turn is also limited.

The card-combat part of the game is beyond praise. We start with the simplest cards – some offensive, some defensive. Little by little, opening the seals on the Book, we open complex and multi-level ones, with which you can make different combos. Closer to the middle and especially the final, the player is already able to customize a narrowly focused deck to his needs (for example, it was most convenient for me to use a fast-black maximum debuffing set of cards based on Corruption). There are cards that “burn out” when used, there are cards that remain in the spell-spell for several turns and enhance it.

Our witch is not a witcher with a heavy sword, she does not know how to wear chain mail, so of the items she can use only light “amulets” (maximum six pieces, used as an analogue of armor) and various useful herbs (used in battle as a thing of instant action) …

The fight itself looks three-dimensional and … well, albeit not spectacular, but comfortable. Vasilisa and her allies are on the left, enemies are on the right, cards “in hand” are at the bottom, cards “in a conspiracy” are at the top. The defeated evil spirits writhing picturesquely or scattering clouds of soot. True, sometimes I would like the screen to be brighter: some fights with a crowd of devilry in the dark are hard to see, what kind of black devils there are in the black room! But nothing can be done: Vasilisa has to do witchcraft at night. And decent lighting along the roads, or at least pocket torches, have not yet been invented.

But there is also a minus, albeit a small one: the engine, which quite adequately displays turn-based battles, is completely unsuitable for three-dimensional locations. There are moments in the game where we run Vasilisa through small areas of the terrain and explore the environment for key points. This is, without exaggeration, terrible horror. The heroine stumbles over invisible obstacles, the camera follows her with the grace of a lame kikimora, flat Christmas trees and flowers that look so beautiful on static screens shamelessly creep into the eyes … It would be better if these stages were removed altogether, for her. Or they would have done it in any other engine, even RPG Maker.

The rest of the “movement” takes place in the format of a visual novel: every day (or, rather, evening – remember witchcraft, right?) inventory and talk to petitioners.Now the child gets sick with a fever, then the old man gets lost in the forest, then just incomprehensible sounds and creaks at night are heard – it’s scary!

And then we hit the road and the fun begins – the detective game! No, card battles are also wonderful and very fun, but I liked the little investigative riddles most of all in the game. At the same time, it is imperative that we are given hints in dialogues or in bylichki-encyclopedias before the assignment, we don’t have to poke at random – we just need to think and read carefully.

(Just before the Black Book, I played Ace Attorney Chronicles – the contrast of cultures was especially striking. In England at the end of the nineteenth century, steampunk, airships, steam engines – and in the Perm province, herbalists, demons and superstitions, and it’s good if one pop in the whole village But the detective part … it suddenly turned out to be similar!)

How can a changeling baby be exposed? (No, not elvish). How to get out if you get lost in the thicket and suspect that you are being driven by the “owner”? What kind of monster is this – “rip-off”? How is “next door” different from a neighbor? Who pulls the yarn in the hut at night – kikimora, shishiga or brownie? How to drive a mermaid out of a well? These are the everyday questions for the witch from Cherdyn.

And the episode “we recognize the devil in human form among the multitude of suspects” with the search for evidence and questioning of witnesses – so, in general, chic-shine, Phoenix Wright would have approved.

Black Book is not just fantasy. Even in the last game of the developers, Mooseman, there was a lot of Komi-Permian mythology. In the “Black Book” there is so much information on the beliefs of the peasants of the Perm province of the nineteenth century that the game can be safely considered educational.

You probably know yourself: Christianity, which came to the lands at the end of the 9th century, where idols and spirits of the elements were worshiped, changed, adapted, and after several centuries no longer resembled the “source”. Pagan holidays bizarrely mixed with church ones. The sacrifices offered to the petty gods were redirected to the devil and the water. The lower spirits harming people became “beats” and “devil”. The icons of the saints that did not fulfill the request were punished with rods as “worthless.” In cemeteries, food was still left for the dead – and even now it is!

The resulting belief turned out to be very strange. According to the notions of the majority of peasants, paradise was somewhere out there, it is not clear where, and there are no angels to be seen – but the hell is it, the demons are here, roam everywhere! It is not surprising that everyone needed sorcerers, sorceresses and “nobles” who knew how to somehow sort out the ongoing disorder. But, as is customary when dealing with otherworldly forces, the usual logic is not applicable here.The main game for both people and devils in the county is a “throw-in fool”, simple but addictive. Often, by offering to play cards, you can avoid a fight, or even make money.

Keep in mind that otherworldly scoundrels can cheat, replacing simple cards with trump cards … well, our Vasilisa is not a mistake: over time, you can both pump skills that allow you to do the same, and find items that help in cheating.

Music adds a lot of atmosphere to the game. It is drawn-out, dreary, pensive – as if you really are wandering along a dusty road on a summer evening, and gloomy tops of pines are closing over your head. A wonderful addition – folk songs performed by the student choir of the Perm Regional College of Arts and Culture. I never considered myself a fan of the genre, but listening to “Oh, Gossips” or “The Raven Sitting”, looking at the light clouds running across the dark sky, and at the roofs of village houses in the after-sunset haze, was suddenly great. (Yes, the backgrounds in the game are great too.) The characters are fully voiced, and the local pronunciation has not been forgotten either.

The Black Book, of course, has several endings – as befits a decent RPG. Which ones, I will not spoil. You will figure it out yourself. I will only say that the choices made in the course of the game respond in an interesting way in the final chapter.

In any case, you end the game wiser with a lot of authentic words, fascinating jokes and little-known facts. The developers managed to combine a good RPG with a full excursion into the nineteenth century. Not an easy task – and 120% completed!

I won’t say the game is perfect; no. I did not like, for example, puzzle battles, where you need to win a battle with a predetermined deck in the only possible way (judging by the steam forums, very few people liked them at all); I prefer freedom of action. Graphics in 3D locations, as mentioned above, leaves much to be desired. But this is, honestly, trifles. The game definitely deserves your attention ..