Black Book is an indie gem developed by a team of five people that will send you on a supernatural adventure through late 19th century Russia.
If I said it once, I've said it a thousand times: 2021/2022 are the years of indie games. What a ride Black Book has been! In the end, I just paced around my apartment unable to think about anything else and wanting to start another playthrough.
Black Book follows the journey of a Borrower Witch named Vasilisa. Borrower Witches draw their powers from demons but Vasilisa displays some innate talent for the craft as well. The entire story gets kicked into gear after Vasilisa's fiance mysteriously dies and she goes on a quest to break the seven seals of the Black Book. This feat, the legend says, will grant her one wish and she'll be reunited with her beloved. This game had me crying, laughing and standing in awe of its setpieces and the dev team's creative choices.
Vasilisa, the witch, is a homage to the character bearing the same name in the story of Vasilisa the Beautiful.
Vasilisa's journey takes her on various side-quests that grant the player Encyclopedia and Bailichka entries, as well as some useful items. Black Book's story is told through the characters' dialogue (of which there is plenty) and the entries offer a glimpse into the Russian myths and reports of demonic encounters from real life.
This is really a game for people who like to read as you'll get to experience stories from Russia of old and get a sense of what the religion looked like in the country. My only qualm with the entire system is that the Onomasticon - the part of the menu that houses these Encyclopedia and Bailichka entries could be better organised.
Vasilisa meets a bunch of colourful characters during her travels and they all have some side-missions for her to complete and, doing so, learn a bit more about the world, herself and the Book.
Black Book is a game in two languages - Russian and English and sometimes translations to the latter are a bit lacking. That said, the dev team at Morteshka consists of five people who are currently rolling out pretty regular updates, some of them addressing typos and text errors. I played the game in English and quickly turned off the voiceover as it often took away from the experience.
On top of Encyclopedia entries and Bailichkas, there are also various songs to be found on the journey. All songs are in Russian and listening to them was a transcendent experience.
There are at least two instances of huge cemeteries in the game where I found countless names on the Russian version of the tombstones. This was the devs' way of honouring their many Kickstarter backers.
Black Book is basically a 3D point-and-click experience though you can use WASD to move around. The camera is, for the most part, fixed on one singular spot except for some portions of the battle when it moves to focus on the enemies.
Magic words, zagovors (spells) and curses, oh my.
Black Book in-game is essentially a book of spells you employ to damage your enemies, shield yourself against an upcoming attack or restore lost health. Each broken seal will grant the player access to more pages and every encounter you win will result in one free page, while the option to buy more is always available.
The maximum number of pages you can equip in your deck is 33 and you'll need to switch it up sometimes depending on your upcoming battle - you can change the composition of your deck at any time, just not during the actual fight. I used to think that the pages could use a bit more explanations on what they actually do but have found that experimenting with different builds is half the fun. Now, this is just me, but I'd like to see a damage/health/protection counter of the current deck build in the Black Book.
Additional power in battle comes from different items you can equip and herbs you pick or buy along the way.
As fun as combat in Black Book can be, you can sometimes take the non-violent route by outsmarting your foes. This requires sharp wits and several read-throughs of Encyclopedia and Bailichka notes to get the answer right, though the option to use a hint is also available. You will leave these encounters with additional experience and sometimes a bit of money.
The art style
Morteshka really hit the nail on the head when it comes to the art style. Indie developers are masters of playing to their strengths, and boy does it show in Black Book. Dialogue screens show the characters in their neutral poses that change into a couple of additional stances depending on how the dialogue is going. This serves to cut down the time and resources that can be better spent elsewhere in the development process. That said, Morteshka did not skimp on the major set pieces like introducing important characters and kicking off a boss fight.
It seems like every moment of development was spent thinking about Black Book's atmosphere and every decision was made to serve this singular purpose. This has paid off in spades and I've found myself not being able to play Black Book at night.
Black Book's sound design is everything to write home about. Vasilisa really visits some strange locales on her travels and each one has a different sound design while still staying faithful to the general mood. Coupled with the set-pieces and the previously mentioned art style, the entire package seldom failed to send shivers down my spine.
Black Book has a quite interesting mechanic in the Pester with Chorts. Being a Borrower Witch has some downsides and one of them is the fact you have your chorts (demons) who will torture you if you don't send them to torture someone else. This will result in Vasilisa accruing a certain number of Sins that have a part to play in the final chapter of the Book.
Black Book is an amazing offering from the five-person team at Morteshka. Its highs, lows and everything in between is bursting at the seams with the love and care Vladimir Beletskiy, Ildar Alimov, Mikhail Shvachko, Andrey Khudozhidkov and Darya Solonets put into the project.
Black Book will take you 20-ish hours to finish and, if you're anything like me, you'll treasure every second of it.
Huge thanks to Team Critical Hit for providing us with a Steam copy of the game.