By Scott Ramage / April 21st, 2020
|Release Date||January 30th, 2020|
|Platform||Switch, PC (Steam), PS4|
|Age Rating||E for Everyone|
Hailing from northern Italy, the e-learning and indie game developer Digital Tales created a title which blended Metroidvania-style gameplay with the influence of classic literature and history. The result of this mix is Bookbound Brigade, a game filled with so many references from so many works and historical periods that just by mentioning it, I’m getting flashbacks to every English and History class I ever had. I think it’s safe to say this should be more entertaining than any of those.
In Bookbound Brigade every written work, fiction and nonfiction, exists in the realm of the Literary World. It’s held together by the power of the Book of Books, which has gone missing. Without it every word that’s ever been written down will fade from memory, taking every character and historical figure with it. A mishmash of six to eight characters, fictional and historical, band together on a quest to find the book, in addition to helping other people along the way.
The world of Bookbound Brigade is primarily split into four areas and the main hub- err, excuse me, the Librarium Infinitum. The map, aside from displaying previously visited rooms and any paths leading out of them, will point out things like checkpoint locations, treasure chests, and NPCs. Unfortunately it doesn’t point out things like blocked paths or obstacles you can’t otherwise get past. Also, every “room” is divided into anywhere from one to four or five screen changes, making navigation and figuring out which doors go where more confusing.
Bookbound Brigade centers on a group of people who couldn’t be much more different from each other: King Arthur, Nikola Tesla, Robin Hood, Dorothy Gale, Queen Victoria, Sun Wukong, Cassandra and Dracula. Rather than moving each of them separately, everyone moves as a group. It’s weird at first seeing a row of people on top of a row of people, and the same goes for controlling it. Everyone jumps as a group, runs as a group and changes formations as a group. They can form a single-file line, stack like a totem pole or even form a wheel to get past certain obstacles. These are all tied to holding L and pressing one of the face buttons. It takes getting used to, but it helps that the formations are assigned in ways that make sense (highest formation is X, lowest is B, etc.). Attacking feels pretty random though, since each attack causes a character somewhere in the pile to swing a sword. To consistently land hits I had to engulf enemies with my people blob and mash the attack button.
Combat in Bookbound Brigade can be a minor nightmare, depending on what you’re fighting. Small enemies can usually be dealt with using the aforementioned hack-and-slash method. Others move around if you get too close to them or land too many hits, leading to battles like something out of the Benny Hill school of combat. Larger enemies have a unique way of being dealt with that involves launching smaller enemies at them, both to stun and to deal more damage. To do so, the party needs to be in totem or single-file formation and hit attack a few times to pick up and launch the smaller baddies. Often I would end up doing this too fast, either not launching the enemy or killing it before it had the chance to go airborne. Also, due to how far away the camera is from the action and how small the party is, I’d often not realize I was facing the wrong direction and waste time tossing grunts at a wall.
Combat still takes a back seat to the most prominent part of Bookbound Brigade: platforming. Every room is littered with spikes, flame jets, pits, saw blades, pendulum blades, and all other sorts of nastiness. It’s like a never-ending series of deadly Ninja Warrior stages. Touching most anything takes off a bit of health and forces a respawn at the start of that section. The game does well to force the player to use all the different formations and abilities to traverse dangerous areas, but it also doesn’t seem to know when to quit. It’s not an exaggeration to say some rooms ask you to get past close to 20 obstacles without getting hit. Touching a spike or fireball more than halfway through such a section can and will happen. A lot. One was so long that when I got hit, I was transported back to a previous screen change. The more I played this game, the shorter my sessions got as frustrations mounted.
Aside from basic movement and swinging swords, characters pick up various abilities while progressing through Bookbound Brigade. Things like double-jumping, charging through barriers, ground-pounding and grabbing rings to swing from slowly open up different parts of this Metroidvania-style world. Most are assigned to various characters in the party, like how Dracula can turn into a bat and help the group glide after jumping. While that makes sense, some abilities are so similar to each other that it feels more like filler to prevent the player from progressing too fast. Tesla, Dorothy and Cassandra each get an ability where you mash a button at certain landmarks to open a new path. That’s all they do. At least the different missiles and bombs in Super Metroid do something besides open color-coded doors.
These abilities are learned from other literary figures encountered throughout Bookbound Brigade. Everyone from Santa Muerte to the Red Baron to Joan of Arc to Christopher Columbus pops up in various areas. Once found they dole out health and Memory Pages, which are a currency of sorts for upgrading the party that also appear when defeating enemies or busting open chests. Said upgrades include health boosts, more critical hits, finding more pages and health from crates, and the like. The prices scale up at a decent rate to prevent being too under or overpowered as the game progresses. There are also side quests for most of the characters to get more pages, though they all involve finding some thematically appropriate item for them: golden apples for Hercules, toy soldiers for Lemuel Gulliver, kitchen knives for Julius Caesar, etc. Yes, the guy who was stabbed dozens of times wants a set of kitchen knives.
That’s a pretty solid example of the type of humor in Bookbound Brigade. Characters, including and especially ones in the party, regularly take digs at each other. By themselves the jokes are fine. However, often the same kind of joke got used over and over until I became sick of them. Some go more into gallows humor, which I’m fine with, but the repetition didn’t help on this front either. It was to the point I dreaded finding certain characters because I could tell I was going to hear, for example, more “Joan of Arc getting set on fire” jokes than I ever wanted to hear.
I will say that Bookbound Brigade looks and sounds nice. The various animations and backgrounds are well done and the music serves as a nice complement to the environments. Well, when it’s playing at least. There were times where the game went several minutes with no music playing. This only made me realize more quickly that I was traversing a lot of similar trap setups, but in different rooms. It also made every unusually long hallway seem a little bit longer, and every set of platforms leading to another part of the room taller.
And that leads to my biggest problem with Bookbound Brigade. Let’s say there’s a movie you like that’s 90 minutes long. Would it have been a better film if it were another 50 minutes longer? Probably not. The pacing would be thrown off and some scenes might come off as filler. Video games like Bookbound Brigade have the same problem. A “less is more” approach would massively cut down on the time I spent jogging down long hallways, jumping up dozens of platforms, getting lost in similar-looking halls, and backtracking from dead ends or progression blockers I couldn’t see until I was right in front of them. Top that off with most of the boss fights (save for a few mini-bosses here and there) being closer to the end and the first half of the game or so ends up being largely uneventful.
I want to like Bookbound Brigade more than I do. I like the concept of working in several references to classic literature and historical figures in a big ol’ side-scrolling adventure. As is, it’s a serviceable Metroidvania with somewhat awkward combat and levels composed of rooms that blend together and stretch on for way too long. It took almost 18 hours for me, in large part due to navigation problems. Like how every word in a good book is written with purpose, this game needs to better apply that methodology to its level design. It could easily scale back some rooms and/or improve navigation and trim a few unnecessary hours off its run time. If monotony isn’t an issue, you’ll probably find the $19.99 it costs to be worth it in the end.
Review copy provided by publisher.
Bookbound BrigadeDigital TalesSwitch