Black Book Review – Have Faith In The Heart Of The Cards
Developed by Morteshka
Published by HypeTrain Digital
Available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC, Mac
I like wizards. I like card games. I like Slavic mythology. But I especially like wizards dueling Slavic mythological creatures with cards. So would it surprise you to know that I really enjoyed Black Book? This game was announced less than a year ago, and I knew immediately that I wanted to play it. The visuals, sound, and premise were all intriguing, and finally getting the chance to play it, I can confirm that the game is great.
Black Book is centered around the protagonist Vasilisa. After her beloved mysteriously dies and is buried outside the church graveyard, thus condemning his soul to Hell, Vasilisa is determined to do whatever it takes to save him. Fortunately, her grandfather is a Knower, a powerful sorcerer, and is willing to teach her to become a Knower as well.
It’s interesting to play a game so accurately portraying 19th-20th century Russian Orthodoxy and Slavic mythology. I say accurately as an assumption, as I don’t meaningfully know anything about this culture. Black Book has more Christian iconography than Neon Genesis, where just about every character you meet is God-fearing and bound by intense rituals, lest the forces of Hell make their way into their life.
What I loved most about Black Book was all the instances of characters saying unusual (to me) things as fact. Obviously, there’s a demon in your house, you forgot to face west before eating your dinner. If you didn’t want to be cursed, you should have thrown some vodka and bread into the lake to appease the cohorts. Sorry your wedding ceremony was interrupted, which of course caused the guests to be turned into werewolves. And so on.
It is unusual for Vasilisa to literally go into Hell and accept demonic power in order to become a witch while still being a devout Christian. But who am I to judge. Of course, Black Book does have some kind of Karma mechanic, where the actions you take are added up in your ‘sin meter.’ I’m not sure what it does or how it influences the game since there are often times when it is unavoidable to gain at least a little bit of Evil. Vasilisa has a posse of cohorts which she must send off to do mischief, lest they stick around and pester you and cause massive stat debuffs.
Although Black Book advertises as a card game, I would argue it’s more of a visual novel. At least half of the game is dialogue, more than half if you’re interested in reading the many many entries of lore and mythology in the notes. This isn’t a Slay the Spire style card game, where you play the same map over and over. This is a heavily curated experience that is largely story-based.
Each night you set out in order to help the people of nearby villages, as well as attempt to make progress in unlocking the seals of said book. You have a number of points on a map that you make your way across. Each point has some weird thing going on, be it a night market, a traveler in need of help, or a demonic ambush. Black Book has a lot.
At first, the areas appear to be all the same. Indeed, they understandably reuse some of the settings. But soon, as the story picks up, Black Book brings you to a number of interesting, unique areas. You may find yourself walking through a factory, or through the buildings of an estate. Or even take a stroll along the bottom of a lake, either a traditional water lake or the great lake of fire (Hell).
While most do not, some of the areas give you the ability to stroll around. Black Book has some places which require investigation, and you can walk around a small patch of land, looking for clues and observing oddities in the vicinity. If you’re thorough, you might find yourself some healing herbs. They didn’t have to do this, but I’m glad they did. Stuff like this makes the game feel that much more alive.
Funny enough, there’s a card game in this card game. Black Book has a minigame in it called Durak, and frankly, I have no idea how it’s played. That’s on me, I never paid enough attention to the instructions for Durak, nor Fallout: New Vegas’s Caravan, nor whatever Final Fantasy had (I was a beast at Gwent though). Not something that is critical to the game, but I do appreciate that there are these details, as well as alternative ways to progress through the game. Rather than fight a demon, you can simply play some cards.
I really cannot find anything about Black Book that was not good. There were a few times I got stuck, but if you change the difficulty, you get the option to skip. The visuals are great, both the lower graphics and the hand-drawn characters. And the soundtrack is phenomenal, especially if you like Russian choir. Overall, Black Book was great, and if you like in-depth RPGs and playing cards, this one’s for you.