How far would you go for love? For a young girl named Vasilisa in a village in 19th-century Russia, love drives her away from her destiny as a ‘knower’, and sends her careening back towards the eldritch once disaster strikes. Five-strong dev team Morteshka’s deck-building narrative game Black Book sees you putting together spells to fight off demonic entities and help – or hinder – your fellow countrymen, as Vasilisa endeavours to break the seven seals on the eponymous book and find a way to bring her husband back from the other side.
Story – Food for Chort
Black Book follows the story of Vasilisa, a young woman destined to become a witch but who spurns her fate in favour of marrying her love. When her husband seemingly commits suicide, Vasilisa turns to the dark powers of the koldun to get to the bottom of his death and perhaps even bring him back from the other side. What follows is a quest to break the seven seals of the Black Book, a mysterious and powerful tome that grants Vasilisa her magical abilities, all the while growing into the role of the local ‘knower’, aiding or cursing the townsfolk and outwitting demons and imps along the way.
Black Book leans heavily into its world of Slavic folklore, with a hefty codex squirrelled away in the menus that shares information about the history, religion, and folktales of the region. The game is set at the end of the 19th century: modernisation is on its way, but here the locals still rely on the old ways. Demonic chorts turn the mill, banniks protect the bath-houses, and interaction with arcane beings is, if not desirable, at least considered a necessary evil by many. But as more people turn away from the methods of the past, rituals and protections start to flounder. And without mundane tasks to keep them occupied, the idle chorts turn to mischief.
It’s a fascinating and unique portrayal of this whole slate of mythology and folklore, one that doesn’t get anywhere near enough time in the spotlight. Some tidbits might sound familiar to fans of the Polish mythos of The Witcher, but Black Book takes a far more in-depth approach. Where Geralt might explain the steps necessary to banish a noonwraith in a cutscene, players of Black Book will frequently be expected to draw on knowledge of old tales and rituals themselves to solve riddles and help out characters, and are rewarded for paying attention.
Frequently, too, there’s an interesting darkness to the story, and not always simply because of the supernatural forces at work. In fact, many of the demons and chorts you meet are remarkably…well, mundane, despite their hellish appearance. Most of them have no grandiose desires for the end of the world or anything, they’re just bored – it just so happens that their method of dealing with boredom is to inflict misery and chaos on others.
Indeed, Black Book is often quick to remind players of the possibility that hey, maybe it’s humans who are the real monster. More than once you’re directly asked by villagers to curse some other local who offended them in some way (and you can happily oblige, if so inclined), and often problems arise due to people messing around with forces they don’t full understand to pursue some selfish end. Even Vasilisa herself wrestles with this in her single-minded determination to bring back her love from the dead: perhaps some things are better left to rest?
Gameplay – It’s All in the Cards
There’s an interesting mix of mechanics at play in Black Book. Much of it is essentially a visual novel of sorts, a choose-your-own-adventure with dialogue choices that potentially leave to rather different scenarios. Get into battle, however, and you have yourself a turn-based deck-building card game rolled in as well, in which you string together spells (or zagovors) to damage enemies, create magical shields, heal up and more.
After the initial tutorial section, which briefly outlines the main gameplay aspects as Vasilisa awakens her powers, the game settles into something of a rhythm. Each day, you are given a main task to complete, usually at the behest of one of the villagers, on your journey to unlock the full potential of the Black Book. After preparing for the journey ahead, you move through the map towards your destination, with small encounters unfolding at each stop. This might be a fellow traveller asking for coin, a battle against a demon, or even just a friendly chat with some local youths who want you to stop a while and sing with them.
There’s a lot of charm in each of these vignettes, particularly with the voices set to Russian, which provides voice acting for all the narration as well as the character dialogue. Even the simplest scene is set with a great deal of care, with evocative descriptions of the atmosphere and the action. Encounters are lifted by the numerous memorable characters, both human and not, who cross your path over the course of the game, and the brevity of each scene inspires an almost moreish quality to the gameplay: you’ll frequently find yourself playing ‘just one more’ section before calling it a day.
The battles are fun enough, but arguably a little less engaging than the story sections. There’s a degree of strategy involved in outfitting your book with a good array of spells to take on powerful foes, particularly those with useful effects that stack or span multiple turns. Even that is often outshone, though, by the effectiveness of equippable items which can boost health, give you free attacks and automatically grant you shielding.
Those boosts are taken out of the equation in the occasional ‘puzzle battle’ that you’ll happen across, where you’re handed a particular set of zagovor cards and tasked with finishing a battle in a set time, but those can frequently become frustrating as you set about trying to find the singular solution to the battle, often via simple brute force trial-and-error. The RPG elements at play are sadly a little shallow, too: you can level up and gain skill points, but most ability options are just incremental increases that, again, are usually outstripped by items.
The smaller fights you’ll encounter on your journey are over quickly once you get into the rhythm of things, while bosses are often enough of a damage sponge that the fights will simply devolve into a battle of attrition, as you chip away at their health over the course of 20 or 30 turns. There’s still some fun tension to the fights, and you still need to keep on your toes to avoid being hit with any nasty surprises, but some of the later fights drag on just a little too long to be quite as enjoyable as the visual novel bits.
Still, there’s plenty of depth to be mined from the various intertwining systems. There are shops to scour, dozens of different choices to make, and even demons and chorts to bring under your control and send out to do your bidding. This latter element is a particularly intriguing one, tying in as it does with the game’s sin counter, a curious variation on a more traditional morality system that affects some reply options as well as the game’s ending.
As the game progresses, you’re able to compel chorts to work for you, and each day you have the option to send them out from your pester on tasks. Being demons, these usually involve bringing misery and pain to some poor unsuspecting peasants: a touch of blight here, a stampeding horse there.
As such, you might decide that you don’t all those sins on your conscience and want to inflict that amount of suffering on the innocent populace. But failing to send out your chorts will cause them to direct that capacity for mischief and torture towards you instead, reducing your health, weakening your magic and generally putting you at a disadvantage. So it comes down to an intriguing choice: spare the villagers the discomfort of a bored demon, or take on those sins and hope that the rest of your behaviour is enough to save your soul in the long run.
It’s an imaginative approach to what is usually a rather stale mechanic, and honestly the same creativity can be seen in most of the rest of Black Book’s gameplay too. The way the mechanics tie in gracefully with the themes and aesthetics of the rest of the game is admirable, even if remembering what everything means can get a mite confusing at times if your Russian is a little rusty.
Graphics and Audio – Do You Hear the People Sing
Black Book doesn’t trade too heavily on its graphical prowess, opting for a cel-shaded style with a focus on the austere but evocative backdrops of a spartan, darkened Russian countryside, but it still manages to look remarkably pretty. The simple visual style does occasionally make some of the more serious or spooky moments lose a bit of gravitas, but it does a brilliant job of setting scenes and delivering a particular ambience to the night-time encounters and each day’s sunrise.
Unfortunately, for such a text-heavy game, the font options leave a lot to be desired. Text is frequently very small, with no way of enlarging it, which is less than ideal from a visual accessibility standpoint. Also, the font used for some of the titles and menu options can be rather difficult to read, however appropriate it might be to the aesthetics of the game.
The audio, though, is top-notch: the game is fully voice-acted in Russian and English, though the English audio only covers the dialogue rather than the narration. Between that and the simple but appropriate music, including some delightful Russian choral songs that you can revisit from your menu after discovering them, credit must be given to sound designer and composer Mikhail Shvachko.
Black Book was reviewed on Nintendo Switch using a key provided by HypeTrain Digital.