While I wouldn’t necessarily suggest that dungeon-crawling ARPG’s have grown tired, it can certainly be argued that the experiences themselves have become a little too familiar. Let’s be honest here, in the 20 years that have followed since the release of the original, genre-defining, all-time classic ‘Diablo’, there hasn’t been too many leaps forward within the realms of innovation that have attempted to steer things in a new direction. Comparisons to the legacy left behind by Blizzard Entertainment can easily be drawn within even the most modern genre entries, and while this speaks volumes about the quality of the design template and what it still has to offer, it also leaves players craving something different.
Daring to switch up the formulae and inject some change, Book Of Demons arrives via Steam’s Early Access program, and, while also boasting a significant amount of content at present, breaks away from the norm by cleverly mixing together traditional dungeon crawling with card-based actions. Reinvigorating what would have otherwise been an overly familiar experience, this game offers an interesting alternative that fits perfectly around bite-sized gaming sessions.
Early Access games are, to put it bluntly, something of a controversial addition to the Steam platform. While there most certainly are developers out there that maintain active development on their titles and offer a substantial amount of video game content to early-adopters, there’s also a significant amount of games out there that don’t. Promising so much yet achieving very little, some developers attempt to flog in-development experiences that are unfortunately far from worthwhile. Thankfully, I’m pleased to report that Thing Trunk’s debut title falls into the former category and proves itself to be a brilliant video game despite its current, unfinished state.
Book Of Demons is a deck-building hack and slash game that succeeds in evoking the flavour of a classic action-RPG title, while also doing enough to separate itself from standard competition. For a start, it immediately sets itself apart from its peers thanks to a unique papercraft art style that is not only memorable, but also brings the game world to life through the world and creature designs. Mixing together bright colours and detail with a dark, spooky aesthetic leads to a game that, stylistically alone, would be enough to hold the players attention from very early on. Fortunately, the gameplay marries well with the visual presentation and comes together to form an utterly enjoyable package.
Abandoning a traditional RPG structure, Book Of Demons instead focuses entirely around utilising collectable cards rather than building up a set of abilities through skill trees and skill points. While players actively earn XP and work to level up their characters health and ‘mana’ stats, it is only through collecting and equipping cards that they can kit out their inventory and be granted specific abilities. This isn’t card-based action along the lines of Blizzard’s Hearthstone, however, as it is very much framed within the boundaries of a typical dungeon crawler.
Cards come in three types: artefact, item, and spell – with each working differently from each other and boasting their own requirements in order to be used. Artefact cards come in the form of physical, equipable objects such as shields, helmets, amulets, rings etc., and allow passive abilities that permanently utilise a portion of your mana. Item card are rather self-explanatory and are consumables that primarily appear in the form of potions and bombs, while lastly, spell cards have timed cooldowns and grant players with the chance to cast offensive and defensive abilities at the cost of your mana pool. Cards can only be played if they’re equipped and if you have enough card slots at your disposal, so players must be mindful of which cards should be used and when, but they can be swapped out on the fly in order to deal with particular situations.
While not a total reinvention of the typical combat system, the deck-building aspect is an interesting way of dressing up a familiar RPG system and adding a fresh-enough spin on things. Players will still find themselves clicking on the ground to move, as well as utilising keyboard hotkeys and furiously clicking on enemies until they meet their death, but here it feels pure, and is more enjoyable as a result. Movement, for instance, is limited to the confines of pre-determined pathways, meaning that there’s no need to bother yourself with dodging, jumping, platforming etc. There are multiple paths to take, of course, and exploration/collecting valuable loot is very much still an important part of the core dungeon-crawling experience, but the combat is always the focus throughout. Some would say that the lack of freedom dulls the experience, but I believe that Book Of Demons succeeds in creating fun and chaotic action by distilling it down to its most basic form.
The enemies you encounter further the combat experience by offering more than enough variety, whether it’s in the way that they are countered/defeated, the way in which they attack, or through their additional elemental effects. Boss encounters are fairly frequent throughout the experience too, and as well as providing stronger, tougher, and more unique enemies to fight, the battle scenarios are fairly unpredictable as these battles are fought in stages, with more variety and challenge being added to the mix as they move closer to their death. With over 70 creatures and demons planned for the full-release, as well as three main boss battles to endure, the game consistently brings something new into the mix in a bid to stave off any feelings of repetition. In fact, the only element of play that does become tiring is the constant mouse clicking during prolonged play, though the game has some nice touches that shakes up the on-screen interaction, remedying part of this issue. This complaint aside, the 8-10 hour campaign provides plenty of thrills, and, despite belonging to a game still in-development, offers enough depth to keep you coming back.
Featuring dozens of unique dungeons to explore, fight, and loot, players will travel deeper and deeper underground in an attempt to reach the fiery depths below and slay the evil Archdemon, ridding the land of his terrible reign. How you tackle this particular mission is entirely down to you – the player – as you decide how your adventures plans out. Featuring procedurally generated and randomly populated dungeons that are all different from the last, the game employs a system called Flexiscope that not only learns from your style of play, but also allows players to tailor each game session to their needs. Smaller, quicker quests can be embarked on, but so too can bigger, longer quests, with the larger experiences offering the greater rewards and challenge. This element not only brings a healthy dose of accessibility to the proceedings, but also adds a welcome flavour of risk & reward that ups the ante and keeps the action feeling tense. If you really want to collect the best cards and develop your character the quickest, you’re going to have to work for it by tackling the bigger quests, and failure to stay alive is harshly punished through the loss of current loot and your equipped hand of cards.
Though this game puts a strong emphasis on the action and dungeon crawling, you don’t spend the entirety of your time travelling the depths of hell and slaughtering everything that moves. At intervals throughout the campaign, you can visit a small hub-world – a town located on the surface above – that gives you the opportunity to spend your hard-earned gold. As well as offering occasional dialogue that contributes a healthy dose of exposition and hints at the wider world lore, the characters found in this area also provide the opportunities to upgrade/charge cards, purchase additional card slots, identify any mystery cards you might have found, and also claim rewards from your current dungeon loot – all for a cost. These services are not cheap either, and at certain junctures there will be difficult choices to make as to where money should be invested. This element becomes even more problematic with some services increasing dramatically in price the more times they’re used. The hub-area provides more than enough to feel meaningful, and with a fair amount of choice on offer, bolsters the role-playing element of the game and enhances the overall package with additional character customisation.
Book Of Demons doesn’t rewrite the action-RPG formulae, but it does distort the familiar template just enough to feel like a breath of fresh air. Perfectly implementing collectable, card-based gameplay into a classic genre, the developers have succeeded in creating an experience that harkens back to the purity of original trend-setters, as well as implementing a modern gameplay twist. Limited to playing as only the ‘Warrior’ class at the time of writing (with both ‘Rogue’ and ‘Mage’ classes promised as future additions), there’s still hours of incredibly impressive content to fight your way through despite its current ‘Early Access’ status – making it more than worth the price of admission. With a development ‘roadmap’ that details plenty of exciting features that are scheduled to arrive over the next few months, this is a game that I’ll certainly be revisiting as the major updates are released, and, when the game finishes development in early 2017, is certain to be another fantastic indie title.