Welcome to our Bookbound Brigade review, settle in as we take you through our thoughts on this unusual addition to the tried and tested Metroidvania genre. It does offer some novel mechanics that haven’t appeared in the genre as of yet. But it’s hard to see this game, innovations and all, as any kind of improvement to said genre.
Developed by Digital Tales, Bookbound Brigade does offer a significant amount of bang for your buck. It clocks in at around 20 hours of gameplay. Though, once we’d started playing, this seemed more like a curse than a blessing.
For better or worse, what sets Bookbound Brigade apart is that you control not one protagonist but eight. Each of the eight protagonists have their own unlockable skills as per the genre. Playing as eight characters also brings the added mechanic that they can shift into different formations. Each formation has upsides and downsides depending on the combat or platforming situation at hand. Unfortunately, the game’s innovations to the genre can’t save it from clunky controls and some pretty dreadful writing.
What sets all the action in motion is the theft of the “Book of Books”, or B.O.B. The Book of Books contains all the literary works known to man. Without it, the literary world is steadily becoming “Unbound”. Enter the Bookbound Brigade, a gang of literary icons consisting of King Arthur, Count Dracula, Robin Hood, and others.
One of the side-effects of the B.O.B being stolen is that the brigade themselves are becoming unbound too. This means that these literary legends act nothing like the characters they are based on. Instead they talk in quasi-text speak and an almost incessant stream of terrible puns.
It’s hard to shake the feeling that the dialogue was written by boomers imagining what’s “youngsters” think is cool. Some of the language is outdated at best, and at times it can even sound fairly insensitive. Suffice to say there was little in the way of compelling dialogue. Most characters spout cringe-inducing one-liners every time they open their mouths, with the brigade themselves being the worst offenders.
The plot progresses by jumping into thematic books, which allow you to explore vastly different settings. These vary from the starting world of a medieval enchanted forest, to the Tower of Babel. Some of the thought that has gone into the worlds is impressive and well executed too. However, like many things in this game, others seem confused and poorly realised. One example being a series of dungeons in which you encounter mainly Greek characters, but feature a decidedly Egyptian motif. It’s unclear whether this is part of the lore, or just laziness in mashing up two very distinct cultures. Either way, for a game ostensibly about literature – with somewhat educational undertones – it seems odd to place them together with such little explanation.
Story’s In-Game Impact
The only way the story really impacts the mechanics of the game are the different skills that each character brings to the table. There are certain objects or mechanisms that can only be operated or moved by those characters. Like Nikola Tesla being the only one that can operate electrical machines dotted around the levels.
As you would expect with a Metroidvania, these character specific abilities were unlocked at a steady rate as I progressed. Though in my experience not steadily enough, constantly feeling long overdue for the next ability. This was especially noticeable until Tesla introduced the wheel formation. Mercifully this formation allowed me to traverse the world at a pace other than a slow trudge. After four hours of gameplay it does beg the question of why it takes so long to unlock though.
NPCs appear for a few reasons throughout. At their best they offer more of the game’s actually quite compelling lore. At their worst, they spout awful puns and send you on extraordinarily boring fetch quests. These NPCs appear as various literary icons from Don Quixote to Joan of Arc. Unfortunately, any conversation you initiate is made infuriating by the cringe-worthy dialogue. The perpetrators of said dialogue are usually the brigade themselves, though occasionally the NPC will make matters worse too. Alas it’s hard to get through any conversation without some cringeworthy non sequitur rearing its head.
Graphics & Animation
In terms of the game’s artistic style, the 2D cartoonish style fits the tone quite well. It’s fairly simplistic but admittedly well executed. This extends to the UI too, which is for the most part consistent and well realised, at least aesthetically. Sadly the UI controls are fairly finicky and awkward.
One element of the UI that falls flat across the board is, regrettably, the map. Which fails, not only in terms of its design, but also in its ability to actually relate your position in the game world. Design-wise, the map is so over-simplified that it is hard to tell what any of the symbols actually refer to.
Similarly, each room or area is identical on the map, represented by a coloured square with little to no distinguishing features. As for actually finding your way around using your map, this is pretty much impossible. The in-game room layouts are not featured in the map, and indications of where you can go from each room are painfully minimal. Often to the point of being so simplistic it’s impossible to tell part of the game-proper it’s referring to.
A further complication in finding your way is made apparent whenever you find an object that requires an ability to interact with. Instead of marking these points-of-interest on the map you’re left to remember where they are (or at least try) on your own. Believe me when I say this is no easy task.
The in-game animations are more fluid and slightly better realised than that of the UI. However, when I talk about animation, I’m strictly speaking about how actions look, I’ll come to how it feels soon. Movement looks generally quite good, but during combat both movement and attacks look so generic and disconnected from your actions that it makes it difficult to know if you’re actually having any impact on enemies at all. Perhaps the most impressive animations are some of the formations the characters can take – the column and wheel formations in particular.
There isn’t enough to say on performance to dedicate an entire section to it, but suffice to say the load times are painful. Maybe this is what enables the frame rate to remain steady when loading what are fairly substantial levels. Resolution holds throughout, but given the simplistic 2D art style this is hardly surprising, and not particularly impressive if you take the load times into consideration.
Thus far there have been minor and major quibbles with Bookbound Brigade, but there have also been some redeeming qualities in the art-style and the sheer amount of content. However, at this point I’ve reached the game’s Achilles heel. Gameplay is about the most important thing to get right in any game, and sadly that just isn’t the case here.
Exploration & Traversal
Before I get on to how the game actually feels to control, one aspect to cover is how the game plays in terms of exploration. Being a Metroidvania game, you expect a certain amount of backtracking and covering old ground going in. However, what Bookbound Brigade gives you is a labyrinthian game world that often requires significant backtracking for a single puzzle, and often without giving you any reward for your trouble. Once you factor in how little help the map actually gives you in finding your way around, backtracking can become a nightmarish experiment in testing your own patience.
To make matters worse, movement in general feels very sluggish yet somehow simultaneously weightless. To illustrate the combined effect of the backtracking mentioned above, let me paint a picture for you:
You’ve just spent 10 minutes walking as fast as the game will allow (read: excruciatingly slowly) through the world. You then reach a path that is blocked by a mechanism that you haven’t unlocked the skill for yet. Then it hits you, the last fork in the path was where you started walking 10 minutes ago and the only way to get there is to march sombrely back the way you came. Only now, you can’t remember which way you came, and the map is offering you little to nothing in the way of assistance. You finally reach the fork in the path and take the other way, only to encounter yet another puzzle that requires backtracking, and so on…
This wouldn’t be so bad if it was a one off, but alas, this happened to us in every single world the game had to offer.
Throughout the game, combat is lacklustre at best. Much like the traversal, it feels slow and seems to have little impact on enemies. As far as I could tell, enemy difficulty was arbitrary regardless of how far through the game I made it.
Some enemies have attacks that can only be interrupted by launching smaller enemies at them. Annoyingly sometimes only a few of these smaller enemies appeared meaning I ran out before I’d taken down the bigger threat. Other times I’d attempt to launch these small enemies, but the combo took such a painfully long time to do so that I’d already been interrupted by the larger enemy’s health-bar decimating attacks.
There is little else to say with regards to combat given that it barely changes over the course of the game. I could incrementally increase my critical-hit rate but these were hardly exciting milestones.
Perhaps the biggest complaint I had with Bookbound Brigade is how singularly frustrating the platforming puzzles proved to be. Either due to their requirement for incredibly precise movement, or else due to the almost impossible timing of others. Since one false move gets you a one-way trip to the start of that puzzle, you’ll need the patience of a saint. Something I do not possess, and the lack of which almost resulted in a severely damaged Switch.
One especially frustrating section involved the familiar setting of columns of flame alternating between off and on. Simply enough, all the characters need to do is time their movements to avoid being fried. What could have been a satisfyingly challenging section though, quickly became rage inducing.
The required column formation also has the unique feature of swaying side-to-side when you stop moving. The section in question requires near-perfect timing to fit into incredibly narrow spaces where you need to wait for your next opening. Unfortunately the sway of the column resulted in countless deaths and a dangerous increase to my blood pressure.
As I’ve mentioned a few times, the formation switching is an interesting enough innovation. More often than not though it instead made many aspects unnecessarily annoying. There is a different button combination for each formation which resulted in an amount of deaths, platforming or otherwise, that I’d rather not mention. Often I was unable to switch formation because enemies were crowding me too. This was problematic since it was usually necessary to change in order to deal with different enemy types.
Both combat and platforming seem to have been put together without much consideration of difficulty or the player skill level. For a game seemingly aimed at children it’s surprisingly hard to play – and not in a good way. I never felt like a death had taught me anything of value. More often than not, I was just left frustrated and angry. Closer to putting down the game never-to-return than I was to persevering.
It often feels like you’re faced with certain enemy types long before you’re suitably equipped to beat them. In certain boss fights, that enemy itself would have been hard enough, yet you also have to fight waves of basic enemies too. Although some do drop health when you defeat them. You may be thinking, that’s not so bad then, but you’d be wrong. The meagre amount of health restored is nowhere near enough to bring back the amount of damage a single swipe from a boss deals.
Bearing in mind there is no option to reduce the difficulty of Bookbound Brigade, it feels obnoxiously hard from the outset. With platforming requiring such exact movements you fail far more times than is rewarding during any given section. Likewise combat feels relentlessly punishing if you haven’t mastered the combat techniques being drip-fed throughout the story. Only to then find a skill that would have been far more helpful in that boss-fight you just scraped through, unlocked upon completing it.
Progression feels unpredictable at best. In our experience though, a sense of frustration regularly undercut the joy of finding an unlockable ability. Either because it was entirely underwhelming, or because it would been far more useful before a boss fight than as a reward for completing it. In order to unlock most of the game’s abilities you’ll need to track down the right side character. Though some of these interactions make even less sense in the game than when written down here. Like when Long John Silver teaches Count Dracula how to double jump, because reasons.
Additional abilities were purchasable using pages or memories that I collected throughout the game world. The amount of pages that I collected, and the corresponding abilities I was able to unlock, especially in the early game, don’t alter gameplay to a significant degree.
The only other noticeable way to progress is to continue through the game unlocking the next skill. Though you wouldn’t be alone if you’ve forgotten where you need to go to even use your new skill.
From an interminable map and terrible writing to rage inducing combat and platforming, there is simply too much wrong with this game to redeem it. It is noble that Bookbound Brigade tried to bring something new to what is an already over-saturated genre. However, in doing so, Digital Tales seemingly forgot the fundamental things that make games like this enjoyable.
Unfortunately for Bookbound Brigade, simply by belonging to the Metroidvania genre, it has invited comparisons from many similar and mostly superior games. Most notably Hollow Knight, which boasts a similar length and price while also being better in almost every conceivable way. If you’re craving literacy themed content, might I suggest reading a book instead?
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An interesting Metroidvania-like which ultimately crumbles under the weight its many flaws.
- Score - 4/104/10
+ Substantial amount of content
+ Impressive depth of lore
– Cringe-worthy dialogue
– Painfully frustrating combat
– Rage-inducing platforming
– Punishingly difficult from the outset
– Enough backtracking to put the most patient gamer to sleep
A Soulsborne survivor with a soft spot for character driven games. You’ll currently find him spending way too much time in The Last of Us: Part II photo mode.