Thoughts: Book Of Demons

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Book Of Demons is an ARPG with a very important question to ask: did you like Diablo? You do remember Diablo, right? Oh, maybe you don’t. It was a niche game released by tiny indie dev Blizzard studios back in 1996; you’ve probably forgotten all about it by now since there certainly haven’t been any other games released like Diablo in the intervening twenty-two years. Never fear, though; Book Of Demons is here to forcefully remind you that Diablo is a game that exists by charging out in search for the line separating “tribute” and “ripoff” and then using it to beat you within an inch of your life.

It’s funny, really. Book Of Demons copies Diablo’s structure exactly, from the character classes to the village characters to the dungeon theming to the bosses, to the point where I’m slightly surprised they haven’t been hit with legal action as there’s even a Tyrael knockoff that shows up later on who looks exactly like him. It isn’t being subtle. It has probably never even heard of subtlety. It’s trying to affectionately send up Diablo at the same time as stealing all of its ideas, but Book Of Demons very definitely doesn’t believe in the “less is more” approach to comedy, never letting a player get the reference on their own when it can hit them around the head with a crashingly jarring joke delivered with all the sophistication of a brick through a plate glass window. I get the distinct impression that English is not the first language of developers Thing Trunk, which makes me inclined to cut it some slack (their jokes in English are better than mine would be in a foreign language, after all) except that even accounting for things getting lost in translation this is still a game written by people who probably still think arrow-to-the-knee jokes are pinnacle of gaming humour. The fact that it has writing in the first place is a clear sign that things have gone horribly wrong (Diablo itself got by with barely any) but the writing it’s got is nails-down-a-blackboard bad, a constant niggling irritation that I couldn’t ignore — the game wouldn’t let me ignore it — and which is probably going to cause this review to be harsher than Book Of Demons really deserves.

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Which is a bit of a shame, because in terms of visuals and design Book Of Demons is actually quite an accomplished little game that would otherwise have come fairly close to being a genuinely charming tribute to the original Diablo. Everything in the game is a stylised papercraft model, including your character and the enemies they hit – they’re static objects that move around the levels like an invisible hand is picking them up and moving them along a board one space at at time. This incidentally saves on having to do any real character animations but that’s okay; having selected this distinctive visual aesthetic Book Of Demons plays up to it for all it’s worth, with the practically-2D enemy models getting blown over by powerful abilities just like… well, a sheet of paper. Usually I don’t go out of my way to mention colour palettes, so the fact that I am about to mention Book Of Demons’ colour palette should tell you something about how well-judged it is; it mostly matches the general themes of the village and each area of the of Diablo dungeon, but it’s a little softer and kinder so that the edge is taken off of it and the look of the game is brought more in line with its cutsey gimmick. Visually speaking Book Of Demons is executed about as well as it could be, leveraging both its papercraft theme and the developers’ limited resources to the maximum extent possible.

It also has some neat design flourishes. For all that it slavishly copies Diablo’s structure, Book Of Demons is at least a game that recognises two very important things. First is that the ARPG genre has come on a little way since Diablo, and that replicating the mechanics wholesale is just going to end in tears — after all, if I want to play something that feels like a real Diablo throwback I’ll just play actual Diablo. Second is that modern ARPGs actually have quite a lot of competition, from Path Of Exile to Grim Dawn to Diablo 3, and so any modern ARPG has to innovate mechanically in order to stand out from the crowd. Book Of Demons chooses to do this by abstracting all of its spells, items and equipment as a selection of cards that can drop in the dungeon in lieu of loot. At the bottom of the screen is an FPS-esque row of ten card slots, most of which are closed off at the start of the game and must be unlocked with increasing amounts of cash money. These ten slots represent the sum total of what you can equip during the game; there’s no paper doll for dressing your character up in armour, and no belt slots for holding potions. If you want to equip a healing potion card (which has multiple charges, so you don’t have to equip multiple healing potions), you’re going to have to decide what is going to be displaced from a card slot in favour of that healing potion card; the Disarmour spell that instantly smashes through enemy shields, say, or the electric helmet that zaps enemies who hit you. Abilities and consumable item cards can be invoked via the hotkey that corresponds to the slot they’re in (which is why they’ll inevitably end up occupying the 1-5 slots), while equipment cards can’t be activated but provide powerful passive effects that are key to surviving the dungeon.

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As far as actually using abilities and consumables go, encapsulating them in card form doesn’t do a great deal to change them up from the standard ARPG formula. Having abilities drop as dungeon loot instead of being unlocked on level up could potentially have broken things a bit as you need certain tools to make dealing with certain enemies easier, but Thing Trunk have been smart about this and ensured that they drop in a semi-structured fashion so that you’re never caught short. The equipment system was more interesting, though, since equipping an equipment card into a card slot both takes up the slot and also permanently locks some of your mana bar for as long as it is equipped. Having lots of equipment cards slotted can easily end up locking off 80% of your mana, leaving you with just a thin sliver for casting combat abilities. However the payoff is worth it as most of the equipment cards grant passive bonuses that feel genuinely powerful — a shield that completely blocks 50% of all incoming projectiles, or a set of armour that bleeds lost HP out onto the floor as floating hearts that can be picked up again, allowing you to regenerate. Importantly there isn’t a single one of them that does something that’s hard to quantify the value of, like increasing armour by 100; while there are definitely a few cards that make you think “Why would I ever use this?”, all of them do something, and that something is easily understandable just by reading the card text. Together with the card system and the mana lock cost of equipment, this makes fine-tuning your equipment loadout a really interesting set of decisions.

This was what I found most effective about the Book Of Demons card system in general, really. There’s nothing about the individual abilities and items that I haven’t seen before in other ARPGs, but while I feel that describing Book Of Demons as a “deck builder” is inaccurate (there’s no deck here, for a start) being able to pick any ten cards as your character loadout results in a surprising degree of flexibility in the characters you can build. You can go for balance, with a few attack abilities, a couple of consumables and four or five pieces of equipment, which locks up a fair portion of your mana bar but leaves you enough to be getting on with in fight. Or you can equip just a single powerful ability, jam as many pieces of equipment onto your character as possible, and rely on an Amulet of Mana to regenerate the five actually usable mana points you’re left with. Each card can be upgraded twice, with higher card levels having additional and/or more powerful effects, but they’ll also cost or lock off more mana to use, so perhaps it’s a better idea to keep a few cards in an unupgraded state so that you can get a decent synergy going with the base version of the card while still being able to equip it without crippling yourself.

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The other good idea Book Of Demons has is the Flexiscope system, which is essentially a glorified way of saying you can tailor the length of a session to the amount of time you have available. Just like everything else in the game, Book Of Demons steals Diablo’s dungeon format of progressing downwards from the Cathedral to the Catacombs to Hell, but unlike Diablo it isn’t split into 15 discrete levels. Instead, each time you venture into the dungeon you select a desired game size, from Tiny all the way up to Huge. Each size has an estimated completion time that is supposedly based on your previous performance (and this did change the longer I played the game, so there’s something going on in the background) which allows you to pick based on how long you fancy playing Book Of Demons for this session. Only have fifteen minutes before you have to rush out the door for that appointment? Pick Tiny, and you’ll play through a set of two or three bijou little levels. On the flipside Huge will throw up to ten sprawling dungeon floors at you that’ll take up to an hour to cut your way through. Ultimately you can still use Town Portal to escape back to town at any time so all this is doing is putting an arbitrary stop marker on your current session, but I do like the general approach: Book Of Demons, instead of shackling itself to dungeon levels with a minimum set size, is instead allowing itself a bit more flexibility in being able to generate a wider range of levels that take the same amount of total time, but which have more variety packed into them.

Okay, so we’ve established that despite being an unfunny Diablo parody Book Of Demons actually has some quite nice ideas where the metagame is concerned, but what is it like to actually play? How does the moment-to-moment experience of killing monsters feel? Well, it’s here that the wheels rather unfortunately come off the wagon; thanks to its papercraft conceit Book Of Demons successfully avoids feeling as lifeless as, say, Grim Dawn, and while nothing’s exploding into gore here your special attacks do feel like they have some heft and impact to them, which is the lowest bar I expect an ARPG to clear. However, there are some absolutely baffling design decisions that really hamstring the dungeon exploration part of the game, first and foremost of which is… well, it’s the dungeon exploration part of the game.

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For reasons known only to themselves, Thing Trunk have decided to massively restrict player movement in Book Of Demons to a set of static, linear pathways running down the middle of each room. You cannot move off of the path under any circumstances. This reduces your movement options in most scenarios to going forwards or backwards, which is really not good enough when the hordes of monsters that assail you are under no such restrictions — they can move anywhere within the dungeon — and also love to fire projectiles at you which you simply cannot dodge because you don’t have the movement range to do so. Instead it feels like you’re supposed to just eat the arrows, spears and blobs of demonic snot with your face, like the game is based around soaking up damage instead of avoiding it. Your attacks have a very long range to make up for your restricted movement (even the Warrior can hit things half a screen away with his basic attack), but you still end up having to do this stupid hit-and-run tactic where you hold down attack on a monster until it gets too close, retreat a few steps, hold down attack on a monster until it gets too close… yes, arguably this is how the original Diablo was played, but they’d fixed that issue three years later in Diablo 2 and if you it it down next to the fast-paced movement abilities available in Diablo 3 it looks like utter dogshit. You cannot just remove movement as a tactical option from an action RPG, because movement and positioning are 90% of what make up the “action” part of the genre. Take those out, and you have what Book Of Demons ultimately is: a slowmoving clicker game.

Actually that’s probably giving it slightly too much credit. I probably would have enjoyed Book Of Demons more if it had fully embraced its clicker nature and had built itself around increasing click frequency as Clicker Heroes does. As it is it just feels like something that’s been designed more for mobile than it has for computers: restricted movement, an autoattack that you can hold down to make it go faster, and a lot of gewgaw mechanics that would fit in way better on a phone than they do on PC. The one where being stunned by a charging monster knocks your cards out of position on your hotbar and you have to click on them to reset them is kind of cute, but at the same time I have to click on a bunch of spinning stars to get the fuzzy stun effects to go away and continue playing the game, which is ever so slightly obnoxious. Speaking of obnoxious, you remember when I said enemies have free movement and you don’t? This is something that’s annoying at the best of times, but which made me utterly, incandescently furious when I fought a miniboss who had a teleport ability and kept teleporting across the room; because of the way the path was laid out in this room in a sort of U-shape I had to walk backwards and around to his new position, at which point I’d hit him a couple of times and he’d teleport back in the opposite direction and I’d have to do it again.

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The thing that really gets me about Book Of Demons movement is that I cannot for the life of me figure out why it’s been restricted to these pathways. What does it lose by letting the player travel anywhere? What does it gain by nailing the pathways into the dungeon? All that does is make the layout a little easier to autogenerate, which is not something that I as a player immediately appreciate and is a minor advantage that pales in comparison to the generally straightjacketed feeling I had while playing Book Of Demons. There’s no gameplay benefit to it that I can see, unless the developers had “pissing Hentzau off” as one of their design goals. On top of that I experienced regular framerate lag whenever the screen got even slightly busy with monsters and attack effects, which is mystifying when you consider that it’s not a particularly complicated-looking game and the machine I’m running it on took Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and Battlefield V with no complaints whatsoever. The final boss encounter in particular — where he’s constantly spawning additional enemies and a lot of explosions — came close to creaking to a halt every five seconds or so. I could probably have learned to live with the pathway systems in spite of myself if Book Of Demons hadn’t also been juddering around like an overstuffed washing machine at the precise moments when I actually needed to react quickly (or as quickly as the game would allow, anyway) to get myself out of trouble.

It was at these moments that Book Of Demons became truly unpleasant to play instead of merely annoying, and it’s the thought of them that puts me off going back to try it with the Rogue or the Mage. Book Of Demons isn’t without merit and in another universe could have been a nice little dungeon crawler, but there’s too far much about it that makes me wince, from the pathways to the slowdown to the constant barrage of meme-grade humour that’s more likely to make me claw out my own eyeballs than it is to elicit a chuckle. (A word of advice to indie developers: you’re probably not as funny as you think you are. It is not impossible for you to insert some well-judged humour into your game, but you’ll either want to gather a lot of feedback prior to release or else hire an actual writer who can do it properly. Or both.) Thing Trunk are clearly talented developers with some decent ideas, but knowing what to take out of a game is just as important as the things you put into it; as they haven’t even tried to rein in their worst impulses Book Of Demons ends up irritating and infuriating in equal measure, and that’s really not what I play video games for1.

  1. Well, that’s partially a lie. I sometimes knowingly play bad games to try and maintain a sense of perspective. Book Of Demons wasn’t one of those, however; I’d heard it described in positive terms and really was hoping it’d be a fun little diversion.
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One thought on “Thoughts: Book Of Demons

  1. I think one of the stranger things about this game is that it appears to just be the first in a planned series of papercraft-inspired games that, presumably, will each pay homage to/ripoff a different game/genre. I was pretty surprised when starting the game brought me to some kind of elaborate launcher rather than directly going to Book of Demons.

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