The Hourglass: The Book of Unwritten Tales Review

"A nice house" in Peter Molyneux's terms.

A nice house, as described by Peter Molyneux.

The book of Unwritten Tales (TBOUWT) was originally released in Germany three years ago, then in English-speaking territories a whole two years after, and now it has been released yet again: this time in Australia, and on Steam…and it’s not even a JRPG! Phew

What it is, according to many, is a classic; this makes it something of a unique contemporary release within its genre. While the adventure game genre is alive and kicking within King Art’s native Europe, the rest of the world is convinced that it’s dead.

This applies not only to geography, but to the critical media as well: while Pendulo Studios and other similar companies have received wide critical acclaim within the adventure gaming media, they have received a lukewarm response from the mainstream media.

That says it all: if a genre needs its own media, it either has a very passionate fan base, or is rather irrelevant to the mainstream. Really, it’s probably a bit of both. But, TBOUWT managed to do what few of its contemporaries have: achieve mainstream critical acclaim!

First, I must make something clear—the conditions under which I played TBOUWT were less than ideal, meaning that there was little continuity in how I was able to play the game. This is worth noting because of one of the game’s biggest flaws.

But we’ll get to that in good time; this was only the introduction, and now that everything has been introduced, we can get to the meat of the review itself—the critical analysis, and what better place to start than with how the game has aged? It is three years old after all!

Don't let my screenshots fool you! It looks even better in widescreen.

Don’t let my screenshots fool you! It looks best in widescreen.

Even when it was first released it wasn’t exactly pushing the polygon count. Though the character’s faces look crisp, they suffer from some rather awkward animation that is not up to the same level of visual polish that can be seen in the environments. And what environments they are! The use of colour is excellent, with most scenes having one prevailing colour from which the rest of the environment takes its cues, making each environment stand out from the next; each with their own unique atmosphere. The environments are computer generated, but due to the excellent use of colour, solid framing, and a high level of detail, they have the feeling of a well illustrated picture book, rather than drab CG backdrops. The truth of the matter is that TBOUWT doesn’t just look good now, but will for many years to come yet!

Given that there has been no progress in how adventure games play since the invention of 3D graphics and the first person perspective, we can hardly discuss the gameplay in this context; unless you believe that adventure games are archaic as a rule. In which case, you should probably stop reading this review. If you are still here, then we can continue. We’ve got the introduction out of the way, and the question of dating, so now we can begin again at the beginning. Why such a choppy start? Because it is endemic of the game itself.

This is not what it looks like!

This is not what it looks like!

As the opening moments of TBOUWT unfolded, I must admit I was a little perplexed as to why it was considered a classic; the villain was hamming it up big time, and the heroine looked as if the wood in wood elf was some sort of post-modern commentary on the reaction that the developers had had to her leather outfit (add a little boot polish if you want to know the sort of leather look that they were really going for) that aptly showed off her rather impressive six pack and cleavage. Two things a gal simply can’t do without these days, even if said gal is a wood elf. To make matters worse, her voice actor was trying a bit too hard with some very expositional dialogue of the what do I do now? variety; a problem that was extended to the gameplay as well: there weren’t puzzles, so much as, speak-until-something-happenses.

Indeed, the first puzzle was painfully obvious—once you realised that the more logical solution was not what you were meant to be doing! It was a truly terrible start, but then something happened. Our wood nym—elf was replaced by a gnome who, in the greatest of fantasy traditions, had a British accent. But not just any British accent: instead of sounding Scottish as most diminutive fantasy characters do, he sounded just short of a Welsh Geordie, and managed to pull off even the most expositional dialogue with a certain je ne sais quio that made every line interesting—he even linked together the random rhyming words that had not been deleted by the dialogue editor! It was at exactly this point that I began to appreciate the dialogue; it was a matter of acclimatisation: I just had to get used to the unorthodoxy.

Couldn't have said it better myself.

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

There’s a level of originality or ignorance in the translation, the original dialogue, and the direction of the voice actors. While it’s not considered kosher to rhyme or repeat words in dialogue, when it is done as a rule—as it often is here—it helps create an aesthetic to the writing that is often lacking in videogames. Done deliberately or otherwise—and once you’ve got used to it—it’s hard not to enjoy the dialogue as it uses language in such a pleasant, irreverent way. Whether it is deliberate or not (and let’s assume that it is for the sake of this review) is rather beside the point. What you are left with is mostly excellent writing, though on occasion there’s a stinker of a line that the voice actors can simply do nothing with. But, once you are used to the style, everything generally flows well and sounds great.

Hell, when everyone’s favourite wood elf returned to the fore, I suddenly found myself enjoying her voice acting more than anyone else’s. Finally I could appreciate the tone with which she accentuated her words, and the rhythm with which she spat out her syllables. She was a force to be reckoned with and, while certainly not as polished as most Japanese voice actors, she was approaching the medium with the same intention: instead of simply trying to apply emotion to her words as if she were (over) acting on screen, she was applying emotion through the tone of her voice as well as the rhythm of her speech as if she were a rapper, a folk singer, or, yes, a Japanese voice actor. To varying levels of success, all the main cast take on this approach, and should be commended for being so ambitious! But she is the star.

Having said that, our lovable gnome is consistently more successful, and you can’t go past that buttery Gelsh accent. Unfortunately, Nate is not as talented at this approach as his co-stars are, and easily puts in the worst performance of the lot, stumbling badly over the bad lines, and never taking full advantage of the good ones. He’s stuck somewhere between a Western style of voice acting, and a Japanese one, and never takes advantage of either. He makes for a decent voice acting metaphor: most of the minor cast members are stuck firmly in the Western school of voice acting, so there’s a strange contrast—not just in terms of quality, but style too—between the main, and the extended cast. That’s our first example of the inconsistencies at play in TBOUWT—the terrific highs, and the rather questionable lows.

This is...exactly what it looks like.

This is…exactly what it looks like.

 

What’s more consistent is the gameplay; this is not necessarily a good thing. While the first puzzle that helped make my first impression of the game so bad was worse than what came after, it was indicative of the problem that most of the puzzles suffer from: a lack of challenge. Indeed, the solution to a puzzle is often obvious as soon as you are confronted by it; sometimes even before you are! In fact, now and then you’ll find an item, and due to what you already know about the situation at hand, be able to immediately predict exactly how it will be used in the future.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, if the puzzles are easy, then the game can flow freely and the pacing of the story can remain unmolested by the game’s mechanics, but at times it can make the gameplay a little unengaging. But, most of the time, the context that the story imbues proceedings with provides enough interest so that things generally do stay engaging, even if you’re not pausing to consider just what it is that you’re doing. The fact that you’re often working on several different objectives at once also helps to keep things interesting and fresh.

Medieval Segways made full use of the inverted firkin.

Medieval Segways made full use of the inverted firkin.

Another instance of inconsistency affecting TBOUWT negatively is how the game switches between the protagonists; while this variety would normally be welcomed, quite often the timing is off. Just as you’re getting used to one character, it moves onto the next.

This mechanic is used excellently at the very end of the game during an excellent twist that is a wonderful parody of how adventure games play out, and it hits the mark far harder than the references dotted throughout the rest of the game; though they are just as welcome.

It’s a good note to end on because, as unassumingly inspired as it is, it also sucks the momentum out of the final moments of the game which had been built up over the last several hours. Yet another instance of inspiration just let down by a little bit of clumsiness.

Does that mean that TBOUWT is not quite deserving of its classic status? It’s too early to comment seriously on that, but it deserves to be commended for the mainstream praise that it has received; no doubt partly due to the ease with which its puzzles can be solved.

But also because it’s a damn fine game. Despite some serious failings, TBOUWT manages to become more than the sum of its parts, simply because some of its parts are so excellent. I say this without a hint of hyperbole: the best moments in TBOUWT are worthy of a classic.

Perhaps it’s better to use the qualifier, modern, before classic. If we do, we can give TBOUWT the praise it deserves without ignoring its flaws, and leave the real test to the sands of time. As they say: Like sands through the hourglass, so are the games of our lives.

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3.5 / 5 stars     

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