It started off so well. It ended with frustration.
I had high hopes for Bookbound Brigade, a literary-themed Metroidvania from Italian developer Digital Tales. Hell, when I previewed the game at last year’s EGX I sang its praises. It looks cute, its dialogue is well-written and occasionally funny, and it seems packed with interesting ideas.
They’re all still valid praises based on the first hour or so with the game. It’s only once you’ve spent a couple of hours with Bookbound Brigade that swathes of issues rear their ugly heads and absolutely obliterate anything that was good about it.
Perhaps the most unique thing about Bookbound Brigade is that you don’t play as one character; you play as a group of eight characters, all historical figures or taken from famous literature. They’re pretty cute, presented as stubby, colourful cartoons; and they’re given character through witty dialogue that toes the line between being mildly humorous and groan-worthy. It’s forgivable, and it probably will elicit a smile or chuckle from you – at least early on, before progressing through Bookbound Brigade sucks all the joy out of your life, that is.
Ahem. Your eight characters move as one, and can take on different formations. As standard, you’ll control them as a 4×2 block, but as you progress you’ll unlock new formations, allowing them to form a tall tower, a long line, and even a whirling wheel of doom. The wheel may be the least practical of all formations, but whizzing across a level as some kind of human circle of death does have some merit.
The problem is that controlling eight characters at once feels rather cumbersome. In terms of your controller inputs, you do nothing different than you would if you were controlling one single character – they move in formation, after all. But you take up more physical space than a single character. Make a jump slightly off perfect and rather than clinging on to the edge, it’s more likely the characters at the back will pull everyone down to their deaths. Many platforming sections of Bookbound Brigade also require you to quickly and precisely change formation to pass through certain areas; you’ll need to cycle from standard, to tall, to long in a matter of seconds. The controls are cumbersome, making it too easy to make a mistake. And with terrible checkpointing throughout the game, you’ll often find yourself having to repeat sections again and again.
There are also numerous puzzles, many of which rely on switches to be activated in order to access new areas. The most annoying of these incorporate timers; three switches that need to be pressed in the right order in a set amount of time so you can progress to the next area. It’s a fairly standard mechanic, but here the timer is so short that your task feels impossible. Especially when, in the five seconds or so you have to act, you also need to change formation numerous times and avoid deadly obstacles. It was one of these puzzles later into the game that was the last straw for me.
By itself though, Bookbound Brigade‘s platforming is tolerable. It’s unforgiving and perhaps too challenging for its own good considering the type of game it is, but if that was the game’s only problem, I’d probably be more keen to grit my teeth and soldier on through. Sadly, it’s not.
By far the biggest bugbear of Bookbound Brigade is combat. It’s awful. Unforgivably awful; there’s no other way to put it. Any nuanced ability or skill goes out of the window when it comes to fighting the game’s enemies; you simply have to bash your attack button and hope for the best. Dealing with small-fry – enemies the same size as one of your eight characters – is fine; simply approach them, hammer the attack button and away they go. But it’s when you come up against the game’s many (many) hulking enemies, towering above you, that things get frustrating.
Early on in the game, you’re taught a few combat techniques. When in line or tower formation, you can attack small enemies while holding ‘up’, and they’ll be used as a projectile to damage larger enemies. ‘Great’, you think. ‘This will be fun!’ And it is. For about two minutes. While ever there’s just one big enemy on screen, it’s useful. If there are two or more big enemies, though, as there often is, utilising the skill becomes impossible. Should your brigade be facing in the wrong direction – as they often will be, through no fault of your own – you’ll end up catapulting enemies the wrong way. Providing you can even catapult them at all; the process of doing so takes a few seconds, and should you get attacked during that time, you’ll simply fail to complete the move.
Add to the mix small enemies that fire projectiles, large enemies that obliterate half of your health bar in one attack, and enemies that spit poisonous materials in your direction, and you’ve got a recipe for an absolute shitfest. With no ability to dodge or counter attacks, all you can do is try to clumsily jump out of the way, which is rarely successful. Few games have made the words ‘for fuck’s sake’ come out of my mouth quite as much as Bookbound Brigade.
The combat isn’t the only egregious element of Bookbound Brigade, either. As a Metroidvania game, you’re reliant on exploring, passing through new areas and then backtracking to places you’ve already been once you’ve got a new skill. Unfortunately, the game comes complete with the world’s most useless map. It bears little resemblance to the world you’re actually exploring, with multiple areas in-game seemingly being represented by one room on the map.
As such, navigating relies on simply exploring and hoping for the best – even if that means walking around in circles for half an hour. More annoying are the times where you think you’ve made good progress by stumbling across a new room. You clear the enemies of that room, leaving you able to pass through to the other side – to then only find yourself somewhere you’ve already been before. FFS.
Let’s rub some salt into the wounds. Bookbound Brigade also has some accessibility issues. As your characters unlock new skills, you’ll gain the ability to interact with certain elements. Nikola Tesla can access electrical control panels, for instance, and Dorothy Gale can activate weird runes with her ruby slippers (?). But rather than simply press a button to use these skills, the game has you mash a button against the clock. Even for me, with averagely-dexterous fingers, it’s a chore. For people who rely on accessibility features (of which Bookbound Brigade has precisely zero) to help them, this pointless bit of gameplay would absolutely prevent them from progressing through the game any further.
Needless to say, I did not enjoy my time with Bookbound Brigade, but I do say that with a heavy heart. I really wanted to like the game. It has a lot of character and some nice work has gone into its visual design. But its problems are insurmountable and ultimately you’re left with a game that’s too frustrating and filled with too many issues to ever be fun to play. At least Bookbound Brigade tries some different ideas on for size. They don’t fit, but at least the developer tries. Isn’t that what counts? “It’s not the winning, but the taking part.” Sadly, nobody’s a winner playing Bookbound Brigade, and there’s nothing to celebrate by taking part, either.