The gloom of Black Book’s Slavic countryside is overshadowed only by the darkness hiding in plain sight.
Evil is a corrupting force. Malice, hatred, greed, and jealousy can all be stoked to drive people to madness. Those possessed by these traits sometimes claim “the Devil made me do it.” In Black Book by Morteshka, that esoteric explanation could be true.
You are Vasilisa, a young girl destined to learn the art of witchcraft. However, she chose to forego the occult teachings of her grandfather Egor to marry her beloved. Though after his life slips away, Vasilisa chooses to embrace her destiny and become a witch to see her beloved again. She does this by entering the maw of Hell where she meets her steward demon and her perception of the world is forever changed.
Though your mission is clear, it is only a single part of your job. As a witch, you’re also known to the locals as a ‘knower,’ who will visit you and bring offerings as they plead for help against the supernatural. Most will know little of the true nature of their problem and it’s up to you, the knower, to figure it out and then help them deal with it.
These include tests of your knowledge of witchcraft and demonology which are presented as multiple-choice style questions that not only can change the course of the story, but can reward some experience and/or roubles to correct answers. There is a built-in hint system to help you deduce the right answer as well, though it will weaken the reward you get from it.
There is a subtle element of reputation in Black Book called Sin. As you explore the world and listen to those who seek your guidance, you’re able to approach their situations in a variety of ways. These can range from malicious to benevolent, with questionable actions giving you sins in addition to whatever else you retrieve. The more sins you have, the more differently you’ll be treated by people and demons who interact with you. It will also effect your ending.
When you’ve collected enough information during the day, you’ll set out at night to capitalize on it while searching for more ways to bring your beloved back. Exploration in Black Book is very linear as you follow the paths already outlined on your map. These paths can expand, however, as you explore each road to find new ones. It’s a small touch that makes the progression feel meaningful and pulls you into the world.
Night is also when evil is strongest, however, so you’ll need to use the power of the book to stay safe. You will fight demons, known as ‘chorts’ in the Slavic countryside, or any other manner of assailant using the power of the pages Black Book to create zagovors. These are incantations that happen at the end of your turn when you unleash the power of your chosen pages, each one with their own effects.
The battles are turn-based card game style affairs that play out like Slay the Spire or Roguebook. You can see what move an enemy is about to use and prepare yourself for it, either by building up defenses to block it or creating a big attack to kill them outright. Each victory rewards you a new page in your book, whose variety only gets wider as you unlock new page types and categories.
Vasilisa also levels up in Black Book. Whenever you defeat an enemy in battle or successfully pass a knowledge check, you gain experience. When you level up you’ll be rewarded with a skill point to put into one of four trees, each specializing in their own niche. These will allow you to increase your socializing skills, expand your knowledge in demonology, and even upgrade the pages in your book.
You’re also able to resolve some conflicts by playing another type of card game called Durak. Using a deck of playing cards, some people you meet and even some chorts you encounter give you the option of playing this game instead of fighting them. This is a nice touch that adds good variety to the game, but can be a bit frustrating to play at higher difficulty levels.
This is all presented in a minimalist cel-shaded graphical style during gameplay and cutscenes. Beautiful hand-drawn illustrations backed by solid voice acting bring dialogue exchanges to life and bring you into the world. These elements breathe life into the world of Black Book as you traverse the Slavic countryside, unlocking the disturbing secrets of the land and its people.
As you learn more about the world through exploration, you’ll eventually be able to take companions with you on your journey to aid in both combat and dialogue. These companions will fill out your home and eventually ask for your help on a personal matter. This RPG flavor adds a fun layer of progression and adds even more to the replay value.
While Black Book can set up a great atmosphere of horror and unease, the visuals can undermine it at times. There are also small differences between the spoken dialogue and the written subtitles, which can be annoying. Managing your chorts can also be a nuisance as it amounts to little more than a to-do list with a penalty for ignoring it.
While not perfect, Black Book proves to be an incredibly interesting take on the solo card game genre. The slow-paced battles are filled with tension, especially during boss encounters, and feel satisfying to finish. Each character has a great personality and develops well, especially if you end up bringing them along with you.
The love for the history of Slavic witchcraft is felt from the first moment and that feeling seldom fades away. Even in the face of visuals that may not compliment the moment, it can still retain an atmosphere of terror or unease to immerse you in this occult land. While the card game focused gameplay may not be for everyone, Black Book proves to be a fun and historical twist on this high-fantasy focused genre.
-Great characters and atmosphere
-Solid solo card combat
-Meaningful exploration and customization
-Immersive voice acting and narration
-Graphics can clash with the atmosphere
4 out of 5
Review key provided Team Critical Hit. Black Book releases August 10th!