Return 2 Games is a rather ambitious project the people over at Thing Trunk have embarked upon. The idea behind it is creating 7 games, each belonging to a different genre and having a different theme, that take inspiration from classic titles. Their ultimate goal is to help modern gamers get a glimpse at how playing those old games for the first time felt, and, to achieve that, certain mechanics will be altered or changed altogether. The first game that’s part of this ambitious project is now available on Steam Early Access under the name Book of Demons.
Book of Demons in an Action RPG in the vein of Diablo that has an interesting approach to the formula. What it does is limit the player character’s movement to a pre-determined path throughout the level. On top of that, what would otherwise be items and stats are now cards which can be slotted into the quickbar. This is obviously the simplification mentioned on the developer’s website, however, before you run away calling blasphemy, stay a while and listen. There may be more to it than you’d expect. Limiting movement to a pre-determined path is an interesting choice, especially as monsters can roam freely. Certainly, it makes navigation slightly easier, especially as the already trodden paths are marked with footsteps which change color depending on whether or not you got to the end of that particular path. It also makes you consider positioning and target prioritizing differently, depending on the mixture of enemies you’re facing.
Enemy variety is very well represented, at least up to a point. From simple grunts to towering behemoths, from lowly archers, to summoners that drown you in other mobs, there’s a large spectrum of baddies that’ll block your way to the end of level. Furthermore, certain enemies will have armor, which you’ll be required to break by attacking a shield icon before being able to damage them. Spells can be interrupted by clicking and holding while hovering over their icon. Frozen mobs are susceptible to fire and vice-versa. Plagued mobs will take your HP down unless you click your health pool at an appropriate time. Certainly, there’s a lot of clicking involved, but especially on higher difficulties, you really need to consider which obstacles you want removed first. In order to do anything you need to get in range, however, getting close to that summoner that’s drowning you in exploding fire imps may bring you too close to armored hulks that stun you, making you more susceptible to damage unless you get through the associated minigame. No matter how “simple” these things seem individually, they can put you in quite the intense scenarios which, more often than not, will require you to consider changing your build, often on the fly. A recent patch introduced this possibility as, when in the inventory screen, time slows to a crawl. Be that as it may, you can’t take all the time you need, and have to know both which cards are available to you and which ones are better suited for what you’re facing.
Regarding the card system, they represent gear, with the associated stats, weapons and potions. It’s evidently, a simplified system, which will most likely not appeal to the min/maxers and number crunchers out there, however, it still manages to provide both options for varying your build and the power trip that is sought after in aRPGs. The only class available at the time of writing was the Warrior. It may strike one as strange that, as a Warrior, you don’t need to get into melee range to attack. It’s just the enemies that are required to do so. It makes sense, considering the way movement is handled, but one has to wonder how the other two classes will play in this respect. You can potentially choose up to ten cards to actively use. For my story playthrough, I went with an armor that dropped health on the ground as I took damage, offering an extra source of healing, should I be quick enough to move the mouse over the hearts to pick them up. I also had boots that delayed fire damage and reduced slows, an amulet that regenerated mana and a cleaving sword, among other things. My active skills were a strong blow and a circular attack that pushed mobs away, for when things got too crowded. Nothing made me use only those cards, though. At times, when I was facing enemies attuned to frost, I got fire bombs out. When facing ghosts, I started using a ring that gave me a higher chance to hit them. Everything falls nicely into place in Book o f Demons. With all the small things you have to take care of, and the card switching required at times, the gameplay feels fluid and engaging. I found myself constantly pushing for another game or coming back after merely a short break.
This is, mostly, due to the Flexiscope system. What it does, is basically determine the length of your play session. When going through the story, there is a set amount of “dungeon” you have to go through before the act boss. With the Flexiscope system, you can choose approximately how long you want your session to be. Do you have just 10-15 minutes to play? No problem. Can you spend closer to an hour? All good. Of course, playing longer games means progressing more through the dungeon and obtaining more gold and rewards. However, there are no extra bonuses for doing so. You’re just as fine beating the story in 15-minute sessions. In this way, Book of Demons respects your time, never making you wonder whether that next checkpoint you need is 10 or 40 minutes away.
While playing Book of Demons, you’ll be dividing your time between going through levels and visiting the town that acts as a hub. There, you’ll find four NPCs which will help you on your quest. The monk will heal you for free, while providing the option of buying Death Rage, a cheat death ability that can be activated once per level. The barmaid offers the Magical Cauldron, which gathers prizes you find in dungeons. In order to transfer them to your character, you need to pay an always increasing gold fee. The contents of the cauldron are also lost upon death. The Sage can unlock card slots, up to a total of 10, and identify cards. Lastly, the Fortune Teller charges your cards and can upgrade them. Upgrades are done using a rune system, cards requiring a set combination of runes in order to be upgraded. Each card can be upgraded a total of three times, each upgrade improving its effects while, potentially, adding other ones as well. This is where most of the Freeplay effort will go into, as you’ll obtain most of the class cards during the story playthrough. It’s also worth noting that upgrading cards increases their mana and/or charging cost. Equipping armor or weapons will reserve mana, so you’ll always need to keep mind of how much mana you need for active skills when upgrading your cards, as there is only one mana pool to juggle with.
Freeplay becomes available once you get through the Story content once. You can choose from three types of tiles, the same encountered in your story run, determine the length of the level and pick a difficulty. While previously you could not alter difficulty, which led to levels not being so hard to finish until the very last quarter of the game, in freeplay you can quickly unlock four difficulty levels which make things even more challenging. The greatest changes come in terms of imposed and cursed cards. Imposed cards must be in your quickbar throughout the entirety of the run. Cursed cards come into play when encountering elite mobs in Freeplay. What happens here is that random cards, regardless of where they are, become unusable until you defeat the elite mob. This obviously requires you to adapt to possibly playing without your main cards for a certain amount of time.
Book of Demons made me remember how I felt while playing Diablo 1 for the first time, an intention the developer has with these games, and which they materialized very successfully. The story adds to this with its simplicity. The town’s monastery is a den of evil and you, the brave hero, have to go down to the depths and defeat the Archdemon. Simple. Unpretentious. Just enough to spur you on. The writing is mostly good, however, if there’s a complaint to be had, it lies with the voice acting which is good on some characters, but less so in others. The game’s graphics look gorgeous. Its style is uniform, the changes in environments coming naturally. It also does a good job of individualizing the papery enemies so that, in time, you get to easily know which one does what. It is clear enough that the team behind the game shares the same vision about what it should become.
Apart from the voice acting, there are few other complaints when it comes to Book of Demons. At times, during Act 3 and on higher difficulties, areas can get extremely crowded. While there is a sense of triumph when you start to see mobs clearing out, things can get a little too hectic, especially when you’ve armored mobs and spells to dispel. Icons become tricky to click, it can be impossible to move at times and there is a chance of you just dying suddenly because there wasn’t enough space to move around. Aside from that, and perhaps the most frustrating thing I’ve encountered, was having left one item behind in my exploring of the level. Book of Demons requires you to pick up loot, an element I find to be quintessential to aRPGs, as it enforces the notion that you’re getting somewhere. However, there were plenty of times when one barrel, or gold pile, was hidden behind a health fountain, or a pillar, making it hard for me to notice it. Certainly, one could argue 100 gold won’t help much, but, see, I killed lots of zombies and demons to get to the end and I’ll be damned if anything’s left behind before I move on. In all seriousness, though, it would be neat to find a way to highlight loot that’s obscured by objects in the environment as going back through the entirety of the level four times for a small amount of gold kills the overall flow of the gameplay and is very frustrating.
I did not expect to enjoy Book of Demons as much as I did. Going into it, I expected the movement limitation and card system to get tedious quite fast. I was proven wrong over the 20 hours I spent with the game. The gameplay flows really well and keeps you attentive to what’s going on around you. This great flow behind it had me going back after finishing the story just so I could smite a few more baddies. As far as Early Access games go, this one is also very polished. With two more classes and other content coming along, I’ll be sure to go back to it. In the meantime, unless you’re very min/max oriented, you owe it to yourself to look at this charming little title.