So far in my life, I have backed only three Kickstarter projects — all of them MMORPGs. One was Project Gorgon, the next Ashes of Creation, and finally Book of Travels. The few names on this list should tell you that I’m not that willing to cast my money on a far-flung future, but the names should also tell you that I will make an exception if a project looks particularly innovative or promising.
A bunch of us here at MOP fell in love with Book of Travels’ concept of going against the grain of modern MMOs by providing a calm, thoughtful roleplaying experience that wasn’t about large numbers of people running around fighting. So I’ve been quite eager to finally make some time and delve into the early access (or “Chapter Zero,” as it’s being marketed) to see how my money’s been spent.
Might and Delight knows that it’s going to be handling a lot of players used to rushing in, min/maxing everything, and consuming content, which is why it also knows that it is imperative to slow players down from the very beginning and have them be more thoughtful and purposeful.
You get the sense of this from the character creation screen, which is different and “off” enough that it slams on the breaks and makes you actually read through options and mull over what kind of character you want to become. You can choose a “form” (a sort of class archetype), pick a background, shape your personality, select skills, work up an appearance, grab some equipment, assign a name, and then get into the game itself. I liked how you’re forced to pick one negative personality trait to go with your two positive ones.
My character, a Mirther, grew up in the isolated mountains and developed a personality that was a mixture of passionate, peaceful, and lonely as a result. Rolling for equipment was pretty fun, as you get a handful of various items and have to guess how useful they may or may not be. Most of its doesn’t seem great, but it all is interesting. I grabbed a backpack, a natty cape, and a piece of cloth with some dried blood on it. Lucky me!
After a brief prologue, in which I was told the tale of how my character was imprisoned on a river barge, jumped overboard to escaped, and washed up on Braided Shore, I was ready to get into my measured journey. The game even encourages you to walk instead of run, as your character will notice more interactable objects that way.
Initially I didn’t have any clear direction what to do or where I should be going, so I figured that this was all about my journey — and I could pick a direction. So I started following the map toward a settlement, more or less. Walking about on the field is strange, because it’s not in a traditional 3-D fashion, but neither is it strictly 2-D. Instead, you go toward or away from the camera to walk down or upfield, letting the ground fade in and out as you do so.
It’s also hard to connect with your avatar, since the game holds it at a distance – and to be honest, its also because the avatar’s head is the size of a grain, so there’s not much to see anyway. There’s no world or local chat; instead, the game gives you a field of emote cards to string together in a sort of iconographic language. So yeah, all of this feels very weird and takes some getting used to.
My first encounter in the game was with what I assumed to be a ghost or spirit. I couldn’t see him/her/it, but little word bubbles asked spoke of a grave nearby. I found a “haunted headstone” that allowed me to use my sensitivity or whatnot to access a force buff. Oh, I have no idea what any of this means, really. I’m just chatting with ghosts over here and faking expertise.
Pushing northward, I found a shore region that practically exuded pastel beauty. Here I discovered that my character doesn’t much like getting wet. It’s a debuff, and I either need to stay out of the water or find a fire to dry off.
The slow, laid-back pace of the game may try even the most patient player’s soul, as a whole lot of nothing can happen for great stretches of time. Just walking, the occasional flower-picking, and sweeps of a mouse cursor across the screen to see if there any interactables. I got so desperate for action, in fact, that when I saw a skiff out in the bay, I waded out there with all of the speed (read: slow plodding) at my disposal.
Turns out that these are a trio of retired mystics who are willing to give me some equipment if I pass their tests. Pretty sure I’m going to fail these, but I was game to try. They gave me 800 seconds to find some near-invisible flower by some lone forge on a map I hadn’t yet explored. Now, there’s nothing like a timed quest to stress me out, and triply so when it’s a game that I’ve not really played yet. Suffice to say, I failed the challenge.
Because of the strangeness and unique angle that this game takes, so often I felt completely clueless as to the systems and any direction I should be taking. I bumped into a few quests — such as the above one from a person asking me to be a message-bearer — but so often it came without clear instructions or places on the map to go. I suppose wikis and whatnot will flesh these out soon enough, but from the perspective of someone going in fresh without any hand-holding, I felt lost more often than not.
Book of Travels doesn’t have currency; rather, economic interactions between characters are handled with a simple bartering system. You offer equal value or more to what you want, and the person will trade with you. This way, I was able to obtain a fireplace-making spell for the cost of a few pieces of fruit I picked along the road.
Trading worked well enough (and the game does provide helpful tutorial popups for first-time interactions), but I still had that sensation of being lost. What should I trade for? What’s actually helpful in this game? How do I heal up from my “battered and bruised” state? Beats me. Better keep wandering and picking fruit and hoping I find the answer.
I did get pretty good at obtaining time-limited buffs. One of these I received from praying at a shrine outside of a city. Of course, it’ll be gone by the time I figure out what to do with it, but hey, free buff!
After meandering through this early access (“meandering” is a principle activity in Book of Travels) for a few hours, I find myself sitting at the crossroads of indecision on whether or not this is a compelling game. Or experience.
In its favor, Book of Travels offers a voice that’s as unique and artistic as any you hope to find in this space. It’s a whole lot of creatively different, from its pace to its interactions, and that’s very refreshing when coming from a raft of combat-centric MMOs. The art is like moving through a world of watercolors, and the language is airy and poetic. I certainly enjoy the slower pace and the sensation of going where I whim. And great praise should be given to the UI and sound design, both of which are exceedingly well-done and immersive.
On the other hand, I don’t really get it. At least not yet. I don’t get what game systems are here that I should be paying attention to. I don’t understand how much of this title works, and it’s not that interested in telling me. For every one question I had answered, a half-dozen more would pop up. How do I get rid of this battered debuff? What does eating do if I’m not being healed by it? What are useful pieces of equipment to have on hand? How would I even know another player if I saw one? Is there a point in interacting with them if we can’t use any communication above emote cards? I don’t get it, yet I kind of want to get it.
I’m always slightly stressed out in a game until I get to the point that I have a handle on how it functions and what I should be doing. Therefore I’m slightly stressed out over Book of Travels, which is ironic considering that this title bills itself as being “serene.”