First Impressions: Book of Travels offers a beautiful yet baffling stroll

    
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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.”

Massively Overpowered skips scored reviews; they’re outdated in a genre whose games evolve daily. Instead, our veteran reporters immerse themselves in MMOs to present their experiences as hands-on articles, impressions pieces, and previews of games yet to come. First impressions matter, but MMOs change, so why shouldn’t our opinions?
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elenie

Hmm, these first impressions aren’t really winning me over. When I think back on trying out Project Gorgon, it hooked me immediately and clearly showed it had a number of systems one could explore. I think that encountering a bunch of players early on helps to show what’s possible in a game.
Would love to hear more as the game develops further.

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Rob Hagaman

I think this game is great in its concept. Too many people are only interested in getting to the goal, the destination; and they forget that it is in the journey that we learn the most, and that we gain the most. How fun would The Lord of the Rings be if it were just “Frodo took the ring, the Nine rode two weeks to Mount Doom, they tossed in the Ring, and Sauron disappeared. The end.” It’s a lot like life, in that the best things are in the journey to do something, when we stop for a second and look around.

A lot more people could benefit by using their free time to slow the hell down.

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Utakata

“…and to be honest, its also because the avatar’s head is the size of a grain…”

…so no pigtail options then. :(

agemyth 😩
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agemyth 😩

Game passes all the vibe checks I want it to so far. Just need time to advance 2+ years so they can fill out the content they want and polish it up.

This game is not and won’t ever be for most people that see it on Steam or even us nerds here on Massively. That is okay. Not everything has to cater to everyone’s desires.

Fisty
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Fisty

I don’t get how this is even MMO adjacent. I was excited a year ago, but after hearing limited social interaction and communication and that you rarely ever see someone or need to interact with them, I lost all the interest. /shrug

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Gruff

Easiest way I can describe it is 16 years ago when I first played WoW I hadn’t gamed since my Nintendo64, I didn’t know the tropes of mmo gameplay. I spent literally two days playing in and near my starter area. I covered every inch of those starter maps, talked to every single NPC, worked my way to upgrading every bit of pitiful gear I had on with any slightly less pitiful gear vendors had.

This game does a great job of replicating that sense of wonder if you can get on it’s wavelength. It isn’t about racing through question marks above npc’s heads so that you can repeatedly do lfg dungeons. Mmo’s have become more like lobby games rather than an inventive genre that rewards curiosity.

The thing with Book of Travels is it makes you work for ALL your content. It is possible to play with others and grouping up can be rewarding but it won’t fall in your lap. The decision to not have traditional chat means you never have your immersion broken by turds in world chat. Like everything in this early access game communication and funneling players together is a work in progress. The developers are monitoring if seven per server is currently enough, my feeling is that number will grow.

Fisty
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Fisty

Sure, ok. None of that qualifies as an MMO. They stopped calling it that and it just seems like a sometimes co op now. The lack of communiction by many reports isn’t great. Little interactions with randos might seem fun and deep and memorable, but what is really fun is making friends you can keep. Feels like a not so massively at this point, if that.

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Gruff

Hence why they’ve insisted it is “tiny” not massive right from the start. It literally is a TMORPG.

Fisty
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Fisty

I am not attacking your game much, no need to defend it or convert me. It’s barely a graphical MUD in the terms of online play.

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Gruff

Honestly I’m just trying to clarify because I see a lot of misunderstanding and unwarranted negativity towards the game. People would rather say it isn’t legitimate or “barely a graphical MUD” than be open to it being a sophisticated experience people can and do enjoy.

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cursedseishi

Yeah, pretty much runs parallel to how it went for me.

I’ve played about… an hour and a half? Little more, and haven’t picked it up since. Not because it is bad, mind you, but… Aside from talk of ‘paid Forms’ that rankle me the wrong way? It feels… aimless, at the start.

Luckily I didn’t lose the intro-quest thread, but honestly it doesn’t really matter. Talked to a person, went to a tea house, told me go to an island and had to wait a while for a boat to show up. Got to said island, played a game of run a triangle around it and… nothing. The game says talk to this guy to learn a few basic knot spells and… nadda. I can now click signs, but no option for said basic Knots, and if you go back and talk to prior ‘Quest’ NPCs they don’t update the dialogue so its just a repeat of what I already know–in fact, they’ll act like its the first time I’ve interacted with them.

I started with a physically-minded ‘Form’, too, so… I also have 0 Knots to begin with. And Knot Reagents aren’t tradeable or used for anything else.

I’m also not exactly… interested… in playing some survival-lite sim at the same time I’m wanting to settle in and casually walk about. Where I started at, there was literally nothing but Knot reagents so I had zero things to trade when I got to town, and then the next. I found a few endeavors, but considering how all of them required at least 3 points in an arbitrary stat, and I was alone the entire time? Couldn’t do any of those. Locations for them also seem to reset, so any Pins I set are pointless. I got a debuff telling me I’m hungry before I stopped playing, and… Yeah. That is where I stopped. I got an item I can take to Myr, but…

Yeah. Not really driven to do it.

I don’t feel like I wasted money backing it, as I am sure I’ll poke in on it from time to time, but… There is some basic framework that simply isn’t there. Having an in-game journal to record things in, even if you had to type it yourself, would do wonders. It probably wouldn’t have hurt them to have worked in a playable ‘prologue’ of sorts tied into how you arrive at the Braided Shores that’d serve as a better tutorial too.

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Rick Mills

I don’t understand the idea of a slow-paced casual experience offering a timed quest. Not what I would’ve signed up for at all…

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aYates

It’s very pretty looking from the screenshots, but this review and others makes me think its not for me.

It would be nice to see a casual, traditional MMORPG with similar aesthetics.

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Gruff

I love the game but can see they do need to introduce a bit of handholding at the start. Miss out on talking to the correct npc you start near, or not place importance on their directions and you will be lost almost immediately.

That npc tells you to get to your local teahouse where the owner removes the debuff and gives you a few items of worth. They also give you more directions you need to follow….it is kind of like a first quest chain.

Gameplay in its most basic form is wandering the maps looking for “glimmers”, loot laying on the ground you can trade for items and skills etc. As you wander you organically encounter more content and things to do, it branches out in many directions. Once it clicks it is very engaging and makes sense. There is way more than just wandering looking for your first scraps to trade.

The criticism here is valid though, the new player experience can be just plain confusing if your first footsteps stray from the barely delineated path you should follow. There is still plenty of mystery to be had after explaining the basics, I don’t think they need give quite so much freedom early on and hold their cards to their chest.

Also you can press “+” on the keyboard to zoom in, “-” to zoom out.

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treehuggerhannah

I would be totally fine with just wandering aimlessly around a beautiful game world picking flowers and following anything that catches my eye.

The problem is, that doesn’t seem to mesh well with a game where you’re expected to deal with random combat encounters with some degree of effectiveness and have the threat of permadeath hanging over you.

That combination makes this game seem extra stressful to me rather than less stressful, and despite being excited for the game beforehand, I just don’t have the energy for it right now.

I really wanted to just chill in pretty landscapes, not fight abstractly for my character’s survival.

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Loopy

100% this. Yes i get that you can get your life petals back, but i really don’t want to constantly worry about the petals and know that if i end up low i’ll need to trek across the world just to regain them. It was unfortunately a big downer for me.