Notice: This game is currently in Early Access as of the posting of this review. For additional updates to the content, up until full release, checkout the game’s News section. This review will be updated upon the game’s official launch.
Ah… Fresh meat!
Thing Trunk, the developers behind Book of Demons, has undertaken a large multi-game series project named Return 2 Games. This series of 7 games (Books) take heavy inspiration from the “golden days” of gaming, each a tribute to a single hit game from the 90s. Although these Books will be self-contained and unique in their own right, they will all share a “grand vision,” set in a stylish paper-cut universe. Book of Demons marks the release of the first Book in the Return 2 Games project.
Book of Demons is a fully voiced, Hack & Slash ARPG dungeon crawler coupled with deck-building aspects. Collect skill cards and upgrade them in order to save the world from demonic annihilation. Currently in Early Access, this ARPG manages to provide a very fun take on a popular classic many know and love, Diablo. In its current state, only one of three classes are unlocked (Warrior); however, the single-player campaign is complete, and nearly all of the spell cards are available. The story is mostly provided in bits and pieces through NPC gossip and creature descriptions throughout the duration of the campaign, along with minor cut scenes from the 3 major bosses. The bulk and core content comprising the gameplay focuses on pure, unadulterated, Hack & Slash dungeon crawling with intermittent trips to the town for healing and upgrades.
Fight to Loot Another Day
When you first venture into the deep unknown, the Flexiscope system will make itself known. This system aids in tailoring the upcoming set of procedurally generated dungeon levels to match a desired playtime. Although it will take a few tries to hone in on your playstyle, this innovative system manages to do a great job designing to your needs. Almost every end-game dungeon generation and boss fight length approximation was spot on. The game increases your time in the dungeon based on increasing the dungeon’s physical map size, creature density, and number of creature types. Larger dungeons will reward you with more obtainable gold and chests.
Book of Demon’s combat is fairly simplistic. With only your health and mana to manage, BoD’s take on Diablo’s combat system takes shape in the form of a static deck-building system (deck is not randomized), along with predetermined and confined movement paths. As opposed to a traditional skill bar filled with skills and consumables, BoD utilizes unlockable card slots to equip skill cards. These skill cards come in the form of pseudo-consumables that must be recharged, spells, and equipment. They must also be individually discovered as loot from your dungeon crawling expeditions. In an ARPG with minimal story elements, the goal is to foster a loot/combat-based addiction in order to motivate progression, and I feel that the developers did a great job in making me feel like a loot junkie. Almost every droppable item will be useful in some shape or form, and the creature mechanics are extremely varied between races. Certain creatures have shields that must be physically targeted with your cursor before damage can be dealt directly to the creature itself. Other monsters can be categorized by their tendencies to jump, charge, warp, spell cast, or spawn henchmen.
After defeating the Archdemon, you will unlock Freeplay along with 4 different difficulty levels (Normal, Hard, Nightmare, and Massacre). Everything carries over, and the new mode allows you to generate dungeons from each of the 3 different locations (Labyrinth, Catacombs, Hell). Defeating the bosses in higher difficulties, collecting all remaining cards, player levels, and achievements will add a lot of extra playtime while waiting for the rest of the Early Access content to unlock.
Early Access Advice
There is an aspect of micro-management in combat that is very fun, and it revolves around the poison, dazed, disrupt, and knocked loose mechanics. These mechanics are implemented by: breaking your poison status (click on health pool), recovering the stars (floating around when dazed), interrupting enemy spell casts (by discharging their cast bubbles), and re-orientating your cards when knocked loose. These mechanics help break up the Hack & Slash monotony; however, this can quickly turn into a clicker game when swarms of creatures start to overwhelm you. For most ARPGs, a single auto attack will instakill grunt-type enemies. Imagine the tedium when a basic grunt takes 3+ hits to kill, while managing a swarm of them on top of much deadlier, spell casters, bowmen, or boss creatures mucking things up. To make things worse, you are also confined to a 2 directional path, so strafing is out of the question. There are certain items that will alleviate the strain when under a swarming ambush (extra phantom attacks, etc.); however, there needs to be a scatter auto-attack weapon, a weapon with a skill shot/aoe placement, or a weapon that can instakill enemies so that the fighting doesn’t begin to feel tiresome. Providing more cards that can alter the character’s auto attack properties is also desirable.
Balancing is also a slight issue, especially mid to end game. At that point, my equipment was so overpowered that was able to sit in the middle of a pool of fire, whilst poisoned, undertaking shots of fire from every enemy of the color spectrum. Yet, killing them all still took forever due to certain creature mechanics. For instance, some creatures encase their health with a charred layer of magma hearts. This creates another set of health to go through before actually hurting the creature. In this scenario, the magma hearts take 3 hits to break through. This is also the case for frozen hearts. Certain special items have an ability to break encased hearts in one hit, such as the Frozen Flail. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the Frozen Flail until halfway through Hell. Getting it earlier would have exponentially reduced my slog through there. A little bit of balancing, number tweaking, and RNG changes will solve the problem, but it might take a little time to get it just right, so it’s understandable. Letting me purchase equipment cards to suit my playstyle may have remedied these problems, along with fact that it could have promoted Freeplay if there was an insanely huge money-sink to shoot for – unfortunately, there isn’t.
Easier on the fly card swapping would also be amazing if implemented – noticing that the dungeon is infested with frozen heart enemies or firebombers should encourage players to switch into the specific cards that can deal with them, creating a more dynamic and interactive combat system. Having a secondary bar or set of arrows above the primary bar of cards could be a possible method of incorporating this feature. It would also enhance combat micromanagement. Right now, the cards pretty much just feel like regular equipment, especially since the equipment cards are heavily favored over spell/consumable cards, and there is no deck randomization or RNG involved. Without on the fly switching, an equipment heavy character wouldn’t even notice the card system.
Regarding the dungeons themselves, one major downside I have seen in almost every procedurally generated game is the lack of hand-crafted or detailed scenery and events, and upon closer inspection, Book of Demons shows this with too similar environments regardless of room layouts. It takes a little too long to change locations, and combat begins to feel like a chore since nothing special really happens until you reach the area boss (only 3 in the game). A new creature here or there really helps stem this feeling of repetitiveness, although if only for a short while. More interaction with the dungeons would also alleviate some of the strain, such as incorporating puzzle, lever, or switch-type elements along with dynamic tile-changes (moving platforms, trap doors, etc.).
With so many weaknesses covered regarding combat mechanics and procedural generation, it’s important to know that Book of Demons still does a lot of things well. Don’t let my previous scatterbrained thoughts paint a dreary image about this game, because I still had a blast making my way to the Devil’s hot tub. The Antipope fight and lair leading up to the boss contained some really fun gameplay elements. In that specific area, your first encounter with the Antipope starts with him scattering all of your cards throughout the dungeon, forcing you to trek through the darkness recovering them all. This was a definite stroke of genius on the developers’ part, as it not only provided a unique twist, but it also made me appreciate cards that I never thought had much usefulness.
The most important thing to take away from this is that Book of Demons still has an amazing and very solid foundation for improvement, and since the game is still in development, there is a chance that the developers will manage to improve the weaker areas. Adding more cards and classes will already make the game have much more replayability, but to improve the depth, it really needs more story, side objectives, locations, and true boss fights. Fortunately, these ideas are listed in their long-term roadmap of planned features. Going back to what the game does right, the card-based combat and equipment system is fairly refreshing to use, and enables an addictive loot-based progression system. The Flexiscope system also manages to create dungeons in such a way to match your available playtime. Taking all of this into consideration, I am able to confidently recommend Book of Demons to fans of the dungeon-crawling/Hack & Slash ARPG genres.