The Bookwalker: Thief of Tales by Do My Best is an adventure game/RPG with an inventive setting in which you travel into books to steal rare items for a shady figure.
Does the game turn a new page to a world of creativity, or will I throw the book at it (I promise no more puns either way)? Let’s find out!
Developer & Publisher // Do My Best, tinyBuild
Platforms // PlayStation 4|5, PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S
MSRP & Release Date //$14.99, Jun 22, 2023
Reviewed On //PC
A Story of Stories
In what is a rather mundane introduction to such a high-concept setting, you arrive home to your apartment in a run-down modern building to find an eviction notice on the door. Your bathroom is locked because you couldn’t pay the water bill. The sparse rooms you can access are empty, and most of your furniture is improvised from cardboard boxes.
The phone, an old-fashioned push-button landline set on one of those boxes, is ringing. When you answer, you learn you are Etienne, an author sentenced to thirty years of writer’s block. What precisely this punishment does is a bit hazy; you have been fitted with some sort of restraints, but they don’t stop you from entering books. They also don’t prevent you from writing since you are expected to sign with a publisher to work off your time.
Whatever it actually does, you’re not happy about it. A friend offers a solution; he knows a guy who can remove the shackles if you steal some magical items from books. Upon agreeing, you receive an immediate knock on your door and a large briefcase containing a copy of a book, some information about your target, and a chamber to hold the object once you have it.
You then dive into the book, and the adventure begins.
As An Adventure Game…
The Bookwalker works great. It is, quite fittingly, primarily a narrative experience. The sections in your apartment are in first-person. Once you enter the books, it shifts to a third-person with an isometric view very reminiscent of Disco Elysium. Unlike that game, there is much more focus on collecting items and completing traditional adventure game puzzles, so it’s no surprise that the adventure mechanics are the most engaging. These shine in the second chapter especially, as you have to collect batteries and swap them around to power various devices. They aren’t all as clever as that, but none of the puzzles are too obtuse, and the advent of crafting provides an additional benefit.
Typically the only rewards an adventure game can offer are points or advancement in the game. But The Bookwalker can also reward you with items for crafting. Unfortunately, the crafting is not robust. You can create tools. But these are only for puzzles or collecting even more crafting materials. Ink bottles can also be made to power you in combat. You can also utilize ink to change the book worlds, though your shackles limit what you can do.
However, The Combat System…
…is the most significant departure from standard adventure games. You’ll have to fight creatures that infiltrate books and some of the characters native to them. It’s simple, but it is a great way to break up the puzzles. You have three basic abilities, Slash (a simple attack that uses some ink), Drain (a worse attack that gains ink), and Stun (prevents all enemies from taking an action the next round). They are upgradable, but that’s it. Your enemies show their upcoming actions above their heads. What’s here is fine; it’s just quite thin.
I only had trouble once with combat. This is not meant to be a brag; it’s just that there isn’t much to complicate it in interesting ways. It seems the game agrees with me as well, as it forgets for wide swaths that it even has combat. I’m not saying that every game with combat has to have a fight at every turn, but it should at least sometimes be an option.
The visual style is functional. The first-person sections are underwhelming, though they are meant to be gloomy and drab compared to the worlds in the books. The problem is the visuals in the books don’t precisely whelm either. The sound effects, too, are bare. The phone’s ringing, in particular, will haunt my dreams for the rest of time. To be fair, that’s due to overusing the phone as a source of exposition more than the quality of the effect itself. I did like the music, however. It mostly fades into the background, but it always fits the mood.
The controls are never a problem. In first-person and third, everything is very clear and straightforward. I never was at a loss as to how to do what I wanted.
Ok, now onto the meat.
When inside books, your main character hides his face behind a mask that looks like his head is a book. It’s a great stylistic choice and serves as a metaphor for the game in general. Mystery boxes are waiting for you around every corner; questions are presented for you to uncover as the narrative plays out. Some examples:
What exactly did you do to deserve such a harsh punishment? Most authors sentenced to the shackles get just a few years, but you are staring down three decades.
On your first job, you find an ornate cage containing a scrap of paper, and a character from another book that has lost their memory. You flippantly call them Roderick, and they become your constant companion and moral guide; in exchange, you promise to find the book they came from.
On the first floor of your building, someone is shifting around inside a locked apartment, never answering the door. Who is staying there? Are they watching you for the writer’s police?
And then there is a story you enter with the monstrous gentleman with a crumbling mansion. When he sees you, howls for revenge. What wrong did you do him? What happened to turn him into this beast?
The story’s strength relies on how well these questions are answered. And for the most part, the game let me down. The origin of the lost character that serves as your sidekick fell exceptionally flat for me. But to talk about why, I have to do some…
Really. If you plan to play this, skip ahead to conclusions.
The crime that netted you thirty years of punishment? Taking a character out of a book. You brought the wife of the protagonist of your last novel to the real world. That is what drove him mad. A great setup and the reveal is fine. But she has since left you, and though you have a fleeting conversation, is essentially just a plot point.
Then there’s the mysterious resident in the locked apartment. You get hints they are a person of importance. But in the end, they were just another writer sentenced to writer’s block. When you finally get to go into their apartment, it’s empty; they’d finished their sentence and left.
Finally, the biggest letdown, Roderick. Seeing as he is your constant companion, the game does at least give us full closure on his story. In a postscript cutscene, you find that Etienne has finally served out his sentence. He’s spent the last thirty years working for a publishing house while he’s tracked down Roderick’s home book on the side. He enters the book and walks into 221b Baker Street to say goodbye to his friend Watson, who no longer remembers him.
Now, I am not saying this is terrible, exactly. But it is one of the safest, blandest choices that could have been made. It also raises questions about how this world, so otherwise different from ours, could have a Holmes and Watson. None of the other books you enter are from our world. More importantly, as one of the central mysteries scaffolding the story, it’s an utter disappointment. There was a lot of love put into the history of this world and even into the backstories of the books you dive into. But the executions are ultimately bland and lifeless. This has much to do with the limited scope of the game they were making, which I can understand. But it is nonetheless a waste.
Conclusions (No Spoilers)
This is a combination I love to see: adventure and RPG rolled into one. I’ve been a fan of the genre since I first played Quest for Glory (née Hero Quest) as a kid. It’s an ambitious concept that I don’t think has ever worked perfectly, no matter how much I want it to.
The Bookwalker especially has some lofty intentions. As a narrative explicitly about the creation and exploitation of stories, it naturally has a lot of pressure on it to say something. But it doesn’t, beyond a milquetoast message of “be nice to people.” I could look past that if it wasn’t for the creative setting or if the gameplay was better. But as it is, it all seems hollow.
Despite all this, I still really like The Bookwalker. It may not live up to its potential, but it’s a fascinating concept executed competently. The puzzles are good, even if the RPG and crafting systems seem like little more than an afterthought. The story is sufficient to pull you through, even if it doesn’t have much to say.
Thanks so much for reading! If you enjoyed this write-up, please check out my review of Sherlock Holmes The Awakened, another hybrid adventure game, this time with more of a real-time twist. Or if for some inexplicable reason, you want to check out something I didn’t write, you can check out this review for Dave the Diver, a game so diverse I wouldn’t be shocked if there was an adventure game in there that I just missed.
Note – A code for this game was provided by the developer for this review.