How Metroidvania is it? Medium Fit. Bookbound Brigade has four distinct areas that don't really connect with the others, and progression is somewhat linear.
Primary Challenge: Tricky Platforming
Time to beat: ~18 hours
Review Info: The Steam review code for Bookbound Brigade was provided by the publisher.
Buy Bookbound Brigade if you like…
- New ideas for Game Mechanics
- Classic Public Domain literature
- Potty Humor
- Punishing difficulty
- Slow paced platforming
▼ Review continues below ▼
Bookbound Brigade is one of those games where the premise could have carried it entirely. Taking every public domain character and mashing them all together into the same game world is a fantastic idea. Having a group of characters band together to fight has already worked before with The Wonderful 101, so applying the concept to 2D Puzzle Platforming has a lot of potential. Unfortunately, Bookbound Brigade gets almost nothing right in spite of its attempts at variety. To put it bluntly, Bookbound Brigade is one of the most disappointing games I have ever played.
From a story perspective, in spite of the hundreds of great directions the premise could be taken, Bookbound Brigade hardly uses its characters at all. The plot is that the Book of Books (Aka the “B.O.B.”) has been stolen, and the Narrator has selected a special team to get it back. This team consists of Dracula, King Arthur, Sun Wukong, Dorothy Gale, and Robin Hood to start, and later on you pick up Cassandra and Nicolai Tesla. Why this group of characters in particular? The game never gives any particular reason, other than there are a few contrived obstacles that require individual abilities – such as Nicolai Tesla being able to magically power machinery. Any of these characters could have been swapped with any of the other faces you come across and it wouldn’t have made any difference. Because the B.O.B. also controls the rules of literature and history, which includes personalities, each character has become “Unbound” and is thus not required to behave based on who they are. Therefore, Dracula tells Dad Jokes, Sun Wukong reminisces about working at a pizza restaurant, Cthulhu runs a cooking show… it’s all stuff that could have been funny if some baseline was established beforehand, and if it actually served a purpose. Instead it’s used as a license to be random, or to tell groaner potty jokes. The game just assumes that you’re already very familiar with these characters in their original works and expects you to laugh at how absurd it is that famous murderers are now stand-up comedians. If some time was taken to at least establish the before and after for the main cast, then the “unbound” direction could have provided some entertainment as well as give context to why your team is working so hard to fix it. Alas, the writing is just too poor for the story to be anything but throw-away nonsense.
Story isn’t a huge deal for a Metroidvania game as long as the gameplay is there, but in this case the general lack of direction extends into how the game progresses as well. At the center of the game is a great library with four wings, and at the end of each wing is a book that takes you to some themed world. You enter these worlds looking for clues on where to find B.O.B., but there is no logical reason for going to any of the books; you simply go where the narrator tells you to. Your progression is eventually gated in each pathway by some ability you don’t have, so you rotate books and collect abilities until you start reaching the final bosses at the end of each. I want to emphasize that while this sounds like a good idea, the only reason you would know you’ve hit a dead end is because the game blatantly tells you. There’s no sense of place, no deduction of which NPCs might give you the powers that you need; basically the game decides that it just needs a palette swap for its levels occasionally. Keeping track of four different game worlds and the ability gates in each could have been overwhelming, but proper direction made it more than the checklist that it is. With that said, it’s probably good that the game doesn’t let you get lost, but that’s only because actually playing through any pathway is extremely slow.
General platforming in Bookbound Brigade is based around patience. You need to wait for the right conditions before moving forward – whether it be for a platform to carry you or for a trap to get out of the way – and any mistake is heavily punished, even relatively minor ones. Thanks to the game’s sometimes hard-to-predict physics, it’s also very easy to make a mistake. Any time you touch a spike or fire, your party is immediately teleported to one of the room’s checkpoints and damage is dealt to their HP. It’s the same mechanic that Hollow Knight used with its spikes and acid, except in Bookbound Brigade these spikes/traps are literally everywhere, and the brigade controls like pushing a shopping cart full of bricks. You have four different formations that you can take, so dodging traps involves stacking your team all on top of each other at the right time, or flattening out into a straight line and etc. There are points in the game that this is done very well, and executing a dodge at the right time makes you feel clever. Each member of the brigade seems to follow physics individually however, which makes moving anywhere slightly awkward. Being just a little too close to the edge makes the team whimsically have to hold up whichever teammate is falling over, and it adds lag to your jumps that you may not have expected when timing your button presses. Jumping around while stacked up makes you bounce slightly when you hit the ground, and in that split second you’re in the air, pushing jump again doesn’t work, giving the illusion that the controls are unresponsive. Also while stacked, the more you move the more the team sways back and forth slightly, and if you just graze a trap while this is happening, you’re sent back to the checkpoint all the same. Any well done sections are quickly eclipsed by the constant disheartening repetition of failing long sections and having to try again. The brigade simply isn’t fun to control, but it probably has more to do with the content punishing just about everything you try to do rather than being an inherent issue with the physics themselves.
The way the magic works exacerbates the repetitiveness of the level design. One of the more prominent examples is that for some baffling reason, wall jumping costs magic, and if you don’t have magic you can’t do it. The only way this would remotely be a good idea is if you had encounters where escape was urgent and if you can’t get up the wall then you simply have to fight until you can. There is only one instance where this could possibly be the case. So, for the rest of game, at least for when you’d want to wall jump, making it cost mana only adds more waiting to already slow platforming. Magic is refilled by waiting for the gauge to refill – not even checkpoints top you off, and there are no drops that restore this gauge. Floating and teleporting also costs magic, so between these three mechanics, plus being sent back to the beginning of a platforming segment when I failed it, I probably spent a couple of hours in my 17 hour playtime just sitting there and checking my phone while I waited for my mana to come back.
Mana recharge time – with no other way to fill it – is an issue for the combat as well, but only because the combat relies on magic to mitigate its core issues. Your primary attack button causes one of your six (or eight) brigade members to swing their weapon at a very short range in front of them. They seem to swing in a specific order – or sometimes at the same time – but there’s no indicator on who is next in line for the attack. So really the only way to actually hit enemies is to stack your brigade on top of them and mash the attack button until they’re dead. While there’s no contact damage (the game would be literally unplayable if there was), this puts you in a very precarious position for when the enemy starts attacking. Enemies telegraph their attacks, but not slowly enough to accommodate for your group’s slow and clunky movement. The main strategy is then to try and stay behind the enemy where it’s relatively safe – keeping ahead of where their attacks are going to be. If this was all there was to the combat, it’d be a boring button mashing affair, but it’s how they mixed it up that it edges into frustration. Ranged enemies immediately run away from you – every time – and since your attacks are really only effective when you can layer them on, this means you have to play chase using your lumbering movement while you chip away at their health. Later in the game, enemies even teleport away from you, removing the opportunity to even get damage in while you’re chasing them. Some enemies create damage areas around them, so you can technically attack them, but you’ll be trading damage in the process. The way the game gets around these otherwise completely unfair mechanics is that you have spells that stun your foes for a brief while, so you only have to chase things while you’re waiting for your mana bar to recharge. Unfortunately, because of all the aforementioned issues with magic, this still means you’ll be chasing enemies more than you’d want to. You can make your magic bar recharge faster with the right level-up choices – but this assumes that you catch on to how important your magic meter is before you spend your points on other things. Even at the maximum charge speed, I was still chasing enemies and running out of spell power. If there was some strategy to getting your mana back faster, or if enemies mercifully dropped mana refills, combat could have been at least bearable.
Between slow patience-oriented platforming and slow and messy combat, it probably goes without saying that exploration isn’t enticing at all. There are plenty of treasure chests and other literature/history icons to find in each level, many of which require you to backtrack with new abilities to acquire. While unlockable shortcuts exist, you’ll still be repeating platforming sections if you decide to go back, and required combat rooms seem to reset. The levels also just aren’t fun from an aesthetic standpoint – as I mentioned before there’s no sense of place. Hallways in the pyramid level feel the same as the caves in the pirate level. For all the character names they took from public domain works, they really missed an opportunity to present the worlds those characters came from. Like everything else I’ve criticized in this review, there are exceptions; you do visit King Arthur’s Castle and the Submarine from 2000 Leagues Under the Sea, just as some examples of where the locations do actually stand out. The more memorable places are buried beneath a mountain of fluff though, and the payoff hardly seems worth it by the time you get to them.
Bookbound Brigade could definitely be worse. It has a few standout moments where the originality of its design has a chance to shine, and its production values are quite nice considering it comes from a smaller studio. If you’re trying to actually complete this game however, it’s a really tough pill to swallow. Platforming is overly punishing, combat is a mess, and because of that exploration just isn’t fun. The story isn’t clever enough to save it, even though with its premise it could have easily done that. If more than half of its content were cut, and a focus was put on tuning what was left, Bookbound Brigade’s unique formation changing mechanic could have provided a novel puzzle platforming experience. What it is instead is bloated and directionless, seemingly more concerned with taking as much of the player’s time as possible rather than providing strong and meaningful content. It is very difficult to recommend because of that.
It's difficult to summarize all of the issues, but one of the major points is that your primary means of dealing damage puts you right inside your enemies, making it very difficulty to get out of the way in time if they attack.
Even the smallest mistake forces you to repeat already frustrating patience-based platforming - although there is the occasional clever use of the Brigade mechanics
The map is confusing and unhelpful, and backtracking through the game's frustrating combat and platforming is not appealing
There are actually one or two pretty decent puzzles in the game, surrounded by some very repetitive guessing games disguised as puzzles
The premise of combining characters from different source materials is stifled by some baffling decisions on how to apply them.
Backgrounds are gaudy and detailed -so much talent went into it. Sometimes foreground decorations obscure the gameplay.
The music is also full of talent; beautifully orchestrated, although sometimes it's far too epic for the action that is happening
There doesn't seem to be any incentives given to play a second time, if you even finish it in the first place.