Book of Demons – Early Access Preview
Book of Demons, an action RPG with deck-building, lets you set the length of the dungeons you’ll crawl through. Here’s a detailed look at how it all works.
Book of Demons, developed by Polish studio Thing Trunk, is the first part of a series of games called Return 2 Games. The series aims to bring back classic video game genres of the 90s, but with a decidedly modern twist. In Book of Demons, the inspiration is chiefly Diablo: a hack-and-slash romp through a dark crypt that leads down straight to Hell. The twist is that you use cards, build hands and decks, and set the length of your dungeons.
The plot follows a wandering hero who was returned home, only to find his or her home village consumed by demons and other generally ghoulish monsters. With the help of a few supporters in the village, it is up to the hero to vanquish these evil beings. You can pick one of three classes: the Warrior, the Rogue or the Mage, who looks like Mr T, for some reason. In the Early Access build I played, only the Warrior was available.
Rather than opting to directly clone Diablo or the more recent Path of Exile, Thing Trunk has created a game that functions rather uniquely. Rather than your traditional grind of weapons and armour, there’s a rather creative card-based system.
You will obtain cards over the course of the game, and many of their functions are straightforward: there’s a card that serves as a potion, a card that will allow you to perform a powerful strike, a card that works as an antidote against status effects, and so on.
What I found particularly interesting is how equipment cards work. Rather than using up any of your character stats, equipping weapon and armour cards causes your blue mana to turn into unusable ‘green’ mana. Your mana, therefore, determines what equipment you can put on as well as the spells that you cast.
This inventive card system was satisfying to use, and allowed considerable flexibility. One reason it stands out in particular is that the order in which cards are dropped is procedurally generated, just like the game’s dungeons. While most games of this sort favour open-ended movement but fixed-path character development, Book of Demons goes the opposite way, by making your character’s movement fixed on a path, but their character development unpredictable and open-ended. Not only does it work, it succeeds: I always found myself excited to see what the next card drop would be, and how it would affect gameplay.
The other major feature, or ‘twist’ the game introduces is the Flexiscope system, which allows you to set the length of the dungeons that you encounter at each level. Depending on how much time you have ahead of you, you can set the dungeons to be quick and short, long and meaty, or anything in between. The system learns as it goes, improving its time predictions based on its observations of your play style.
Compared to other games in the genre, Book of Demons feels stripped-down, but in a good way. Health, both yours and your enemies’, is counted in very limited quantities of hearts. Even when levelling up, you can only add one point to either your health or your mana at a time. Your attacks are swift, and your enemies fall quickly. Your movement may be restricted along a fixed path (that often branches out), but it never feels limiting.
This streamlining actually serves to make the combat particularly dicey. If you’re not careful, you’ll find your health dropping rapidly, particularly when you face multiple opponents. There’s also a bit of Souls here, as whenever you die, you drop your cards and your money at the spot where you died. I did not have much trouble retrieving the cards, and the game helpfully even offered to restore the hand of cards I was using before.
On returning to the village up top, you can have newly found cards identified, new card slots unlocked and your card’s charges replenished (for cards like potions). One interesting mechanic is the ‘Cauldron’. When you choose to add either a life point or a mana point at a level up, the opposite point goes into the Cauldron, along with any bonuses you’ve found in the dungeons. You can drink from the cauldron for a price to earn these bonuses, but each time that you do, the price goes up.
I found the game’s economy to be tight, but fair. I had just enough money to perform these routine tasks, and then some. But there was always something more that I could do—something I could strive for, which is perhaps the hallmark of any functioning capitalist system.
The game is rendered in a style that simulates paper, specifically a pop-up book, which is a smart decision for an indie studio. The end result is something that looks very tactile and crisp, while staying quite simple. This is followed up by expert sound design, full of satisfyingly punchy sounds that make it a joy to click and click through the game’s enemies, items and menus alike. My favourite sound was of my warrior hero hacking at wooden shields. The scrumptious sound of wood splintering and eventually breaking never got old.
Despite being in Early Access, the game closely resembled a finished product. The user interface is slick, and well-designed, both artistically and functionally. In all the time that I played, I did not encounter any notable bugs or glitches on the technical side at all. On the contrary, I was actually surprised at the many conveniences the game offered, such as helpfully reminding you to return to the village before you dived headlong into another dungeon, or marking the paths you’ve already visited.
Book of Demons, in the end, proved to be a very competently developed, smartly designed hack-and-slash adventure that feels fresh (even if it’s set in a dank, decaying crypt). The game is expected to release later this year, and considering how complete the Early Access build felt, I fully believe it won’t be in Early Access for very long.