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Preview: Book of Travels

7 Oct 2021

The moment it launched its Kickstarter campaign in October of 2019, Book of Travels built itself up to be a different kind of online game. Developer Might and Delight labeled it not as an MMORPG, but a TMORPG (that’s Tiny Multiplayer Online RPG) which places players in a large world with no immediate objective apart from setting out and uncovering the lay of the land. Relevantly, when you load into Book of Travels, you’re placed onto a server with a low maximum player cap: a feature implemented with the goal of making interactions with other players both exceedingly rare and exceedingly memorable.

Both of these elements combine into a high concept hook somewhat evocative of 2012’s Journey but on a much larger scale, and one I was immediately intrigued by. That said, I’ve been playing MMOs and the genres spun off of them for over fifteen years now; this isn’t my first rodeo when it comes to ideas that sound exciting on paper. The true question Book of Travels has to answer is whether or not it can implement its ideas into an engaging gameplay experience.

These were my primary thoughts leading into the opportunity I had to preview the game ahead of its Early Access launch on October 11th, 2021. Is the Early Access of Book of Travels worthy of an entry from you, or should you leave it on the shelf? Let’s find out.

The emphasis Book of Travels places on roleplaying cannot be understated, and this is clear as early as the character creation screen. Many of your decisions here don’t serve to shape your character’s skills or stats, but your idea of how they’ll conduct themselves in the game’s world via things like their upbringing, their age, and their “form,” which is essentially a preset character model.

Choices that directly affect your gameplay come from your character’s personality and skills. Quite a few of them aren’t implemented yet as the game is just now entering early access, so I decided to err on the side of practicality by nabbing passives that increased my energy recovery as well as my speed when traveling on roads. Book of Travels also requires you to take on one negative trait, so I went with “Lonely,” which resulted in my character triggering sad emotes at random when there were no NPCs or other players to interact with in the area.

With the finer details of my character out of the way, I was given several choices to decide where in the world I would end up. In the spirit of diving in head first, I left things up to fate and allowed the game to place me in a random location. I found myself washed ashore after a shipwreck from lands unknown when an NPC promptly approached and told me that, given my sorry state, it’d be best for me to walk north to the town of Crossroads in order to recuperate. Naturally, I headed westward.

This jaunt down the shoreline served as a great opportunity to start getting a feel for the way Book of Travels brings out its atmosphere. The tide scraped against the shore, a soft breeze flowed through the air, and an echoing acoustic guitar played a somber melody when I came along the remains of a shipwreck. Surrounding the wreck were three ghosts, and when I spoke to them, they mentioned a beast they “should have kept underground.” Was this the same shipwreck that my character survived or did this happen a long time ago? Would I eventually encounter this beast? The game gave me no answers, but the fact that I even thought to ask these questions meant it was doing something right regarding immersion.

As I progressed from area to area, seeing whatever there was to see and talking to any NPC that would give me the time of day, I found myself intrigued by what they had to say. All of the dialogue is written in such a way that’s concrete enough to give you tangible information about the world and its history, but also vague enough to spark your imagination. It’s a delicate nuance to reach, which is why I found myself so consistently impressed that the game kept on reaching it.

I wasn’t able to see all of the regions in my several hours with it, but every area I crossed felt like it had a distinctive visual and functional footprint. The structures, characters, and visual storytelling peppered across each zone all tell a story that’s unlike the one before it. The art style at play here is both incredibly unique and incredibly gorgeous to look at, and when you combine it with the camera placement feeling detached and observant, going through Book of Travels feels like traversing the inside of a painting.

At many points, it felt like playing a point-and-click adventure game with potential online functionality. When I’m clicking to move my character through the environment, I’m also combing the screen for flowers or stones or fruit to pick up for later trade; I’m passing mysterious altars that need multiple players to do anything with; I’m talking to a character that tells me that he could fashion a new walking stick for me as his sentient automaton strolls by. Whenever I logged in, I was looking for anything and everything that I could interact with in the world, and I typically wasn’t disappointed by what I found. To someone like me, who loves exploring but is often disappointed by its execution in other titles, it’s hard to think of another online game that even comes close to embodying the idea of the journey as thoroughly as Book of Travels does.

Though I personally might be content with a game that’s just about walking hither and thither and seeing all there is to see, it’s easy to appreciate the fact that Book of Travels appears to have larger mechanical depth as well. Leveling up is done by means of communicating with NPCs scattered throughout the various maps in order to expand your knowledge. They’re more plentiful than you might expect, but lore and experience isn’t the only thing they can offer you.

Certain vendors allow you to purchase useful skills, like the ability to create a resting fireplace to regain your stamina and dry off your soaked-through clothes after crossing a river, or conjure up a bright lamp that will stay there and light the way for other players traveling the same route. In larger settlements, often there will be artificers that offer you high quality goods in exchange for specific items. These act as quests, in lieu of a better term, but there’s no log or map marking to guide you to them. It’s entirely up to you to seek out those items and bring them back. After learning about a request, you can either focus entirely on procuring the items and make it your character’s life mission, forget about it the moment you step away, or anything in between. Your character’s next destination is entirely up to you at every turn with no obligation, and that level of agency is something you don’t get in every game.

I did hit a few bumps along the way, though. Technical issues are to be expected in an online game in the process of setting itself up for launch, but I did encounter the occasional lag spike that would require me to repeat an input or wait a moment before my character actually started moving. When I ran away from a pursuing bandit, he chased me to the edge of the combat circle and then seemed to get himself stuck. He didn’t walk back to the cart he was guarding, he didn’t continue to chase me, he just stood there ominously. It was intimidating at first, but when I realized I could walk right by him and pilfer the contents of his cart without him so much as batting an eye, I realized something more buggy was happening.

As soon as you start the game, your character also has access to a world map that shows every single region, and I couldn’t help but feel this is somewhat counterproductive to the feeling Book of Travels is going for. In an experience that’s all about mystery and cryptic references to destinations you can visit, it seems strange that you can immediately pull up a map and say “Oh, alright, I’m at the southern edge of this region and the city is three zones to the north, so I guess I’ll head that way.” There is an argument to be made for friends being able to find each other from different starting locations, but I would greatly prefer it if the map automatically populated itself as you reached each area instead. I was also a bit disappointed that equipment such as cloaks and hats don’t actually alter the appearance of your character in-game, and found myself craving a client-side system for keeping my own notes too.

You’ll notice these are pretty minor quibbles for a title launching in Early Access. It’s completely down to the fact that the game already has a very solid foundation to build upon, and that’s more than you can say about a lot of games in the same situation—online ones in particular.

Book of Travels is an exploration game in its purest form. Combat is present, but it’s not the focus. You won’t be competing with other players to get more powerful or accrue more resources, and you won’t be rushing to get to endgame. It’s engaging to visit in the moment, but still curated to be more of a slow burn.

It doesn’t expect you to navigate its elements at anyone’s pace but your own, and many players will have a unique experience compared to one another and different interpretations of the visual storytelling and dialogue. If that type of experience sounds exciting to you, and you don’t mind bumping up against the snags inherent in an early access title, then you won’t regret seeing what’s just around the bend in Book of Travels.

Preview build provided by Might and Delight for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Might and Delight.