The latest Aldorlea Games RPG is a genuine time capsule, a modern serving of old school gaming created from the excellent RPG Maker software. Throughout the 50+ hours of gameplay you are taken on an epic journey of relics, demons and unlikely heroes, and offers through its 16-bit throwback visuals a delicious slice of early 90s RPG zeitgeist.
Maxing out the limitations of the software, The Book of Legends pushes RPG Maker's boundaries to beyond comprehension. The game has a huge lifespan, there are more than 30 playable characters, branching storylines involving different characters, plot tangents that can differ depending on your party members' personalities... it really is something special to play.
And it helps that the story is well-written, mature, funny and can get rather poignant and quaint at times. Despite the large roster of potentially playable characters, the ones you choose to spend time playing with, levelling up and grinding with are largely enjoyable and interesting people. I say people, but included in the Book of Legends roll call include a horse and a cow. And they are still more interesting than some dullards I've encountered in other RPGs.
The Book of Legends opens with the Demon of Fear waking from his slumber thanks to the increasing activity of thievery and violence from bandits and vagabonds throughout the land. After a brief council meeting, young Jordan is tasked with the quest to transport a sacred, ancient relic across the world and use it to put the beast back in its slumbering state. Why Jordan, you ask? He has some innate superhuman abilities, which manifest fully through dutiful levelling, grinding and customisation, and these powers should help safeguard the relic and fight off any marauders and other ne'er-do-wells who stand in his way. Sadly for the world, Jordan is a bit of a wisecracker and quite the idiot, and the quest would run a lot smoother if he ever engaged his brain or not let his mouth run off and land him in several spots of bother.
And from there, a heroic journey begins, showing the story to be the real meat of The Book of Legends. But for every meat, there must be two veg, and the balls in this venture belong to the uninspired combat system. Sure, it's authentic retro RPG fare, and that's fine. The problem really is that, given the 16-bit graphics, you find yourself drudging through swathes of samey, single screen battles with almost no animation. This is a battle system at its most basic, and given the beautiful recreation of SNES visuals, it would have been nice to have an equal level of fighting, rather than lacklustre, limp-wristed fighting mechanics from the early NES era.
The battles also follow a somewhat needless timetable, where depending on what mode you select you will enter a fight after making a precise number of steps. Even the excitement and/or annoyance of random battles is removed, leading to a predictable experience throughout the world map, which is almost the entirety of the game.
Also, despite boasting several playable characters, The Book of Legends struggles with some behind the scenes mechanics, most important of which is character management. Having up to four people in your party is fine, but try swapping them over, or experimenting with which character works better with whoever else, and the clunky menus fall apart.
That said, after the initial map which guides you from game hints to tutorials via many battles, the world introduced beyond the basic first half hour is a sprawling network of labyrinthine lands, maps, dungeons, choices, characters, and of course multiple endings. You can forgive the battles and menus if you are willing to work with them and don't let them hamper your enjoyment, as the witty, engrossing narrative does make up for it. My initial feelings about The Book of Legends were not at all favourable, but with each time I boot it up it still has the ability to pleasantly surprise me, and is easy to recommend to any RPG fan.
The Book of Legends uses every advanced trick in the RPG Maker handbook and executes them perfectly. The reliance of stock illustrations, generic menu and battle templates and tile palettes is disappointing, as this kind of approach in not using Aldorlea Games' own custom items gives the overall impression of amateurishness, which is an injustice to a very well made piece of art. It feels like playing a game made using RPG Maker rather than simply playing a game in its own right, and is a difficult feeling to shake. It's certainly a game that strives for its own identity, but in not allowing themselves to cut the apron strings from their mother software, Aldorlea have shot themselves in the foot and have not put their own stamp on the finished product.
As a game in its own right, it is a testament to modern renditions of old genres done right, and lovingly so. A lot of work has evidently gone into the narrative and dialogue, which is near faultless. The game world itself is expansive and exciting to explore. The graphics had me constantly pining for other 2D RPGs of the era, like Bahamut Lagoon and Earthbound. It's just a marvellous experience - if you don’t let The Book of Legends’ pitfalls taint an otherwise highly enjoyable ride.
The Book of Legends (Reviewed on Windows 8)
This game is great, with minimal or no negatives.
With a cracking story and a vast, labyrinthine world, The Book of Legends is a very enjoyable RPG offering over 50 hours of gameplay. The basic nature of the battle system and the use of stock pictures and sprites from RPG Maker keep Aldorlea Games from providing their own real identity, but it can easily be overlooked as the whole package is a great yarn.