Shaun Munro reviews Night Book…
Publisher Wales Interactive, the outfit behind recent FMV games Late Shift and The Complex, is back with their latest effort, which was somewhat impressively produced entirely during lockdown amid the ongoing pandemic.
However, choose-your-own-adventure thriller Night Book is another intriguing yet undercooked offering from the company, bearing the obvious scars of its constrained creation and feeling less like a fully-incubated idea than a hasty, low-effort cash-in on the subgenre they’ve helped revive interest in.
Evidently as a result of the remote production, the entire story takes place over webcams, as online interpreter Loralyn (Julie Dray) works a night shift from her flat. She interprets video calls for clients, all while dealing with being pregnant, having a fiancée working on a lucrative land development deal far away, and caring for her mentally unwell father.
Ultimately her fiancée’s work brings some unwanted supernatural attention Loralyn’s way, as she ends up tricked into reading from an ancient book which invites a malevolent presence into her home. It’s up to the player to try and figure out how to keep it at bay, or risk losing Loralyn’s soul to it.
Fans of prior Wales games will know the score right away; you watch high-definition video footage unfold while periodically responding to typically one of two branching decisions, each offering up either distinct or mild variations to the ongoing story.
The fun, in theory, is in going back and experimenting with different narrative permutations, which the game smartly encourages by allowing you to skip previously-watched scenes with the press of a button, ensuring you don’t need to slog through the 45-minute story again ad nauseum. An in-game tracker also keeps count of the 15 endings and 223 scenes you’ve unlocked so far.
Though Night Book clearly has just a fraction of the budget afforded to either Late Shift or The Complex, it gives a handsome first impression. The video quality is higher than is common for FMV games – even if very few people in the world actually have webcams that look this good – yet belies the generally thrown-together feel of the project otherwise.
The story takes place primarily in a few small sets with almost entirely locked off cameras, and presumably due to the pandemic, Loralyn and her father are never seen interacting on-screen together despite residing in the same apartment. The story conveniently keeps her father sequestered away in his own room as he combats mental illness (and worse), and it’s never even slightly convincing as anything more than a practical necessity of the production.
It underlines a game that largely feels like it was fashioned out of the available resources and rushed to market. It’s also unfortunately rather low-energy and atmosphere-deficient, compounded by the shallow number of narrative divergences on offer. I haven’t unlocked all of the endings or scenes, but have certainly seen enough to know that many of the stories end abruptly and unsatisfactorily, while the differences between them scarcely seem sufficient enough to justify many playthroughs, even with the time-saving options available.
Between how hurried most of the endings feel and some unfortunately wonky VFX-reliant moments of heightened “terror” which stretch the budget to snapping point, this lacks the polish of even the developer’s more flawed prior work.
It’s a particular shame as lead actress Julie Dray does a remarkable job in the lead role of Loralyn and was clearly deserving of far meatier material to sink her teeth into. She sells both the fear and the complexities of interpretation over video, and acquits herself exceptionally well despite the grating weaknesses of what she’s working with. Hollywood vet Colin Salmon’s ( Tomorrow Never Dies, Resident Evil) presence is also welcome in one of the game’s two major narrative pathways, though he’s ultimately criminally underused.
It’s tough to imagine many being rapt enough by the flimsy central setup to keep chipping away at this thing for more than a few hours, as it soon enough devolves into a joyless scavenger hunt to track down any clips you haven’t yet stumbled across.
One can certainly appreciate the team’s desire to create something during the pandemic, and so I take no pleasure at all in conceding how boring Night Book becomes after just a couple of run-throughs, even as the lead actress and a moody musical score try their hardest to prop things up. It takes itself far too seriously to be appreciable as a self-aware throwback to the campy origins of the FMV subgenre, but is too daft and cheaply produced to actually be taken seriously at all.
As a huge fan of FMV games I’ll certainly be eagerly queuing up for Wales’ next effort regardless, but hopefully it won’t be hamstrung by the same production strictures which derailed Night Book’s spooky potential.
+ Julie Dray’s compelling performance.
+ An atmospheric ambient musical score.
+ Ability to skip previously viewed scenes is a welcome time-saver.
– Generic, cliched story.
– Not enough variation between story paths.
– Cheap visual effects.
– Little incentive to seek out every ending.
– Difficult to take seriously.
Reviewed on PC (also available for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, Nintendo Switch, and Android/iOS devices).
A review code was provided by the publisher.