In addition to our main Game of the Year Awards 2021, each member of the PC Gamer team is shining a spotlight on a game they loved this year. We'll post new staff picks, alongside our main awards, throughout the rest of the month.
My relationship with MMOs had been decaying for years before I finally let go of my fond teen memories and broke up with them for good. This year I steered clear of New World, avoided being enticed by Final Fantasy XIV, and instead turned my attention to Book of Travels, which its developer Might and Delight calls a "TMORPG" for "tiny" rather than "massive."
Its small server online world draws on the likes of pen and paper RPGs with trading and combat and talkative NPCs. It's visually and audibly serene as I've come to expect from Might and Delight after their Shelter series. I've spent a huge 50 hours slowly exploring this tiny world without worrying whether I'm missing out. It's the kind of low pressure online RPG relationship I'd needed all along.
Book Of Travels is a descendant of classic RPGs, beginning by picking a character class with proficiency in talents like Mechanics and Physicality, traits, an origin, and a wind alignment. You'll spot more of its cRPG roots in its point and click movement or obsession with crowding your inventory, but also in its love of introducing the lore of the Braided Shore through conversations and item descriptions. It's the stuff of fables, where tying magical knots can turn you into a cat or allow you to teleport while special teas grant fortified strength or endurance.
The world has no formal currency, so you'll often be managing your inventory—trading fish you catch or baubles you loot for other goods until you can afford a jacket that increases your Ward (defense) stat or a backpack with extra pockets or a knot skill that turns you into a deer so you can gallop across the world more quickly.
Apart from trading there's also combat, sometimes with robbers along the road if you aren't wary enough, or with supernatural creatures deep in remote forests if you seek them out. Your Ward and Force ratings come into play in an Active Time Battle style attack system where the first to 0 Ward loses. In calmer moments of competition, there's a card game you can play with NPCs that's like Blackjack if it were a deck builder.
What Book of Travels doesn't have is a curated quest log. "Quests" are typically just snatches of conversations with NPCs. Early on, a particular character gives you directions on how to find and introduce yourself to the tutor who can teach you to read. Until then, the knot language of the Braided Shore is meaningless. Afterwards, the ropes hanging from shop entries or town centers become messages—potential loose ends to other tasks. Item descriptions may hint at their uses or who will value them highly in trade. Later in its early access journey, Might and Delight has said it wants to include an in-game notebook for freely jotting down clues, though for now I leave myself hints in the names of pins on my world map.
Importantly, Book of Travels is not one of those early access games that could have been a full release. Might and Delight plans to keep Book of Travels in early access for two years while adding new areas of the world—events, skills, features, and more—all things that it does in fact need, along with fixing various bugs. I've enjoyed travelling the Braided Shore enough so far that I don't mind the lengthy early access tenure.
With its server capacity of seven, other players aren't constantly present but are typically found loitering and trading in cities. Even co-op is low pressure. Players in proximity to one another will have their talents pooled for feats of strength or mechanical skill but can head off solo at any point. I've occasionally joined others to open a lockbox beside the road with our combined Mechanics skills, shared a quick wave emote while passing through a tea house, or fished side-by-side while waiting for a boat to arrive at a dock. There's no text chat or PvP, so you'll communicate with other players purely through emotes.
One other detail to note about Book of Travels is its real time system. The day and night cycle is tied to the server your character is on: US East and West, Europe, or Asia. There's a night market you can only visit one night of the week, quest giving characters that only appear at a particular teahouse on Friday nights, and events that happen at particular times of day. Even its trains and boats between certain locations run every few minutes.
It'll be a deal-breaker for some players, which I understand. I stopped playing MMOs because of their tendency to dominate my life and demand my presence. Unlike other MMOs, with all manner of amenities like fast travel and mounts and group finders, Book of Travels is distinctly inconvenient. For me, that's a blessing. Other MMOs put their content constantly at my fingertips, making me feel that leaving anything incomplete is a failure on my part. Book of Travels doesn't inspire the same anxiety. It's purposefully slow-paced and often opaque. The world may not operate on my schedule, but it will give me all the time I need to explore it.