The Book of Watermarks is a Japanese adventure game for the PlayStation that's been heavily inspired by the works of William Shakespeare, The Tempest in particular. For a game that never made it out of its native country, it's surprisingly all in English, save for the easily decipherable menus, making it very playable for western audiences.
The Japanese console market has always been more welcoming for adventures than the west where the genre was almost non-existent away from personal computers. Even western developed games like Dark Seed, The Neverhood and Prisoner of Ice had console ports exclusive to that region. What makes The Book of Watermarks different is not only being locked in Japan but also how it feels like it was developed in the west.
Once you've figured out the Japanese text for 'New Game', you're greeted with a handsomely produced and rather poetic opening cutscene. A man named Prospero has declared himself King of the Island and used his twelve magical tomes to create the wondrous place. One day, all but one of his books vanish, leaving just the registry of them all - The Book of Watermarks. Salvation comes from Ferdinand, a prince of Naples who washes ashore after a tempest destroys his ship. As Ferdinand, it is up to you to find these magical tomes and prevent the island's imminent collapse.
The game plays very similarly to Myst with a first person viewpoint and a focus on puzzles and exploration over the story. The island of Ceres, and later Iris, are both beautifully realised in pre-rendered CGI. The transitions between points of interest are also fully animated allowing for a greater sense of presence than the static frames of Myst could allow. That being said, the feeling of isolation in such a grand place is shared between both games. You can tell it was definitely an inspiration.
Being a game only available on the PlayStation, the controls are not what most adventurers would be used to. There is no mouse support whatsoever. Instead, it's entirely controlled by the joypad (or keyboard depending on your emulation preference). The d-pad controls your movement and pressing up will also give you a close look at an item if possible. The circle button will pick up items and all four face buttons are used to interact with certain puzzles. The only other button used is select which brings up your chessboard-styled inventory. One thing to note is that the Japanese invert the function of their circle and X buttons which is most noticeable in the menus. The former accepts while the latter declines.
There are ten chapters, each revolving around a specific tome. Before each one begins, Prospero will rear his head to wax lyrical about each book's subject. He speaks in English, though I did notice the sound mix can drown him out at times. He doesn't provide much in the way of important information so it's not game-breaking if you miss anything but it does take something away from the overall presentation.
The first tome is titled 'Navigators', so naturally, the theme is about navigating. You begin looking at a large, magnificent building with ancient Greek architecture. Upon entering, it becomes apparent that this structure hosts a library that's equally impressive on the inside. At the far end is the Book of Watermarks, which will be your only clue on how to solve each chapter. To the left of which is the only save point in the game, but as advanced players will probably complete it in less time than it takes to watch a Shakespeare play, you may not need it.
Puzzles are found and solved by exploring and examining the environment closely. For example, the first puzzle requires inputting a code into four statues which represent the four points of the compass. The answers are found on similar statues in the library. Both are easily missed if you're not looking hard enough, and you can easily stumble upon gadgets used in a later chapter and wonder why they're not doing anything. The key here is to only pay attention if it's relevant to the name of the chapter, however tenuous. Thankfully, any items you pick up will remain in your inventory until it has been used, regardless of which book you're hunting.
If there's one negative it's in the slow walking speed. With every transition being animated and unskippable, it can take some time getting from A to B. Sometimes a minute will have passed before you've reached the next point. It's kind of a double edged sword because it does give the island a sense of presence. It could be a real place you're exploring but when all you want to do it put a piece of art on a plinth it's rather tedious. That being said it also adds to the overall tone of the game; serenity.
The Book of Watermarks certainly evokes a calm tranquillity. There's no stressful situations, timed puzzles or unexpected deaths. It's almost like a vacation for your mind, which is quite apt as the locations are so picturesque one might consider it a holiday destination. Even the Enya-inspired soundtrack (it was produced by her sister, Maire Brennan) relaxes you. The puzzles are pretty easy, though I wouldn't say they're uninteresting. I would perhaps compare them to something like a treasure hunt rather than a test of your logical thinking skills and the location suits that purpose beautifully.
I would highly recommend The Books of Watermarks to fans of the genre, even if it's doubtful it will become anyone's new-found favourite. It's managed to have it's own charm and identity despite being incredibly short. It kept me playing til the end not because of the story which is only a paper-thin retelling of The Tempest or the skill needed but because of the ambience and the environment. And that is where this game truly excels.
To download the game, follow the link below. This custom installer exclusive to The Collection Chamber uses Retroarch with the Beetle_PSX core to emulate the game on PCs. XBox 360 controllers supported. Menu translation included. Tested on Windows 10.
File Size: 1.04 Gb. Install Size: 1.14 Gb. Need help? Consult the Collection Chamber FAQ
The Book of Watermarks is © ARC Entertainment
Review, Cover Design and Installer created by me