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The Library of Babel Review

Cells interlinked

The Library of Babel carries some heavy expectations with it. Directly inspired by the literary classic of the same name, The Library of Babel attempts to adapt the heady concepts and oppressive tone of Jorge Luis Borges’ 1941 short story. Against a harsh backdrop of societal upheaval and science-fiction, this adaptation emulates the helplessness of the original work by casting you in a stealth-focused platformer, riffing on the adventure game and narrative genres for good measure. It’s ambitious, strange, and not without issues, but The Library of Babel has good intentions and smart ideas aplenty.

In Tanuki Game Studio’s interpretation of the text, a futuristic world is unravelling as its robot citizens collide with a violently revolutionary cult that has partaken of the forbidden fruit and is now looking to impart that knowledge onto the world, one way or another. You play as a Seeker, deployed by governing forces to intervene in the Kaborist Cult’s plans and bring its enigmatic leader, Colonel Kabor, to justice. Kabor was at the forefront of a colony settlement mission surrounding the discovery of ‘the library,’ a mysterious place in which Kabor was said to have lost his mind. His madness is found throughout the world of The Library of Babel, with robots donned in red rambling about the greater truth and the flesh.

Richly detailed art brings these places to life

It is immensely impressive tone setting, and the care with which the game’s lore has been written is evident from the jump. This world is familiar enough to us, complete with markets, bars, and military forces, but the robotic denizens are charmingly alien, humanoid in design but with expressive, smooth masks and textured, colourful clothing. An amalgamation of cultural touchstones that feels only vaguely inspired by several of our own world, but distinct enough to avoid the frustrating appropriation of other sci-fi texts. It all comes at you rather fast though, the flipside to a considered lore being that onboarding players usually involves a deluge of proper nouns and glossary terms, no matter how interesting each are individually.

The Library of Babel’s gameplay carries less of this shine, but the care remains present despite some mechanical lurches. The game’s marketing promises a “stealth platformer journey,” a direct bit of communication that is necessary given the rare type of experience on offer. You’ll move through the world side-scrolling left to right, with a fair bit of verticality at play too, unlocking new paths and secrets in a Metroidvania-lite kind of way. The Seeker is a frail build, easily obliterated in just one hit from enemy fire and obstacles, so you’ll need to be on point with your platforming and sneaking, handled here by crouching and moving behind highlighted hiding spots. Guards can still hear you in these instances, but given a wide enough berth you can skulk to your next designated hidey-hole and wait out your foes.

Failing to do so results in immediate death, and resurrection requires you to pay using a collectible currency that doubles as your cash to purchase items and the like. Seekers have in-universe capabilities to be rebuilt at select stations in the world, which serve as your checkpoints between stealth gauntlets. It’s a tight loop, with checkpoints rarely being more than a few minutes of a good run apart, but when failure comes this hard and fast, controls need to be equally snappy. Instead, controls are mostly responsive, the world full of ledges that almost always allow you to grab them and guards with detection radiuses you swear you had figured out. It’s not bad, and when the game allows free flowing exploration of areas its very enjoyable even, but too often I would need to repeat sections due to what I considered to be missed inputs.

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The vibes are, as they say, immaculate

There’s also just a lot of waiting around in The Library of Babel, an unintentional, deeply funny riff on the boredom that drove Borges to write the original short story, but not one I can entirely appreciate. The world of the game is richly detailed and gorgeously realised through expressive animation and art direction, but more often than I’d like I was forced to sit idle behind a crate while progression conditions aligned. It is part of the nature of a stealth experience to patiently avoid enemies, granted, but here the pacing of the journey sometimes suffered for it. You’ll also be tasked with gathering and combining items like the adventure games of old but in the same light-touch way the Metroidvania elements are integrated.

Fortunately, the creativity of some platforming sections, such as carefully timed jumps between moving structures and simple but effective block pushing, somewhat paper over the tedium of others. And while its undercurrent of stealth is unevenly implemented, The Library of Babel is more than its mechanics, elevated by other elements of the craft. Even during the least enjoyable of its platforming sections, I could appreciate the aesthetics of any given location, from the neon-lit corners of a town to the murky undergrowth of its surrounding jungle. The score hums nicely with balanced synths and wind instruments, a tactile sound that lends the robotic culture a spirituality felt in its worldbuilding too.

Maybe we should hear him out

This commitment to aesthetic only frustrates in its text delivery system, a stylised bit of UI that looks like a data pad of sorts but barely distinguishes between who’s talking and sports far too small a font for the Switch screen. Still, what’s actually written here is a treat. Dialogue oscillates between hard-line computer logic and bureaucracy to casual, very human exchanges, giving the cast of characters a strange cadence and vibe. The Seeker themselves has a role to play and the supporting cast are fascinating, even if Kabor steals much of the limelight with their menace and commitment to the cause.

Final Thoughts
The Library of Babel wasn’t always fun to play but I’ve rarely held outright ‘fun’ factor against a game, especially not one that is trying as hard as this one is. World exploration is rewarding thanks to a well-realised art direction and compelling sci-fi writing, but some of the game’s stealth sections tried my patience just a little too much. The literary inspiration lends this game a great launch pad and Tanuki Game Studio use every bit of the strange place space it gives them to craft a unique, if uneven, experience.

Reviewed on Switch // Review code supplied by publisher

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The Library of Babel Review
Almost a page turner
The Library of Babel takes its short story inspirations and runs, crafting a compelling, strange sci-fi world that isn’t always as fun to explore as it is to read about, or just simply vibe in.
The Good
Beautiful and unique art direction
Compelling script and world building
Mostly enjoyable platforming
The Bad
Frustrating stealth sections
A lot of lore thrown at you very quickly
7
SOLID
  • Tanuki Game Studios
  • Another Indie
  • PS5 / PS4 / Xbox Series X&S / Xbox One / Nintendo Switch / PC
  • April 6, 2023

The Library of Babel Review
Almost a page turner
The Library of Babel takes its short story inspirations and runs, crafting a compelling, strange sci-fi world that isn’t always as fun to explore as it is to read about, or just simply vibe in.
The Good
Beautiful and unique art direction
Compelling script and world building
Mostly enjoyable platforming
The Bad
Frustrating stealth sections
A lot of lore thrown at you very quickly
7
SOLID
Written By James Wood

One part pretentious academic and one part goofy dickhead, James is often found defending strange games and frowning at the popular ones, but he's happy to play just about everything in between. An unbridled love for FromSoftware's pantheon, a keen eye for vibes first experiences, and an insistence on the Oxford comma have marked his time in the industry.

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