The Ancients’ Tome is an interesting little gem from all the way back in 2006 and one which I’ve wanted to discuss for a while. As to just what type of game it is…that’s a good question, and one without much in the way of an easy answer. Its developer labels it as an ‘arcade puzzle game’ and that’s probably as close as you can get, though even that doesn’t quite hit the mark. Whatever you want to call its genre, The Ancients’ Tome definitely fits somewhere under the enormous ‘experimental games’ umbrella and manages to be quite entertaining along the way.
Other than a few bits of optional plot-related text tied to each level, The Ancients’ Tome is a game communicated almost entirely through symbols – even the menu used to exit the game is completely devoid of text. All control is tied directly to the numpad (or the left side of the keyboard) and the Ancients’ Tome itself, a giant machine which resembles a spaceship more than any sort of book, reflects this in its design. Players cannot directly control the tome, but the tome has a 3×3 grid of symbols which can be interacted with. Pressing a key will add the corresponding symbol to the command and a new symbol will appear to take its place; the central space tied to ‘5’ does not have a normal symbol and is instead used to wipe the command and change the symbols on the tome, which can be useful if you make a mistake or if the symbol you need isn’t present. Each command consists of a combination of two or three symbols and memorizing these commands is the core of the game. Thankfully, The Ancients’ Tome does a fantastic job of gradually introducing its mechanics.
The first and most important lesson is to always stay in the air. The tome starts high above the ground, but it will quickly crash and take a large amount of damage if the player doesn’t rapidly and repeatedly enter one of the commands for activating the thrusters to shoot back into the sky(I did say it resembled a spaceship). Like all commands, this initial command to activate the engines has three variations: a fire symbol followed by a slab symbol gives a small boost, two fire symbols in a row gives a large boost, and a fire symbol followed by a pillar symbol makes the tome rise slowly over a larger period of time. The goal of each stage is simply to survive until time runs out, so the first stage, where gravity is your only opponent, can get somewhat dull by the end, but it serves as a good way to familiarize yourself with the unusual controls and as a way to ingrain what are probably the most important commands of the game into players’ heads.
In addition to keeping the tome in the air, players will soon need to worry about defending against enemy attacks. Just as there is no direct way to control the tome’s movement, players cannot directly attack enemies and need to rely upon using various defensive commands. The tome itself only ever moves vertically, but commands exist which will summon shields and other objects to orbit the tome. Each object defeats a specific type of enemy depending on its color and players will need to memorize and rapidly input multiple command combinations in order to create and maintain a swirling wall of death in order to protect the tome from harm. Like the thruster activation commands, each ‘set’ of related commands consistently starts with the same symbol, but the degree of challenge naturally increases as more commands need to be memorized and more abilities need to be used together in order to defend the tome.
The only real issue with The Ancients’ Tome is that it’s awfully short. Even this can be largely forgiven as it was made for the ‘Two Room Contest’ and contest games are rarely lengthy, but with only slightly more than half a dozen levels and no additional difficulties or bonuses to unlock there’s just not much in the way of replayability and, while it’s better than a game which drags on and overstays its welcome, it feels like The Ancients’ Tome ends right when it truly starts to hit its stride. Still, The Ancients’ Tome is a unique, frantically fast-paced experience which will test your memory and multitasking skills just as much as it tests your reflexes and is well worth the download.