Monday, July 19, 2010

Bargain Hunter Review #2: Trine

What do Chuck Norris, bacon and the Bugatti Veyron have in common? They are awesome and in this review. The intrawebs may implode. You have been warned.

Trine is a Gem of a game. Like every great gemstone Trine has some flaws.

This game is not for everyone. Trine is for a specific person or personality. What it does do for its target audience, it does extraordinarily well. Everyone else will just miss the point. I’ve been trying to figure out what that target audience might be and I came up with the following questions.

Did you watch Pushing Daisies?
Did you love Pushing Daisies?

Did you understand
that Pushing Daisies was a macabre fairy tale popup book brought to life on the television?
Would you mind playing a side scrolling jumpy puzzle game with great production?

If you answered yes to at least 2 of those questions then there is a high probability you will enjoy Trine. This game isn’t for the power-gamer or someone simply wishing to finish the game. Imagine 2 people walking through a flower garden to get to a destination on the other side. One of them walks straight through and reaches the destination in mere minutes. The other one takes half an hour because he or she is admiring the work that was put into the garden. Trine is purely designed for the 2nd person. This game is to be admired while it is being played.

The Story
The good king of the kingdom dies. During his life there was peace. Since he had no heir, the kingdom fell into disarray a
nd the undead began walking the land. It is a generic fantasy backdrop, but the narrator presents the reasons for each of these events as you start or complete each level.

There are 3 actors who play a part in the “tale” of Trine. I can't call them characters, that label just doesn't seem to fit. For the rest of the review, I'll use the term Actor. The game starts with each Actor headed to the Astral Academy for different reasons. This place is where ancient artifacts were kept. The Thief is greedy and looking for treasure among the artifacts. The Wizard is looking for a fireball spell to impress the ladies. The Knight is trying to protect the Academy from looters and ne'er-do-wells. All three wind up at a shrine at the same time and lay their hands on an artifact that binds all their souls together.

It turns out that this artifact is called the Trine. Even though all their souls are trapped, they can project one physical form into the world at a time. Thus, while you possess all three actors at the same time, but you can only control one at a time. The only way this changes is if you happen to be lucky enough to play in coop mode.

Trine is gorgeous to look at. The use of layers is simply incredible. There are not many games that make you pause to admire the environment, but Trine is one of them. One of the many things the game excels at is to seamlessly fuse the background layers with the layer you are playing on. You will be running through forests watching trees pass in the different background layers. You will come across a river you have to cross. The act of pausing to jump or solve whatever puzzle may be present, causes your eyes to follow the river to its far distant source in the background. These moments happen often in Trine. Your characters have full 3D animations and watching them move, jump and fight is a pleasure. My words alone cannot detail it, so I’m going to link to a video supplied by the makers of Trine.

With all the visual attention Frozenbyte Games put into Trine, I was surprised to notice a couple of missing animations. I don’t know why they were omitted. I’ll go into more detail later.

The visual quality in Trine is married perfectly with the sound quality.The Voice Acting is great. That is the second highest complement to voice acting I can give. The highest would be excellent where game company Bioware exists. There is one Narrator and 3 actors presented to the player, the Thief, the Wizard and the Knight.

The Narrator starts the story and tells you the motivations of the 3 actors. The 3 actors give a brief exchange with one or maybe 2 lines at the start of each level. These exchanges between the actors do a great job of communicating their tolerance of each other to get through their predicament. Sometimes, I wish there was more voice acting to invest the players into the actors. However, you would begin to run into the problem of too much talking going on. I know that sometime in development, Frozenbyte Games must have had this very discussion. The final design philosophy “Less is more” was applied. This was the right decision. The game would have suffered to hear the actors yap all the way through each level.

Ambient sounds are superb. Whether you are passing by a river or walking through the woods, all sounds are accentuated. Caverns and sewers have appropriate environmental effects.

The Soundtrack is also great. However, her
e is one of the minor rough areas of the game. The Soundtrack is all original. There are 19 tracks plus the Main theme. However, the themes for each level are kind of short and can be repetitive. Maybe I'm just taking to long to get through the levels. It seems that each level plays its own theme, plus the Main. If you keep the music on, which I would still recommend, you may want to turn it down about halfway through the game. It gets a little tiring to hear the Main theme so often.

Artificial Intelligence
There are three enemy types.

#1: Skeletons.
here isn't much to say. Skeletons don't have a lot of brains. Don't expect anything more than them charging at you. There are some with shields that can block your attacks. Those are a challenge. There are also other varieties of skeleton that I will leave you to discover.

The Skeletons do navigate the environment fairly well. They'll jump over obstacles and even climb vertical surfaces to get to you. However, sometimes they get killed by the traps that are set for you. Don't worry about them too much. Th
eir primary threat is numbers.

#2 Bats
For me the most frustrating enemy were bats. I couldn't see any predictable flight pattern and they were fast. You would hear them long before you saw them. I would furiously swing at them with my Knight or try shoot a flurry of arrows at them with the Thief. They don't do much damage, but it was a little annoying to always be hit by at least one of them. Bats made the perfect pests.

#3 Spiders
Thankfully spiders are only on a few levels. Otherwise this game might be miserable. Spiders attack you by spitting at you and physically attacking you. While dispatching them is easy, I ran into 3 or 4 that could spit at me through the floor I was standing on. This should have been caught as a bug (see what I did there).
Such jokes are clever late at night.

Your Character
You don't have a character. You control 3 actors. However, there is a lighthearted RPG element in this game. You can collect Experience by killing monsters or collecting Experience potions. There are also Secret chests strewn about which hold items to improve the actors. There are limited inventory slots for all 3 of the actors. When
the actors level up you can assign skill points to enhance any of the three abilities they have. You will rarely spend time on the level and inventory screen.

Gameplay/Class Balance
Gameplay in Trine is really clever. Each actor has un
ique abilities and some of the jump puzzles require you to figure out which one to activate at any time. Some obstacles require a combination of abilities between the actors. Let me explain.

The Knight can jump, but not as well as the others. This is your fighter character. When surrounded by Skeletons you want the Knight out to dispatch them. While you can use the Thief with her arrows, she takes more damage than the knight. The Knight is strong and can move boxes and stones around for another character to jump on. He also sinks quickly in water. While that sounds like a negative, there are some water tunnels you need to take and you don't want to waste your air meter getting to the bottom.

The Thief can jump like a cat. She can also use a grappling hook to swing across hazards or to ascend to a platform. With her arrows she can dispatch enemies or light torches. The great thing about her arrows is that you can hit an enemy behind cover with a high enough arc. The Thief is the actor you will have out most since she is better at physically navigating the game world than the other two.

The Wizard can jump moderately well. He has no direct combat abilities. He can conjure 3 types of objects. He starts with boxes and moves on to planks and then a floating pyramid. The best he can do in combat is to conjure a box or a plank and drop it on some skeletons head. As the Wizard levels up he can create more of each of these objects. The other two actors can use any of the Wizard's conjured items. There were several times I created a stack of boxes and used the Thief to jump from the top of them to get to a higher ledge. That is the simplest example of combining two of the actors abilities to accomplish one goal.

Trine offers many options for handling different obstacles. If you favor the Wizard and I favor the Knight, we can have two different experiences. These different possibilities make Trine replayable. Below is a video showcasing what I am trying to describe.

I have to point out that I also tried to build a ramp to avoid the spikey balls with my Wizard. However, the Wizard was so weak he couldn't keep the weight of the crate on the hill like the one in the video. So, I went sliding down the hill.

Whenever I encountered some skeletons that keep spawning near an obstacle, I felt this was a challenge to my patience. This wasn't in a negative way. I would switch to the Knight and combat skeletons until they stopped spawning. I just saw it as an opportunity to gain lost health, mana or even experience. If you find yourself in a situation like this, just be patient and keep fighting.

Sometime during gameplay one of the Actors will die. Sad, but true. When this happens you switch to one of the remaining Actors. In order to get a dead Actor back you need to make it to a checkpoint. You don't have to reach the next checkpoint, a previous one will do fine. You can also bring up the menu and select the option to return to the previous checkpoint. Checkpoints restore dead actors and their health and mana to at least 50%. If you can find it, there is an artifact that will raise it to 75% for the actor that currently has it equipped.

As far as difficulty goes, the game is very casual, friendly and simple for the first 13 levels. Level 14 is like taking a MENSA Exam. Seriously, I got the "Dead on Arrival" achievement without meaning to. This required me dieing 25 times in a level. Believe me, I was trying to avoid this as much as possible. Which leads me to the improvements section.

The difficulty in this game should have increased in a gradual manner to pull the players thought process into more abstract puzzle ideas. Instead when you reach Level 14 you get... well let me just show you what level 14 is like:

Part of the reason I had such difficulty is that I couldn't see beneath my actors at a crucial point. What would have improved the game would be better camera control. The game camera keeps the player in the center of the screen and that is it. Allowing the player to pan the camera with the cursor would have made a serious improvement. They don't need to allow me to pan it far. Maybe only as long as the actor remains on the screen.

The entire last level is a vertical race. This is the only level in the game that is like this. I don't mind vertical jumpy race levels. But the game could have been better if I encountered this playstyle as a portion of some previous levels.

I also had some difficulties finding some of the secret chests. Yes, I know they are secret, but through most of the game there is a little golden glow on the chest so you know where to try for one. Some of the chests didn't have this. I don't know if this was intentional, but there should have been some consistency.

As with all games dependent on Physics as part of the gameplay, there are a couple of places where something seems to go wrong. Since every game encounters these problems you can ignore this bit. I'm only listing it to be thorough.

I mentioned some missing animations above. With such a high quality game, something like this really sticks out. One of the Thief’s abilities is to use a grappling hook to swing across large distances. Sometimes you swing low and run into a vertical surface. If your hook is attached directly above, you will watch as your Thief, frozen in a swing animation, ascend the cliff, with her face. Her legs will be sticking out straight behind her. You will also notice that when you ascend or descend the rope, she makes no animation, just slides up and down. To make a visual improvement Frozenbyte should have added Rope Climbing, Rope Sliding and Wall-Walking animations. I don’t know why these weren't implemented. Perhaps they had animation or physics difficulties and they couldn’t figure it out before the game was released. Perhaps all the solutions they had didn’t work, so they went with nothing. I don't know the reason, but this causes a distraction in an already superb game.

Some people might say I’m being nitpicky, so here is an analogy.

Let’s say you happen to be so wealthy you buy a Bugatti Veyron. When you get in the car you notice the steering wheel is square. Now some of your neighbors might say, "Oh you can't ever be happy. It's a Veyron, look at the rest of it.." But, when something has such a high production value, the smallest flaws stand out more. It's sort of a curse of perfection.

Now I can finally tag Bugatti Veyron in my blog. This makes this review more awesome. Also, since adding bacon to anything makes it better, I’ll mention that for a tag too. Mmmm, bacon.

This is a casual game and is rated “E” for everyone, like bacon. One improvement to the game would have been enemy diversity. I don't know if different monsters can alter a rating. For example: Spiders are an "E", Human Soldiers are a minimum of "T", Pirates are "E" to "M" depending on dress and behavior. Zombies would have been nice to see. They would also fit in the lore of the Undead's appearance. Perhaps fleshy bits hanging off a corpse raise the rating to "T" and Frozenbyte didn't want that.

Another tiny issue was the Loading screen. The loading screen consists of a map on a static background with some dotted lines appearing on it while the Narrator explains the next part of the story. This is actually bland compared to the rest of the game. I don't think the loading screen needs to be improved that much. Here is what I believe the loading screen should have looked like. Instead of the static background a simple 3D scene of a desk would have gone a long way. Instead of just a map, there would be a book on the table with the map on the left page and the passage entry being narrated on the right.

Review Addendum: The biggest improvement to the game would have been 3 additional levels you can play after you finish the game. Each of these levels limits you to one of the Actors and plays to that Actors strengths. These could be challenge levels. I would have loved to have seen that.

There is consistent debate on the Interwebs about how games should be rated. Some use Stars, others percentages.
One uses Evil Eye's. I think I simply will ask the question, "Would I recommend you spend money on it?"

I would recommend to my friends that they buy Trine. It is worth spending money on.

I would say the optimum price point would be $9.99 with a sale.
I paid $4 for Trine on the Steam Summer Sale. This was an awesome bargain.

Here is a link to vendors selling Trine. Almost all of those have it for $19.99. However, I checked to see if any of them had it on Discount.
GamersGate has it for $6.78.
Here is a $9.55 copy on

No, I don't work for Frozenbyte.

In a final conclusion, the most awesome site in the universe would be, "Chuck Norris driving a Veyron while eating bacon."

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