Thursday, 3 October 2013

Review: Trine 2

Along with several hundred thousand other people, I picked up Humble Bundle 9 a few weeks ago. Often the case with these bundles is that there's one game you actually want, with the others effectively acting as ricin-free sweeteners. For me, that game was Trine 2, developed by Frozenbyte. I bought the original Trine many years ago and enjoyed it very much. It was a solid, occasionally quirky 2.5D side-scrolling puzzle/action game in which you control a team of three fantasy archetypes trapped in one body by the machinations of some peculiar magical artefact, and could switch between them as you saw fit. Overall the game was a lot of fun, with great effort clearly having been put into the aesthetics, sound and level design. Its quality is further marked by its admittance into the very select list of games that my fiancée actually enjoyed.

However, it wasn't without its problems. Enemy design was repetitive, presumably due to the limitations of a small studio; there was a really obnoxious difficulty curve that was practically horizontal for most of the game before turning into the Cliffs of Insanity for the final level (I'm not sure I ever completed it); and too many puzzles could be completely circumvented by means of stacking crates or having the mage create floating platforms, neither of which is a particularly fun activity. Finally, while there was local co-op (in the sense of buying another keyboard), there wasn't any LAN or IP/TCP support, which was a bit of a problem.

So, how has Trine 2 fared in its attempt to fix the problems of its predecessor?

I ask that question because it's very obviously what Frozenbyte have tried to do. Their approach has been akin to restoring a slightly run-down classic car - new paint, new tyres, maybe do something about the horrendous lack of suspension, but no fundamental changes. That's not necessarily a bad thing, though, and to be honest an improved version of the original is what most look for in a sequel.

For those who played Trine, the core mechanics are unchanged. For those who didn't, you control the aforementioned trinity of mage, thief and warrior. The Mage can create crates and planks by drawing on the screen, and can also levitate various other objects. The Thief can shoot and swing on a rope arrow/grappling hook thing, and also shoot normal, boring arrows at ranged targets. The Warrior has a sword and a shield and a hammer, and is mostly useless outside combat. Each of these characters has a separate health pool, meaning that if one dies you can still use the other two to solve the puzzle and get to the next checkpoint that restores all your health.

This is the first way in which the game differentiates itself from the original. In Trine these checkpoints were few and far between, meaning that keeping all your characters alive was often quite challenging. It also meant that all the puzzles had to be solvable by each individual character as the game couldn't rely on your having kept all three, or even two of them alive. In Trine 2 the glowing restitution-of-all-things orbs are every four paces or so, and so all your characters will be at full health all the time. This removes a large part of the fun of the original, which was trying to figure out alternative solutions to a puzzle with a clear solution for a character you'd lost. However, what it does mean is that the puzzles are now a lot more balanced - because they can assume that you always have the Thief, for example, they don't need to make it solvable by stacking crates, which was pretty much the default approach by the end of Trine. It also means that the puzzles can require specific abilities to solve - for example, throwing the Warrior's hammer at some destructible rocks so that the Mage can levitate a barrel out from behind them and stick it on some spikes on the ceiling so that the Thief can hook-shot into it and swing across the gulf.
The downside of this, of course, is that often one feels as though completing the puzzle has involved finding the solution, rather than a solution. Stacking crates was dull, but at least it was individual. It's not so satisfying reaching the end of a segment when there was one (und precisely vun) way in which it could have been done. I have to say, though, that these moments are often illusory. Frequently I'd reach the top of the cliff or whatnot, feeling as though I'd just been following orders, and then looked back at the area below and realised that there were five or six different ways up after all. So maybe those of you with functioning brains will cope with it better than I did.

If you do have a functioning brain, though, you're probably going to be rather bored by the end, because the difficulty curve, once again, is almost perfectly flat. The final boss fight gave me some problems at first, mostly because you had to start from scratch if you died, and because only the Thief and the Warrior were any use and I'd spent most of the game playing as the Mage, but then I realised that there was one of the magical health-restore orbs just off the top of the screen and it was like playing Trivial Pursuits against a toddler.

That's not to say that I didn't get stuck at all - I did - but in most cases this wasn't because the puzzle was particularly difficult but rather because I'd missed some small but vital detail such as a destructible wall or a switch hidden behind some foliage. Once or twice I died from the combat, because enemies continually re-spawned behind me and shot me from off the screen, and also because once the Warrior has died you're really going to struggle as both the Thief and the Mage are rubbish without the right upgrades. Actually that's not fair - I found that simply levitating boxes and dropping them on goblins worked surprisingly well, but against large numbers of opponents you just die too fast to be of use, and later in the game enemies just destroy the boxes before you can hit them.
For the most part, Trine 2's approach to challenge is 'make more of it'. Enemies constantly respawn until you've killed the specified number, and the boss-fights are only difficult because their health pool is Olympic-sized. There was one wonderful moment in the middle of the game where I faced off against a massive fire-demon thing for the first time. It killed the Warrior and Mage with a single hit each, and I ran the Thief away as fast as I could. There was a large pit up ahead, and I fired a hook-shot into a beam, flew into the air and watched the demon run straight into the pit. It was a wonderful, organic moment of play and I enjoyed it immensely. 'Oh, you liked that!', said the game. 'Well, here are five more fire demons, and this time there are no pits. Enjoy!'.

Repetition also makes an unwelcome appearance in the level design. After an introduction sequence showcasing a stunning night-time city-scape reminiscent of Thief 2 and a gorgeous autumnal farm scene, the first half of the game takes place in the same (incredibly beautiful and well-drawn) swamp. Eventually I got tired of this and stopped to make a note, but the game seemed to resent it, and whisked me through a beach, a castle, a fire castle, a poison castle and some kind of ice-scape without giving me a chance to catch my breath or appreciate the levels at all.
What a lovely landscape. Too bad you only see it for 30 seconds.
I know this all sounds very negative, but Trine 2 isn't a bad game. It's very pretty (I really can't stress this enough - the artwork is really first-class), the characters all handle extremely well and the puzzles themselves are lots of fun. The music is good, though not as good as the original (partly because the levels are too long and so there's just too much repetition). The writing is laughably bad, though I suppose it's above average for most games. Enemy design is still repetitive, with goblins replacing Trine's skeletons as the default mook, but some effort has been made to introduce variety, with giant spiders and crabs and the aforementioned fire demon things making occasional appearances. The talent trees are now a bit more developed, with some particularly fun abilities including the Mage being able to magnetise metal objects and the Warrior flying with his shield. And new mechanics have been introduced for the puzzles, such as fluid physics and diverting fire and wind by means of pipes. And there is now proper multiplayer support, which is probably the single biggest improvement over the original.

Ultimately, Trine 2 just isn't as focused as Trine. The levels are too long, too easy and with too little variation to keep me hooked. With the original I was constantly succumbing to the just-one-more-level bug, and would often sneak ahead of my finanée, playing a level alone and then replaying it in co-op. With Trine 2 I frequently stopped playing out of boredom or annoyance. If you haven't played either, get the original and then stop. If you played the original and want more, then just replay it. I guarantee you'll enjoy it more than this.

Trine 2 is developed by Frozenbyte and is available on Steam and elsewhere for about £13.

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