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Review: Trine (single-player)

6:00 PM on 07.06.2009 // Anthony Burch

We've been following Trine for a while now, and with good reason: a game that provides mishmash of platforming, action, and physics-based puzzle solving involving three different instantly interchangeable protagonists does tend to catch the eye.

Despite being independently developed, the guys at Frozenbyte have bragged that Trine delivers a "full retail experience" thanks to its multi-hour story mode and prettier-than-you'd-expect graphics. Though only the $30 PC version is currently available on Steam (with a $20 PSN version forthcoming to North America), do the devs' promises have any weight to them? 

Hit the jump for our review of Trine.

Update: This review only covers the single-player portion of the game.

Trine (PC [reviewed], PSN)
Developer: Frozenbyte
Publisher: Southpeak (PC), Atlus (PSN)
Released:
July 3, 2009 (PC; PSN version hits North America sometime later this month)
MSRP: $29.99 for PC, $19.99 for PSN

I can, without a doubt in my mind, proclaim that Trine is a very good game. With an equal amount of certainty, I can say that it isn't a great one. It's quite pretty and its basic mechanics are solid, but it just doesn't go far enough with its own concept.

Trine's core conceit is as follows: a knight, a mage, and a thief, for reasons mostly irrelevant, have been trapped in the same body. Each have their own unique abilities: the thief has a ranged attack and a grappling hook, the knight smashes things and can use his shield to block, and the wizard can either levitate things or make various useful objects appear out of thin air. With the press of a single button, you can switch between any of the three instantaneously.

Upon initially hearing the concept, I thought it sounded very Lost Vikings-ish; three player characters who cannot be controlled simultaneously must work together to accomplish their goals. While Trine is much more action-oriented than the classic SNES title, the description is still more or less solid. You'll need the knight to take out the legions of undead, the wizard to manipulate the environment and create a clear path for his brethren, and the thief to use her acrobatics to jump and swing past danger.

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Switching between the three characters is a breeze; there's a weird power in being able to hit a single button and instantly have your entire ability set change completely. The characters all individually control quite well and, under the right circumstances, are a lot of fun to play as individually. If your knight should ever get surrounded by a half-dozen skeleton warriors, or your thief should find herself in a position to swing from platform to platform like Tarzan, you'll find that each of the three characters can provide vastly different, vastly entertaining experiences every once in a while, regardless of the core character-switching mechanic.

Much of the game consists of physics puzzles that, while initially seeming clunky and imprecise, actually allow for a surprising amount of player freedom once you get the hang of the protagonists' abilities. 

Let's say that there's a powerup you want across a chasm too wide to jump across. As the wizard, you can materialize a plank of metal to act as a bridge, or summon a large block and use it as a jumping platform. At one point, I was pleasantly surprised when, finding that bridges and blocks just weren't allowing me access to a really lofty secret part of the map, I found a cube in the environment that was made of some material the thief could grapple onto. After levitating the cube into the little nook where I wanted to go, I switched to the thief, hit it with my grappling hook, and climbed all the way up to the secret area. Upon colleting the powerup I'd worked so hard to get, I felt oddly empowered: I'd used the game mechanics in such a way that it almost felt like cheating (given how hard it was to make the goddamn cube stay up on that ledge, I'm almost certain that was not the intended solution), but was still perfectly fair within the game rules. There's just a hell of a lot that can be done once you start mixing and playing around with the protagonists' different abilities.

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Which is sort of the problem.

While the optional experience potions and secret powerup items strewn about the levels require the sort of creative, multi-protagonist strategies I described above, the general level design is simply nowhere near as imaginative as it should be. Every single level throws together some action sequences, some platforming, and some puzzle solving, but always in a friendly, low-risk kind of way. If one or even two of your heroes die, you'll probably still be able to get through the rest of the level without them (unless you've only got your wizard left and are surrounded by enemies, or something). Your short-term goals can usually be solved with a bit of dexterity and some spellcasting, without much real thought. See a big gap? Materialize a floating platform, build a bridge, or jump over it. Find a big weight that needs to be moved? Use the mage to pull down the attached counterweight. Roughly 50% of the level design consists of "puzzles," but they're so easily and immediately solved that I'd hesitate to even call them that.

Trine doesn't often feel too repetitive throughout its 3- to 5-hour story mode thanks to the RPG-lite leveling system and the intrinsic satisfaction of the character-switching mechanic, but it's incredibly hard to play through level after level of pretty good combat and puzzles without wishing the game were something much more daring, and maybe a little more structured. About halfway through the game, I was done with all the easily-conquered puzzles and platforming. I wanted to see some stuff that would expand my understanding of what Trine's mechanics were capable of. What Portal, Braid, and World of Goo did for their respective mechanics, I wanted to see done with the whole instantaneous character-switching idea. I wanted to frantically switch between thief, mage, and knight, using each of their abilities to solve mind-expanding problems that blended all of their unique play styles into situations that would make me exclaim, as those other three games did, "wow -- that's clever!"

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There is exactly one moment in all of Trine that comes close to accomplishing this. As a rising flood of lava threatens to melt your entire party and a malevolent, unseen force continually summons objects to block your path, you must frequently and frantically switch between the three heroes to go up, up, up as quick as possible to avoid your enemy's blockades and the fiery death below you. The knight will have to destroy obstacles before immediately switching to the thief, who will grapple up as high as possible before switching to the wizard, who must quickly create bridges or floating platforms. During this sequence, the three characters truly worked together as one cohesive whole, and though I ended up dying a lot, I was truly wowed. As I played through this level, I thought, "Yes! This is finally becoming the game I wanted to play! I wonder what comes next!"

As it turns out? The end credits.

Trine has a fantastic core concept and occasional flashes of true brilliance, but it just doesn't go far enough in exploring its own mechanics. It delivers a perfectly entertaining few hours of gameplay -- much more time than I was expecting from an indie game, honestly -- but I could never shake the feeling that it just plain wasn't as good as it could have been. It'll more than likely be worth the $20 asking price when it comes out on PSN later this month. Whether the currently available PC version is worth $30 ultimately depends on how much you value a few hours of very fun, if not mind-blowing, entertainment.

Update: Evidently, the PC version includes a fiendishly hidden multiplayer mode. Inaccessible from the main menu, it can only be enabled through the controller options: as a result, I went through the entire game completely unaware that the PC version even had a multiplayer component. As a result my review score will not change, but just consider this a single-player only review.

Score: 7.5 -- Good (7s are solid games that definitely have an audience. Might lack replay value, could be too short or there are some hard-to-ignore faults, but the experience is fun.)




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