Tuesday, 9 March 2021

IMHO - Trine 4

Forget the metrovanias, survival games and simulators that have made up this series so far, it's puzzle platformer time! When I cut my gaming teeth on Super Mario Bros. and Commander Keen, then refined my palate on Oddworld and Heart of Darkness, is it really surprise to anybody when I say that a physics-based puzzle platformer like Trine 4 is very much my jam?

In Trine 4, the player takes the role of three fantasy heroes, the object-summoning wizard, grappling-hook-wielding thief and good-for-hitting-things knight, and must switch between them to progress through various obstacles in a generic fantasy world, searching for a missing generic fantasy prince. Sure, the storyline isn't going to win any awards for originality, the writers were fine with hanging that lampshade and just letting the gameplay, the characters and the art speak for themselves, but when the game looks and feels this good, I'm more than willing to cut them some slack in that department.

How much desktop wallpaper bait can one game feature?

The art is definitely the first thing to mention. I'm not so used to this blogging thing, and normally screenshots for the posts are a bit of an afterthought, but while playing through this game my screenshot folder quickly filled up as I encountered new areas and took the time to soak in the lovingly-rendered 3D backgrounds to this otherwise 2D game. The world feels fun, not realistic but definitely inhabited, and despite so much attention being given to the art it doesn't detract from or confuse the gameplay at all, which is an impressive feat and shows that the art directors at Frozenbyte seriously know their stuff.

Give me more puzzles like this one where I have to use all my characters

The artists are definitely the stars of the show, though. The puzzles which are the meat of the game feel good, the characters react well, the mouse and keyboard control scheme is perfect and the physics system just works, but I can't help feeling just slightly underwhelmed by the challenge provided. In some ways the progression works well, the characters receive a new ability in most levels to put a new spin on the gameplay and the complexity slowly ramps up, but it all feels just a little bit stretched out and a little bit repetitive. This could have been due to the need to make a noticeably longer game after Trine 3, a game that was universally panned for being too short, but I haven't played any of the series before, so to me it just felt like the game started with extremely trivial puzzles and that ones that actually caused me have to stop and think rather than instantly knowing the solution (even if the execution took me a few goes and a few unnecessary deaths) were few and far between. That's possibly even more of a concern given that I didn't already have a couple of essentially identical games under my belt, and I can't help but feel like as well as much as this is a polished title that just works, maybe this series has pretty much shown us everything that it's got in the warehouse and deserves a well-earned retirement. That's a real pity, because the puzzles that do require a new and interesting combination of the character abilities to complete are really very satisfying indeed, I just wish there were more of them.

Now just to work out this last step...

That said, the nature of the linear progression storyline means that getting that balance right is admittedly a difficult problem, and I think Frozenbyte have landed on the right side of it by letting me  finish the campaign without completely grokking the fine details of how all of my abilities worked (the dream rope is weird, man) ,as if a player runs into a puzzle that they cannot solve, they're locked out of the rest of the game. Perhaps in this age of easily accessible Lets Plays and walk-throughs that's not such a bad thing as it used to be, but as a player that steadfastly refuses to use such crutches, my Trine 4 experience could easily have been cut short by any puzzle room too opaque for me to be able to solve just by throwing all my tools at the wall and seeing what sticks.  The designers have made the right choice by putting most of the harder puzzles in optional extra areas, gating bonus goodies rather than quest progression, even if it means many players will miss out on them.

Experience already grabbed shows up as blue drops, so you can tell where you've already been

To encourage players to return an revisit areas they missed, Trine 4 features a handy tracking system that lets you see where you missed the bonus areas and return there instantly later on to collect the goodies, which is super handy. Unfortunately, if you return after collecting the abilities gained during the game, many of these once challenging puzzles become trivial, so even then it's hard to present truly challenging puzzles, except right towards the closing stages of the game. Still, it's enough to make me want to return to this title (maybe after I've gotten a little further ahead in this monthly blogging thing), try to get that elusive 100% and unlock that tempting door in the starting screen, that I hope hides a final set of more difficult levels.

Of course, it's not completely fair to criticise the puzzles just yet, as I'm not playing the game as it's meant to be played. Though single player like I've played through it is an option, Trine 4 is truly designed to be played by a team of two or preferably three, with each player acting as one character and each of them having to be able to support each other to traverse through each level. Apparently the multiplayer version of each level is slightly trickier and the puzzles are inherently more challenging when you can't just cheese them with lucky timing, so I'd love to try it out as it was intended some time. If you've got the game in the bundle this month as well (or if you bought it, I guess) and are interested in giving multiplayer a try, do drop me a line. There's also an 'unlimited' mode for up to 4 players where everyone can be any player at any time, and that just sounds like giggles all round.

I guess it's been a couple of minutes. Time to fight some more...goat people?

You may have noticed that I haven't mentioned the combat, which serves its function of breaking up the puzzles and giving poor Pontius the knight something to do other than stand by while Amadeus and Zora do most of the heavy lifting puzzlewise, but isn't otherwise anything to write home about. It works, but it's definitely the ugly cousin. The first main boss fight of the game was just a puzzle challenge, and while the later ones had some puzzling elements, I can't help but wish that they all had a little more of the platforming and ability interaction and a little less of the 'hit things with your sword' stuff going on.

Some quick numbers

Plenty more where that came from
  • Time to finish the main campaign: 9.2 hours
  • Completion bar percentage: 61.2%
  • Chasms dropped into: A multitude. Some many times.
  • Walruses rescued: 1
  • Rating: 8 solid 7's out of 10.

The rankings so far

See you next time, heroes of Trine

Another easy one to rank, at least against the competition so far. Even after finishing the game I still feel a compulsion to go back and 100% it, which is a good sign. Perhaps not an all-time favourite, but definitely a solid title worth a few hours of your time.

  1. Trine 4
  2. The Wild Eight
  3. Valfaris
  4. Train Station Renovation
Sadly, all good things must come to an end. The dice roll came up with 2, so next up we're playing Werewolf: The Apocalypse - Heart of the Forest.

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