Finnish developers Frozenbyte recently sent us an unfinished version of their forthcoming action adventure puzzler, Trine (rhymes with "fine"). I've been playing through the opening levels of this intriguing game - which is something like Lost Vikings in a lavish fantasy world, colliding with modern physics - and find myself entertained. Needless to say, written impressions follow.
The idea is this: three heroes have been bound together via a fluke of magic, and this means your player character is actually those three people, although one at a time. (In single player, at least: characters are presumably going to swap out for two and three player games.) You can be the wizard, the rogue, or the knight - alternating instantly between any of the three. This being a platform game, all three have the remarkable ability to jump many times their own height, but they also have a number of individual abilities that are essential for overcoming the challenges you face. The knight is tough, and can clobber the skeletons that come charging at you over the elaborately dangerous levels. The wizard can create objects to drop on pressure switches, or telekinetically drag stuff around - setting a pendulum swinging, or dropping a bridge so that you can cross, for example. The rogue, finally, is the most immediately entertaining to play: she has a bow and arrow for ranged damage, and a grappling hook that she can use to swing around the levels, and make daring leaps across spike-lined chasms.
What's most immediately striking about this side-scrolling platformer is how beautiful it is: every little detail of the game world has been meticulously sculpted: this is a game in which you can see the hand-crafted nature of the levels immediately. The painstaking construction of the environments really pays off: the 3D on a 2D plane makes this a pretty exciting game to look at, despite the trad nature of both platformers and fantasy adventures. The story-book narration and minor comedy stylings underline how intelligently pitched the look and feel of the game is. In other words, it's perfectly proportioned: it lands squarely in the realms of fantasy adventure, and yet it's artful and tasteful enough to be stimulating.
Of course all this presentational proficiency is mere skin flakes in the wind if the puzzles aren't up to snuff. Good thing, then, that what I've played so far is looking pretty solid. There's a distinct whiff of bodginess to my solutions to getting past some of the problems - the abilities of the wizard and rogue combined mean that there's often more than one way around an obstacle. But it also means that Frozenbyte have a huge palette of puzzle-proposing possibilities at their disposal: the grappling hook alone means you've got some serious jumping challenges (none of which seem to be instant-death, so far) before you even get to the multi-faceted magical powers of the Wizard. Once you start dragging things about with telekinesis, and magicking up stuff from thin air, well, it starts to get more complex, and more satisfying.
Before long you need to ping between the various characters pretty much constantly - swinging between platforms as the rogue, and transforming into the warrior before you land to enter melee, or dropping briefly into wizard form to flip a distant physics object before turning back into nimble rogue. This becomes second nature as you play, so that you start to think of possible solutions in terms of combos: can I grapple up to that barrier and smash the thinger with the knight in mid air? Hmm.
What all this means is that Frozenbyte are going to have to be game design ninjas to keep the pace all the way through, and not simply make the game's hundreds of puzzles increasingly hard as you progress. That - I fear - could cause most of us give up before the end. It's a tricky pitfall to avoid unless you take your puzzle model in the same direction as World Of Goo, which introduces more things to learn to use over time, rather than making the problem solving about using existing concepts to defeat more and more difficult situations. I hope Frozenbyte can maintain their momentum beyond these opening levels, because what I've seen so far is an accomplished and charming little game that I can't wait to play more of.
Finally, I like this image because it might sum up the fate of Frozenbyte's game pictorially:
Yes. I'd put gold on this one being a hit. And to finish, that recent trailer again: