Frozenbyte's magicky puzzler Trine 2 materialised on the internet a couple of days ago, having apparently not received the message that the industry isn't allowed to release any videogames after the last week of November. I for one am glad of this flagrant rule-breaking, and have spent a while in its world of colour and physics. Here's what I made of it. Also: group hug!
I feel good! I feel great, in fact. Trine 2's ability to bring about instant tranquility has been oft-documented on this blog, but for once I'm not talking about its pretty colours, dreamy music and general air of goodwill. I'm taking about its puzzles.
They're inspired, and they do so much with just a few simple concepts: primarily physics, water, air and fire. Almost every screen, I go through the same spiral of emotion, presumption and surprise.
1) Oh, this looks pretty much like the last room, I can breeze through in no time pretty much just by jumping to the right.
2) OK, that didn't work.
3) Right, time to fiddle with summoning crates and planks to make stairs and platforms, and failing that firing grappling hooks at the ceiling.
5) There's no possible way to get over there, I'm giving up in a huff.
6) Hang on, what if... Oh-ho-ho. Oh, that is clever. That is so astoundingly clever. This game is amazing.
There's always some extra object you can move, some element that can be fired through a portal to activate an effect on the other end, something else that can be swung from, or smashed, or wedged against a summoned object. It puts me in mind of the first Portal, the better of the two Portals at offering Eureka! moments you felt you'd devised yourself rather than being signposted to. There's such an elegance in the way a solved puzzle plays out - this is a game that's rarely in a hurry, so the level's parts move slowly but surely into place, and a new path gently assembles itself before your eyes. The entire scene transforms from question to answer in a way that always makes perfect sense but seems no less magical for it. That's where that lovely colour and light really comes into play. Even when smacking goblins with a sword, the game seems cheerful to a fault.
What? No! I'm not going to breakdown any of the puzzles for you. That would entirely defeat the object. What I can do is talk about some of the key concepts. You're controlling the same trio of characters as in the first Trine, though there is no need whatsoever to have played that to enjoy or understand this. There are three guys, they once did a thing, now they're doing another thing, got it? One's a warrior, who can stab monsters and smash certain obstacles. One's a rogue, who can shoot arrows and use a retractable/extendable grappling hook on wooden surfaces. One's a wizard, who can levitate certain objects and summon crates and planks. Together, they are... well, moving gradually to the right of the screen, and trying to collect glowy things en route so they can level up and improve their abilities.
If I had a complaint, it would be so gentle as to not really count, and it would be that it's that these guys don't get an entirely equal deal - though it's not far off. The warrior, specifically, mostly comes into play to hit goblins and a couple of bosses in perfunctory sequences that the game doesn't really need, and feel like a bit of a sap to perceived action-hunger in the game's audience. His shield is invaluable for creeping past shooty plants and jets of flame unscathed though, so he's an invaluable part of the team. Similarly, the rogue's arrows don't get too much of a look in outside of the infrequent combat, but her rope-swinging is perhaps the game's most important navigational tool.
The wizard invariably ends up being my most-used character, as his crate summoning can create new routes and potentially even ad-hoc alternative solutions. For instance, trying to create a wobbly bridge by summoning a plank over a gulf then balancing a crate on one end to stop it falling off. It usually doesn't work, but I enjoy the freedom to experiment and the fact that something always happens when I do.
Then there are the puzzles that are character-independent, like shifting portals around with big levers - sometimes to create a route for yourself, but more cleverly to get something at point A to appear at the otherwise inaccessible point B. Think Portal 2's paint puzzles, but with the elements and cauldrons and magic plants. The variety it squeezes out of its characters and systems - which gradually mount as the game goes along - is the reason to sing a happy song. This could so easily have become form puzzles for completionists, but like World of Goo it keeps on conjuring up variations on its key themes. Plus, Trine 2 reliably finds the sweetspot between difficult and easy: rarely too obvious, but usually its solutions swim into focus before frustration sets in.
That said, there's a second layer of game in there, wherein if you want to collect all the glowy upgrade orbs on each level you'll have to tax your brain and patience an awful lot harder - master the game, not merely revel in it. Being an impatient sort, I tended to make it through each level with about 60 or 70% of orbs in-hand, so my ability upgrades didn't exactly arrive thick and fast. To the game's credit, they didn't need too: these expanded powers, such as being able to summon more crates at once, fire frost arrows or lobbing a ruddy great hammer around, aren't necessary for solving puzzles, but rather open up more ways to do it. Again, I focused on the wizard, all the better for building custom staircases.
In short: it's best puzzle game I've played this year (edit - er, other than Space Chem, which I mistakenly remembered as coming out last year. Oops!), as well as being one of the prettiest scenes my monitor's offered me for a while. In contrast to the visual charm the script is throwaway and oddly disassociated, so it doesn't hold the faintest candle to Portal 2 in that regard, but in its flexibility, variety and its ingenuity it's got Valve beat.
(Important note: I still haven't tried the co-op, despite regular pleas to the RPS Hivemind that we join hands and sing kumbaya for an hour or two. I'll have another go at convincing them next week, and failing that I guess I'll have to play with some strangers.)