Indie Finnish developers Frozenbyte last caught our attention with their top-down shooter, Shadowgrounds, which was a little Aliens-y. Their latest game could scarcely be further way from that gloom and gunfire: Trine (as in "fine") is a side-scrolling, puzzle-led, fairy-tale platformer, built in the Swiss-Army-character-swap tradition of Lost Vikings. But is it any good? And what's with the pricing? Here's Wot I Think.
From the outset it's clear that Frozenbyte are now drawing with the expensive crayons: the presentation of Trine is wonderful, and the side-scrolling world is resplendent - perhaps peerless - in its glittery, clattery detail. Mushrooms puff spores, dark crystals gleam and creak, old metals clank and clunk, wood splinters and shatters, magma boils, acid burps, hisses, and bubbles, the atmosphere shimmers and scintillates. The fantasy world depicted here could scarcely be more traditional, and yet here's another art team showing us that the can nevertheless create something that we want to see more of, that we want to explore and record. It's beautiful: especially when you deck a fire-breathing skeleton with a large hammer.
Of course the warmly spoken voiceover and general attitude of "bedtime story with jumping" helps with the framing of all that splendor. But secondary to the success of the game itself in actually keeping us playing. The conceit is this: three characters must save the land from undead evil, and they are trapped in the one being. Knight, wizard and thief can all manifest at the touch of a button unless, of course, you're playing a multiplayer game, which I'll come to in a minute. The result is that I played it through in just a couple of sittings, to the neglect of much more important, pressing tasks.
The knight is good at hitting things. Initially he gets a sword and shield, which he can use to smack stuff, and to protect himself from some attacks. The shield seems a little inconsistent, and I'd definitely like it to have added a greater level of resistance to attacks, and ultimately I didn't use it a great deal. The knight is later able to pick stuff up and throw it (not all that useful) and to smack stuff with a hammer (very useful indeed). He is actually the least useful of the three characters, despite being handy against the hordes of undead that come pouring onto the screen to try and stop you. (The characters chat to each other as the game goes on, and raised a little smile when the knight said: "All this jumping around... it's not for grown men.")
The wizard's powers are far more benign, but can nevertheless be used offensively. Initially he's able to create a cube, then a plank, and then a floating platform, with a mouse gestures in the air. The cube and plank can - as a last resort - be dropped on an enemy, crushing them. Using the cubes, planks and platforms can often be the fastest way to get through any given puzzle, assuming you can't just ninja your way through with the thief. The wizard also has a telekinetic ability, allowing you move various physics objects, including stone blocks or fixed mechanisms, around the screen. This way buttons can be pressed, chasms bridged, enemies blocked.
The thief has a bow, with which she can shoot arrows, and later multiple arrows and fire arrows, but she also has a grapple. The grapple, which can shoot off any piece of wood along the 2D plane of the game, is the most powerful tool early on. You can bypass entire puzzles at points in the proceedings, and also move very quickly out of dangerous situations. The speedy, very jump-capable thief is, therefore, a very powerful asset in the first two things of the game. The ranged attack of the bow is also extremely useful: spamming arrows means you often don't have to risk melee combat at all. I spent quite a lot of time as the thief.
The puzzles generally consist of a number of platforms that are unreachable, with a series of problems through which you must navigate to reach the unreachable, or to unlock major gates. Blocks must be stacked telekinetically, barriers must be smashed, fireballs dodged, acid jumped, deep-dark waterways swum, all while fighting off the many skeleton enemies. The only puzzles that had me stumped for more than a couple of minutes were ones where the route wasn't quite clear, or where I wasn't thinking with my entire toolset. Generally the challenges the game sets you are all just-about-hard-enough, so that you smile as you get past them, rather than becoming stuck and enraged. In fact, it's arguable the toolset provided by the game is actually too flexible in many cases. I found myself sidestep what seemed like entire puzzle sets with a clever use of the grapple, or a combination of bodged jumping and the wizard's created items. You feel like you bodged or cheated your way past any number of situations.
Death is never too much of a problem either, as you're only ever pushed back to the previous checkpoint, and possibly forced to change character. I was regular reduced to the wizard, having killed knight and thief, and still managed to hop, skip and bridge my way through to the next checkpoint, where my other aspects were resurrected (albeit with reduced health).
This is rather different in multiplayer. Having more than one character on screen is a fascinating difficulty multiplier. Every single puzzle must be approached differently, because you have to figure out how to get both people through the obstacle. As a solo player I could often rely on a collapsing structure or a deft sequence of continuous jumps, and these weren't possible multiplayer, because the second player could get left behind. The entire process changes and slows: with the puzzles being entirely different prospects for the pair of us. I only managed to play through a chunk of the game with two of us (keyboard/mouse, 360 pad), but it rapidly became frustrating. I can't even imagine how difficult it must be with three people: either impossible, or so hard that it no longer becomes enjoyable, I suspect. I'm certain some folks will get a kick out of it, but it's not the kind of co-op that really appeals to me.
Other infuriations included the bats: swarming mobs that occasionally result in insta-death because you can't get distance from them fast enough. And the final level, which is a bit of a silly difficulty spike.
For the most part, however, this is a splendid sideways romp through fairy-tale physics, ideal for the whimsical solo player, or a trio of highly co-operative chums. I can't stress how charming the game world is: Frozenbyte have excelled themselves, and created something genuinely memorable. I took my time to explore and idle, and still made it through in six or so hours, with a couple more to get fed up of multiplayer. What this means is that Trine is, if you've the slightest whiff of interest in an exquisitely beautiful puzzle-platformer, definitely a game you should buy. But probably not at the current £20/$30 price points, unless you're remarkably cash rich. When the price falls lower it's going to a definite purchase, and we'll keep an eye out for that happening, not least because I wouldn't want Frozenbyte to suffer if this game wasn't a commercial success. Creatively, it very definitely is.
For further ruminations, you can sample the demo for yourself.