Fusing with two other people would be a lot of hassle, really, especially if they happened to include any one of an incompetent but promiscuous wizard, a beer-guzzling knuckle-headed warrior or a devious Altaïr-with-tits. What misfortune, then, that these three accidentally combine in Trine, everyone’s favourite 2009 Finnish-developed side-scrolling physics-driven puzzle-platformer. Ahem.
At the start of the game, our charming English narrator informs us - tongue firmly in cheek all the while - that our heroes are seeking the titular enchanted object in order to pursue various ends. We’re then whisked off to a fantastical land for a triplet of short tutorials which end upon each adventurer’s discovery of the device. Attempting to grab it, they become stuck in something resembling a collaborative version of the ski-slope licking scene in Dumb and Dumber, though obviously via some kind of dubious arcane magic rather than ice and stupidity. All of a sudden, they’re one person. Or, rather, still three people, but only one of them can be physically present at any given time. Strangely enough they can still chat away as usual, but we’ll mark this down to a mystical shared sentience and get on with the quest for freedom.
Rather conveniently, this union grants us a veritable smorgasboard of abilities to use en route. Each character comes as you’d expect. The pointy-hatted one can cast spells, and though he isn’t actually very good at it, he can still summon a mean box and is your go-to guy for puzzle solving. Our bumbling, chubby friend, however, is in less doubt about where his strengths lie, filling the fat-man’s role as the least agile but most powerful of the bunch and is in his element when surrounded by skeletal swordsmen or those bloody bats. The agile thief, therefore, is the logical halfway point between the two. With her trusty bow she can more than hold her own in a sticky situation, and her grappling hook means she’s the most able to surmount obstacles. A nice, balanced trio - thinker, fighter, bit of both.
So far, so standard-ish. We’ve had multiple characters in a platform game before, maybe even one of the Finnish-developed side-scrolling puzzle-variety. What sets Trine apart is the “physics-based” bit. Nvidia’s widely used PhysX technology, which should be familiar to most PC players, works tirelessly in the background, ensuring objects act and react accordingly - it’s a great engine alright. Again, though; it’s familiar, nothing new.
Maybe banging on that the game’s brilliance can be attributed to its physics is a bit of an oversight. For starters it does Frozenbyte a grave disservice. Trine is great, not due to the presence of the system, but how it’s deployed. The level design is absolutely fantastic, utilising the semi-realistic gravity, weight and momentum to stunning effect. It can be difficult to outline exactly how this is achieved, for it’s something each player should experience for him or herself. Though the path through the game is linear, the approach to each obstacle or combat situation certainly is not, and by placing in the player’s hands some relatively simplistic tools with which to influence the world around them, Trine crafts conundrums that have three, four, five potential solutions, whether the developer intended them or not.
In the last two or three years we’ve seen more open-ended approaches to game logic. The belated discovery by the wider industry of the notion that dynamism and the capacity to play the game our own way is at last being evidenced, and truly emergent experiences that give the player real agency in their journeys are becoming more common. The superlative and incredibly important Far Cry 2 springs to mind, though Trine doesn’t quite aspire to that same level. It’s on a smaller scale, but one that fits very nicely indeed with what would be considered by many as the core; running and jumping. It successfully welds an emergent system onto a traditional structure and mechanics, providing similar thrills to that of last year’s under appreciated Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts by taking an analogous approach.
What this means is that, whether you’re blocking enemies into a corner and crushing them with rocks, resting a bridge on two mines so you can cross a stretch of water or even swing-kicking a skeleton’s shield away before landing and smashing his face with a hammer, you feel like an absolute genius. There are a few occasions that the logic breaks weirdly, or a puzzle can be gamed by dodgily hopping up a slope, but that’s the nature of the beast because of the reliance on something so, well, unreliable as computer simulated physics.
Aside from the level design’s utter genius, the tacked on layer of role-playing style progression actually works in that it provides a slow trickle of new, useful weapons and abilities, complementing the play experience as it trundles along. Besides, nobody can argue with a flaming sword. In terms of visual design, Trine is an absolute treat, serving up the most colourful, vivid lovelyscapes this side of Super Mario Galaxy. That the graphical fidelity itself is also of a high standard is a bonus. The charming beauty and sense of humour of this magical kingdom is also conveyed via the lovely music, which swells and glides along behind it all, providing the perfect companion to the onscreen action. All in all, it’s very well presented, with a layer of polish comparable to what one would expect from a triple-A title.
Trine is a mini-revolution for the 2D platformer. It’s engaging because it doesn’t compromise itself by forcing prescribed solutions down the player’s throat. The Ebertists don’t like it, and neither do the hardcore traditionalists, because both groups, despite being opposed on so much, have a distaste for removal of authorship whether they’d like to admit it or not. If you want to show a movie critic a platformer that fits into his narrow definition of art, roll out Braid. If you’d rather play a whimsical, self-deprecating adventure that makes no assumptions and might just be quietly shaping the genre to come, give Trine a shot - it absolutely deserves your attention.
Eight out of ten