They say that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. We’re not very fond of the cold, so it was a thought we clung to as we walked the bright but very chilly streets of Helsinki, Finland on our way to visit developer Frozenbyte, best known for the shoot-em up Shadowgrounds series. We were there to play their latest game, the very charming and atmospheric platform puzzler Trine, and hearing their candid account of trials undergone bringing it to PC, we felt rather ashamed equating our girly inability to deal with a little cold with real character building.
But the small team at Frozenbyte will happily testify that good things can come out of adversity. “It should be impossible that we made such a great game given the circumstances!” says Lauri Hyvarinen, Lead designer and CEO at Frozenbyte, now able to joke about the fact that Trine might never have happened had they not run into serious funding trouble in 2007 with their now defunct 3rd person shooter ‘Jack’. But while Hyvarinen and his team now see it as an opportunity and learning experience, it was heartbreaking, especially since almost half the team left. “We lost a lot of people, admits” Hyvarinen,” but fortunately not the most experienced people.”
One who stayed was producer Jukka Kokkonen, then working on a small side project, a simple adventure platformer with a pair of lowly trainees. As ‘Jack’ was winding up Hyvarinen saw the potential in the emergent Trine, albeit with the need to make some core design changes. “I offered the producer a trade off;” says Hyvarinen, “accept these design changes and all our professional staff will develop this title”. Kokkonen gladly accepted the massive production upscale, and the team passionately threw themselves into Trine, virtually re-designing the game from scratch.
What emerged from that feverish redesign is a beautiful looking, fiendishly clever puzzle platform game unlike any other we’ve played in recent memory. Trines massively charming visual style and fairy tale atmosphere just leap right out at you. We’ve not seen such a striking stylistic redefining of the 2D platform game since Viewtful Joe. Its comic fantasy tale of three characters; the sultry Thief, the flirtatious and inept Wizard and the dumber than a bag of nails Warrior, bound together by mystical stone to battle evil, is rendered in a gorgeous mix of 2D and 3D graphics, with a distinctive art style that instantly drew us into the unique twisted fairytale world of the game.
But as unique as the games aesthetic is, Trine’s physics based game play is it’s real treasure, revolving around the unique abilities of the Thief ,Wizard and Warrior trapped together and only able to emerge one at a time. You can alternate between the three, using their abilities and solving the various puzzles to progress through Trines 16 stages. It’s the variety of things you can do in what at first seems a simple nostalgic concept that makes Trine so promising. Each of the characters has their own specialized gameplay mechanic to deal with enemies and the physics based environment; the Thief is a long range character, killing enemies with her bow and able to use a Bionic Commando-like grapping hook to swing across chasms, the Wizard can conjure objects like boxes, platforms and manipulate things to solve puzzles, and the Warrior can fight, killing enemies with various melee weapons.
Experience shards dropped by enemies grant skill points used to upgrades abilities like better weapons for the fighters and the ability to conjure more objects for the Wizard. Switching between the trio quickly becomes instinctive, and we found ourselves thrilled by the high swinging escapes of the archer, then laughing as we cunning conjured platforms to avoid a particularly fiendish trap with the wizard, before bringing out the Warrior to bash the heck out of a bunch of pesky bad guys – all in the space of a few moments.
The Wizards powers are used by drawing or dragging objects on the screen with the mouse, and according to Hyvarinen most opened up Trines game play as a physics based puzzler. “ In the original concept physics were eye candy, nothing more,” he says , “ but looking at the Wizard we thought, why not go further and have real puzzle elements for the physics? “
It’s a puzzle concept that really seems to work, and it isn’t limited to the innovative wizard, we quickly found that different people had different solutions, using characters you might not expect to progress. Ironically, it means that watching some one else play Trine is an enjoyable but frustrating experience. We often found ourselves wanting to grab the controls and say, ‘Look, this is the solution, it’s so obvious!’
That’s partly deliberate in Trines design, puzzles have several solutions with multiple characters, but your ability to manipulate the world around you means there are far more solutions.
“Some of the testers playing the game have actually done things I never thought of, solutions that come out of the blue, and that’s really fun to see,” producer Jukka Kokkonen told us. We ourselves managed to pull a few tricks out of our sleeves when using the Wizard, (who isn’t really meant to be an offensive character), quickly discovering that conjured boxes could be dropped on the heads of enemies, crushing them. “It’s going to be fun to see what PC gamers can do when they get their hands on the game.
We’re going to need to take extra vacations just to watch all the video’s on Youtube!,” laughs Hyvarinen. While Trine is also being released on the PS3 as DLC, we found we could play with more finesse using the keyboard and mouse. Conjuring objects and aiming the grappling hook are far more accurate with a mouse, and of course PC gamers will get the most out of Trines visuals on PC. Unfortunately Trine doesn’t currently have online Co-op on PC, but it’s something Frozenbyte are working on for after launch.
Playing Trine we got something we don’t always get enough of; a real sense of accomplishment and satisfaction at a tough challenge, something it looks set to deliver in spades. “On the difficulty threshold, if you look back 15 years ago it would be easy” claims Hyvarinen,” but if you look now people have been playing games like the modern Prince of Persia, and might find it’s super hard for them.” To be fair, while we found the going occasionally tough, it was never frustrating, with the team currently balancing to maintain that.
Having such a troubled birth made Trine a unique game and Frozenbyte stronger as a developer according to Hyvarinen, and Trine is the result of that growth, “Now we know how bad it can be, “ he jokes, “we have to make great games, so we never have to go back!” Having played Trine, we reckon they never will, and their charming, challenging and beautiful looking game will be one to watch for.