# Posts Tagged‘puzzle’

## SquareCells: Mine Sweeper’s Evil Twin.

I have a love/hate relationship with pure logic puzzle games. On the one hand I do enjoy the challenge they provide, especially when they encourage you to think in new ways in order to solve a problem. On the other hand however they tend to have strict solutions, something which irritates me when I find what I think is a viable solution. SquareCells is the latest game I decided to frustrate myself with and, whilst I’m sure it’s logically sound, I can’t help but feel that the puzzle design is sometimes lacking the required information in order to solve it correctly.

The rules of SquareCells are relatively simple, you have to remove a certain number of blocks based on a series of numbers provided. These numbers can indicate how many cells are in a particular row or column, how they’re grouped together or even the order in which they appear. The rules are introduced slowly so you have a chance to get a feel for them before another layer of complexity gets added in. The boards also get substantially larger over time making simply guessing the correct squares that much harder. You can, of course, click your way through everything to find the solution and then go back and redo the puzzle but that feels like cheating yourself more than anything else.

For the first two “worlds” I felt like there was a pretty logical way to approach most of the puzzles. You had to find the single row which was immutable, I.E. one that was fully described by it’s row numbers. Then from there you could continue to extrapolate the composition of the other rows. However past row 3 I couldn’t seem to locate the first row which often meant I had to take a few wild guesses in order to get started. Whilst I’m sure I was missing something it certainly seemed like some puzzles didn’t have enough information to get you past that initial hump. This, of course, only really matters if you’re wanting to do the puzzle right on the first go but going back and redoing puzzles feels counter to the SquareCell’s purpose.

There were a couple of the smaller puzzles which I felt like I found a perfectly valid solution to which, sadly, weren’t correct. I get that this isn’t a game that allows for emergent behaviour but it did annoy me that a solution I thought should work didn’t. Upon closer inspection I did see that there was some information I wasn’t incorporating (number of blocks left to remove) but that didn’t make me feel any better.

Overall I felt SquareCells was a very well designed logic puzzle game even if I felt that I was operating on less information than what was required to complete it. Indeed given enough time I’m sure I could’ve figured out the requisite tricks to pass every level perfectly however the reward just wasn’t there to keep me coming back. Still I’m also the kind of person who gets inappropriately mad when trying to complete a sudoku puzzle so maybe I’m not the best judge for a game like SquareCells.

Rating: 7/10

SquareCells is available on PC right now for \$2.99. Total play time was 2 hours with 43% of the achievements unlocked.

## The Magic Circle: Perfectionism vs Fandom.

All gamers have an idea of a game they want to make. It could be anything from a novel mechanic through to a fully fleshed out story, but it’s there hanging around in the back of our minds. However for those of us who’ve attempted to bring that idea into reality we often come crashing into the cold hard truth of the games industry: making games is hard. For the precious few that make it through the process (and fewer still who see success from it) the scars of game development are forever burned into their psyche. The Magic Circle is a game that chronicles this journey, with all the dark humour and self-loathing that permeates much of the game industry.

To its fans The Magic Circle was a brilliant example of interactive fiction, a game deserving of the title of cult classic. The sequel however has been one of the most beleaguered projects in the history of gaming, having been in development for some 20 years with little to show for it. The creator’s perfectionism has kept the sequel in a perpetual state of unfinishedness, never being satisfied enough to ship anything. You are one of the games’ long time fans who’s been hired as a playtester for the current iteration of the game. Whilst your experience confirms that yes, there is a game, it’s no where near complete. However when you finish the small section you’re contacted by an AI from a previous generation of the game who shows you how to take control of this unfinished world.

The Magic Circle looks and feels like an unfinished game, although under the hood it’s anything but. The choice of a bleak black and white aesthetic for one world (and a low-res, 8-bit colour palette for the other) reinforces that unfinished feeling. Interestingly though the whole world is properly textured as evidenced by the fact that your character brings colour wherever it steps. It’s the kind of stuff you’d expect to see in a pre-alpha or similarly beta indie game although there’s an obvious layer of polish that would otherwise be missing from such early stage games. Suffice to say Question Games have done a good job of creating a “finished-unfinished” world.

Like most early stage games The Magic Circle is a mishmash of different ideas that are all cobbled together. The initial game starts out as something of a walking simulator with you just viewing the scenery. However it quickly transforms into a kind of puzzle game where you can modify the behaviour of enemies and objects within the world. This can be something as simple as making something your ally instead of your enemy or completely changing the way an object moves or interacts. This is how you start breaking the game, changing things around so you can access more areas that you shouldn’t be able to. Finally at the end you’re put in charge of actually developing a game level and you’ll get reviewed on how fun it is. This is all the while you’re privy to commentary from the game’s developers, giving you an insight into the creator’s vision and why it’s never quite managed to be released.

The initial game modification section of The Magic Circle is quite fun as there are numerous different ways to approach many of the puzzles when you first start out. These start to thin out a bit as you get towards the later puzzles as most of them really only have one solution. Still the rudimentary control you have over the NPCs does present some rather fun opportunities like sending wave after wave of rats at the Hive Queen in an attempt to defeat her. Of course there’s only so much mucking about you can do before you’ve found all the secrets and want to move on. Thankfully that’s not hard at all and it’s at that point the game takes on a very meta twist.

It’s at this point you’re thrust into a demo game for E4 and given the choice of whether or not to muck with it. This then leads onto you watching them playing the demo live on stage whilst all chaos breaks loose. Then after that you’re given the task of creating the sequel with a rudimentary level editor. It’s actually pretty interesting to try and figure out how to maximise the review score at the end and the commentary given to you by Old Pro is quite entertaining. You’re then thrown back to your desktop where you’re able to replay the game, redo your level or simply click around to find out some more details about the game.

It’s interesting to see a satirized version of events that are familiar to many gamers, namely sequels that seem to be forever in development due to its creator’s perfectionism. Indeed it feels like a game more for developers, industry insiders and observers more than anything. If anything the story is more like a 3 hour long treatise on the pitfalls of developing a game and the potential boons for those who manage to stick it through. Whilst I enjoyed it, even Ishmael’s long rant about how it’s all about the player and their destructive wishes, I know that kind of story isn’t for everyone.

The Magic Circle demonstrates in a beautifully satirical way the agony that is game development. The world is expertly crafted to resemble a pre-alpha game that’s a mash of too many ideas, all coexisting in the same code base which end up mashing together in unintended ways. This is reflected in the game play which is based around messing with things and changing up behaviours so you can access things you otherwise wouldn’t be able to. The story is one that definitely has a specific target audience in mind and, whilst it might not be for everyone, definitely plays to its strengths as a piece of commentary on the industry. It might not meet my criteria for a must-play game for everyone but if, like me, you feel like a part of the greater games industry, then there’s definitely a lot to like in The Magic Circle.

Rating: 8/10

The Magic Circle is available on PC right now for \$19.99. Total play time was approximately 3 hours with 36% of the achievements unlocked.

## Thief: Subtly Only Gets You So Far.

The gold standard for stealth game play has, and probably always will be, the original Thief series. It wasn’t that it was one of the first games to get stealth mechanics right, I believe that title belongs to the Metal Gear series (even though I’ve never played any of them), more that the blend of mechanics, cues and emphasis on finesse rather than force made the series stand out amongst its peers. It’s been a very long time between drinks for the series though with the last title, Thief: Deadly Shadows, being released almost a decade ago. The latest instalment, Thief, is an attempt to reboot the series for a modern audience something which may be at odds at the long time fans of the master thief Garret

After taking a job from Basso, Garrett’s only friend and contact for all this nefarious and underworldly, you find yourself atop a glorious manor accompanied by your former apprentice Erin. However something doesn’t feel right about this particular job as you witness something strange, an otherworldly ritual that shakes the very world. You’re just about to pull out when Erin, who was watching the ritual from on top of a glass dome, falls. You try to save her but it’s too late and she falls down right into the middle of the ritual, disappearing from sight. Suddenly it’s a year later and you have no recollection of what has happened.

Thief certainly impresses graphically as all the environments pack in an incredible amount of detail, something which is key to the core game play mechanics. There’s atmospheric and lighting effects everywhere which can turn some of the most dull environments into wonderful screenshot bait. Having said all that I feel like it could’ve been better as whilst they’re definitely on the upper end of the scale there are some sections where it’s obvious that sacrifices had to be made for the large number of platforms that were targeted. This did mean that I rarely had any performance issues but I’m usually happy to sacrifice that for a little more eye candy.

Unsurprisingly Thief is a stealth game, one where the objective of your current quest can be completed in a variety of different ways. The tools you have at your disposal are wide and varied, ranging from tools that will help keep you concealed to weapons of massive destruction. There’s also two different upgrade systems that allow you to tailor Garrett’s abilities to your play style of choice allowing you to become the master of the shadows or a brutal predator that lurks around every corner. Indeed whilst Thief’s pedigree is in stealthy game play either play style seems viable, even a mix of both if either one of them starts to wear on you.

In terms of retaining the trademark feel that all Thief games have this latest instalment does it quite well. Whilst the environments aren’t exactly massive open world sandboxes like Assassin’s Creed there’s enough back alleys, secret pathways and rooms with tantalizingly locked doors to make the maps feel a lot bigger than they actually are. Thief certainly rewards players who take the time to go over everything with a fine tooth comb which I’m sure a lot of players will find rewarding. On the flip side it never feels like this is a necessary part of the game as you’ll find more than enough resources to keep you going if you just meander off the beaten trail once in a while. Whilst this might annoy the purists the inclusion of a custom difficulty mode turns this optional but rewarding task into a necessity, something which should keep them at bay.

The combat in Thief is understandably lacklustre, mostly because it’s obvious that out and out fighting isn’t the game’s preferred way of completing objectives. This is in stark contrast to other similar stealth games of recent memory (most notably Dishonored) where both paths were somewhat viable. You’ve still got the choice of killing or knocking people out to achieve your objective but should you find yourself discovered there’s really no way to get yourself out of that situation without finding a nearby hidey hole. I don’t necessarily count this against Thief as out and out combat is not what the series, nor the genre itself, is usually about. The option is there but its a blunt instrument in comparison to all the other tools you have at your disposal.

The stealth, on the other hand, is quite marvelous. With the highly detailed maps peppered with vents, corridors and passageways it’s guaranteed that every obstacle you encounter has multiple ways to bypass it. Indeed every time I found myself struggling with a particular section it was always because I wasn’t noticing the alternate path that was right before me, opening up options I didn’t know I had previously. There are some situations where trade offs have to be made though which can lead to some frustration but realistically it’s just about making the choice that’s right for your particular playstyle.

The game is well executed for the most part with no major bugs or glitches to report however the control scheme does feel a little bit awkward. Using the lean out ability can be a real exercise in frustration, especially if you wanted to pick something up from a chest or box instead of peeking around it. The same can be said for cancelling things, which can be right click or another key, leading to some heat of the moment confusion. Additionally dropping off a rope can’t be done with space if there’s no nearby ledge and instead must be done with X. It just feels like the interface lacks consistency and makes the more routine parts of the game harder than they need to be. This is somewhat excusable in survival horror games but it’s also one of the reasons that I have a tendency to dislike that genre.

Thief’s story is decidedly middle of the road sharing some similar threads to those of previous instalments in the series (secret society conspiracies laced with bits of magic) but there’s nothing particularly memorable about it. The initial build up in the opening scenes is far too short for us to have any emotional investment in the main characters and seems to rely on our previous experiences with the series to derive most of its impact. It simply doesn’t work as the vast majority of people playing this game haven’t been involved with the Thief series for the better part of a decade and much of the detail is lost to the ages. I’m a firm believer that a good story can make up for nearly any shortcomings that a game might have but unfortunately for Thief that isn’t the case and it’s lucky that it’s so strong mechanically.

F or a series that hasn’t seen a release in 10 years Thief delivers a solid game play experience, modernizing many mechanics without incurring the usual penalty of simplifying them too greatly for mass adoption. Thief doesn’t rely heavily on its pedigree in order to deliver a good experience, being able to create its own distinct identity through it’s well executed game mechanics. Unfortunately the story is the giant black mark on an otherwise highly polished experience, leaving this and many other reviewers wanting. Still it’s hard for me to recommend against playing Thief as it really is a solid game, just don’t play it for the story.

Rating: 7.8/10

Thief is available right now on PC, Xbox360, XboxOne, PlayStation3 and PlayStation4 right now for \$49.99, \$79.95, \$99.995, \$79.95 and \$99.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC on the Thief difficulty with 11 hours of total play time and 35% of the achievements unlocked.

## Lone Survivor: The Kind of Sort of Survival Horror.

I’ve mentioned in the past that whilst I may have been playing survival horror games for a long time I’m not exactly their biggest fan. Sure some of the most memorable moments I’ve had whilst gaming have been in survival horror titles but they are very much the exception for me rather than the rule. Still I like to revisit the genre from time to time to see if there’s been any innovative changes that capture my attention much like the Nemesis did in Resident Evil 3. The latest survival horror game to cross my path came care of the latest Humble Indie Bundle and is called Lone Survivor. Thanks to my past wins with the Humble Bundle titles I figured it was worth a look in and gave it a full play through on the weekend.

Lone Survivor takes place in what appears to be a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by a virus outbreak. You, only referred to as You for the entire game, finds himself as the lone survivor of this outbreak having a really fuzzy memory of the events leading up to this point. You start off in an apartment complex and whilst you don’t know much about it you do know that the place you currently live in is not yours. The game then follows your quest to get out of the apartment complex and hopefully escape the town entirely.

Like many recent indie releases Lone Survivor’s graphics are of the pixel art form, paying homage to the gaming roots that many of my generation will be familiar with. Additionally whilst all of the art is done pixel by pixel there are a lot of modern effects laid over the top. Indeed the engine feels like its more modern as unlike other pixel art games I’ve played recently it was able to scale itself out fully and play in full screen windowed mode. Whilst this isn’t a big factor in the core game it does show that this game is very well coded which is surprising considering the majority of the work on it was done by a single person.

Now I know I shouldn’t judge a game by its name but you’ll quickly find that whilst you character thinks he’s the lone survivor in this world there are in fact a lot of other people around. Whilst its debatable whether or not most of them are actually there since your character seems to flit between fever dreams there are at least 2 other people around who don’t appear to be part of them. There’s also the monsters, of varying types, that wander the landscape and if the assesment of You is anything to go by they are the final forms of humans who were infected by the virus.

I will level some criticism at Lone Survivor’s choice of showing you the monsters extremely early on in the piece. After seeing them the anxiety about what you’re coming up against is gone and instead you’re just left with another challenge to face. In fact apart from 1 all the monsters are shown to you in an initial safe setting, allowing you to get comfortable with how to deal with them before you have to. I may not enjoy survival horrors as much as the next guy but the good survival horror comes from tension and knowing what I was coming up against long before I had to took away any real sense of urgency.

The core game play is divided into two sections: point and click adventure and a simplistic combat system. The first aspect, a traditional point and click (although “move and X” is probably more appropriate here) is your standard affair sending you all over the place to gather up items in order to progress to the next stage. Quite a lot of this aspect is optional as the required items to progress are rather easy to come across and if you’re good at the combat you won’t need to be hunting around for food to restore your health. Indeed since there’s a not-so-secret mechanic to get you both unlimited food and ammunition this side of the game is somewhat moot but can be rewarding if you like hunting out all the little extra pieces hidden around the game.

Combat is similar to that of other point and click style games like Gemini Rue. You have a revolver which you can shoot at enemies and you can aim in 3 different directions: low, mid and high. Capping enemies in the head means they go down slightly quicker and shooting at their feet makes them back off for a little bit. Realistically the enemies are just organic progression blockers serving as another puzzle for you to solve. Given that you have essentially unlimited ammunition there’s really no point to not waste every enemy you come across since you’ll be back tracking a lot, especially if you want to seek out all the items.

It’s not said to you explicitly until you finish the game but there is a kind of score being tracked whilst you make your way through Lone Survivor. Now a little Googling will find you ways to improve said score but I felt kind of cheated when I found this out as if you play the game without doing any research on it you’ll be completely unaware of it until the end. Those optional things you can do then seem to take on a whole lot more importance rather than just being an ancillary part of the game. I hate to say it but the inclusion of achievements, if the game was integrated well into Steam say, might have made me feel more compelled to actually do these things without having to reveal the hidden score. Maybe I’m just feeling bitter because my score was pretty terrible, but I feel my criticism is valid.

I can usually put aside technical faults of a game if the story is good but for Lone Survivor I can’t feel I can make that concession. The disjointed nature of the story and the complete lack of relatability of the main character didn’t really make me feel anything for those people in the story. Since the whole thing seems to flit between what appears to be reality and fever dream sequences I can’t help but feel there’s some deeper meaning to it that I’m just not getting. It’s not the same as I felt with Braid though where speculating about it was an area of intrigue, I’m more than happy to leave this one alone.

Lone Survivor is a game that is equal parts good and bad. The combination of pixel art graphics with modern tweaks makes the game visually pleasing and the coding behind it feels top notch. I also enjoyed the choice of music for the opening and closing scenes as it seemed to be quite fitting for the scenes in question. However the game fails to be an actual survival horror with there being unlimited resources at your disposal and the threats in the game really posing little danger to you. There are some satisfying moments in it like when you figure out how to make coffee or complete a puzzle without having to backtrack for ages but apart from that I didn’t find much else to like in Lone Survivor.

It’s very possible that my gripes are the result of my bias against the survival horror genre and I can’t not recommend the game because of that. Since it’s part of the Humble Bundle the cost to trying it out is exceedingly low, especially when you get so many other great games bundled along with it. For me personally though I don’t believe I’ll ever play through Lone Survivor again to see the alternate endings as I just don’t feel that there’s anything else in it for me. Whether it works for you though is an exercise that I’ll leave up to the reader as I don’t feel my rating can truly reflect the game’s experience, even if I adjust for my internal biases.

Rating: 5.0/10

Lone Survivor is available right now on PC for any price you wish through the Humble Indie Bundle. Total game time was around 4 hours with the Blue ending and a rating of F.

## Warp: Fun, If a Little Flawed.

When I started out with this idea of doing 1 review a week it was mostly because I always seemed to find myself with a backlog of big name titles to play through. There aren’t however enough titles like that to sustain that kind of pace throughout the year and for the first 3 months of this year most of the titles I was reviewing were actually things released last year that I hadn’t got around to playing. Consequently I’ve found myself playing a lot of games that I wouldn’t have otherwise given a second thought to and Warp, the action-puzzle-stealth hybrid from Trapdoor, is one of those titles that I wouldn’t have considered playing.

Warp has you playing as an oddly shaped alien who’s named Zero (something I don’t think was made clear in the game, I certainly can’t remember anyone saying his name) waking up in an undersea laboratory. You’re surrounded by scientists who begin to perform surgery on you to remove a disk shaped object from you which turns out to be your internal power source. After a short obstacle course, which serves as the tutorial for the basics of the game, you are then reunited with your power supply and regain your ability to teleport short distances. Warp flows on from there, following Zero’s quest to escape the confines of the laboratory.

On first appearances Warp isn’t too much to look at, mostly due to its roots as a Xbox Arcade game. For the actual game play the graphics are fine with Warp making heavy use of lighting effects to cover up their less-than-stellar models but the cut scenes unfortunately didn’t appear to get any extra treatment to make them any better. Thus the artwork, graphics and sound work are all around the level I had come to expect from say around 5 years ago when I had friends tinkering with 3D models. Sure I can understand that there are limitations thanks to the target platform but when you don’t even bother to try and do rudimentary lip syncing for dialog scenes I get the feeling that a lot of this was done due to budgetary constraints rather than a lack of technical ability.

The core game play of Warp revolves around Zero’s ability to teleport short distances and also hide inside objects and people. At first it starts off with rudimentary things like finding non-obvious was to get around your environment but as the game progresses the challenges start to scale up dramatically. Zero also gains additional abilities as you complete levels augmenting himself with things like producing a controllable decoy (so you can get guards to kill each other), using said decoy to swap places with other objects and being able to launch objects a great distance. The combination of all these abilities makes for some rather interesting puzzles, some that are actually quite challenging to figure out.

Also thanks to the integration of a half decent physics engine there’s actually the opportunity for a lot of emergent game play which makes it a whole lot more interesting than your rudimentary puzzle game. Since every object can be moved and flung around quite easily there’s a lot of opportunity to break the intended solution by bringing objects along with you that the game doesn’t expect you to. There are also times when it goes horribly wrong like the travelator towards the end that you can change the direction of, try destroying both power supplies. The animation stops but you’ll still move if you stand on it. Still problems with the physics based game play are thankfully few, although Warp is far from free of issues.

Scattered throughout the game are challenges like the one above that push your use of certain skills to the limit in order to get extra “grubs” that are used to upgrade your abilities. These are usually timed affairs and in the words of someone I can’t remember “You know how to make something not fun in a game? Slap a timer on it.” and that’s exactly how all these challenges feel: not fun. I probably spent about a fifth of my in game time trying to get better than bronze on these challenges and I managed to get a few of them but at no time did I have fun doing it. It was kind of like Super Meat Boy all over again where the replay value is derived from it’s rather frustratingly hard difficulty. Not all of them were like this but the initial ones definitely were and it’s likely that it’s me being retarded, but there is another reason why I think its not.

The game is a very obvious port from Xbox360 to PC and that brings with it all the issues that are usually associated with them. For starters whilst the mouse is available in the initial start up screens it doesn’t work in the actual game for anything, not even the upgrade menus. Instead of redesigning the control paradigm around the mouse and the keyboard all the interface controls are simply remapped to the keyboard. This means that sometimes the game engine expects input in a certain way and doesn’t get it which can lead to all sorts of unintentional behavior. It’s not game breaking once you get used to it but it does smack of lazy porting just to grab another market.

The upgrade system is interesting at first glance, being able to augment your abilities in ways that change the game play significantly. As you can see above I chose to invest my grubs in certain keys skills, namely the ones that form the basis of the core game play (teleporting and moving faster). These definitely made the game somewhat easier as there were many times I could fudge my way through or get out of a situation that I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise but looking over the other skills I couldn’t be sure why anyone would get them or how’d they make the game easier.

In fact I played the majority of the game sans these two skill upgrades mostly because I didn’t bother with the challenges nor religiously tracking down grubs in order to get said upgrades. This isn’t a problem with Warp per se, more the with the idea of combining a puzzle game with an upgrade system. For all the main challenges you’re going to have to give the player the required skills anyway and all the upgrades then can really only be making the player’s life easier. Deus Ex: Human Revolution did the upgrades that unlock other potential pathways/secrets bit quite well but they still had to accommodate for the possibility that the player didn’t choose a specific upgrade, at least for story critical sections. All of Warps sections appear to be story critical though, rendering the upgrade system kind of moot.

All that being said however I still found Warp extremely fun to play. I’m not sure how I’d describe it but the combination of puzzle solving, the over the top reactions from NPCs when they spotted you and the decidedly dark enjoyment you get from making people explode from the inside out made my time with Warp very enjoyable. This is in spite of the story that’s so thin on the ground that it might as well not even exist in the first place, something which indie games like this don’t usually forgo. Considering this game can be had for \$20 as part of a 5 pack of games I think it’s incredibly great value for the time I spent with it and would recommend giving it a shot.

Rating: 8.0/10

Warp is available on PC, PS3 and Xbox360 right now for \$9.99 or equivalent on all platforms. Game was played entirely on the PC with around 5 hours of total play time and about 2/3rds of the grubs found.

## Trine 2: Oooohhhhh The Pretties.

I was a real late comer to the Trine party, only getting around to playing it early last year after it had been out for almost 2 years prior. Looking back over the review I wonder how much my opinion of the game would have changed had I played it soon after its release as for its time it would have really been quite a stand out title. In 2011, with the indie revolution in full effect, it’s unique take on the platformer genre was probably lost among other titles like Super Meat Boy. Still the game stuck with me and whilst I might be somewhat late to the party again I decided to venture back into the Trine world yet again.

Trine 2 puts you back in familiar territory, starting off with the wizard Amadeus being awoken from his slumber by an unearthly glow coming from his windows. Rushing out to investigate he finds that the glow was coming from the Trine itself, the magical artifact that had bound him in the previous games to Pontius the Knight and Zoya the Thief. Upon reaching the Trine Pontius appears from within the artifact and informs Amadeus that they have to once again save the kingdom from an as of yet unknown threat.

Everything about the look and feel of Trine 2 feels so much more ambitious than its predecessor. Whilst you could chalk much of this up to the 2 and a bit years between releases it still feels like a lot more effort went into the art direction, cinematography and art work. There’s heavy use of advanced lighting effects, depth of field and extensive camera work that I don’t remember being present in the original. The original Trine was colourful and vibrant and Trine 2 builds on that base to create something that, whilst possibly being a bit too colorful in some points (making it hard to determine what’s what on occasion), is a definite step up.

The core physics based platformer/puzzle solving game play remains true to the core of the original Trine whilst streamlining some aspects and adding in new types of puzzles that makes the sequel quite distinct. The wizard still conjures up objects, the thief can still grappling hook onto things and the warrior is still used purely for combat and has little to do with puzzle solving unless it involves smashing through a wall (although even that is made redundant by certain talent choices). The changes are for the most part positive with only a few minor issues that I feel need to be raised.

Both Trine and Trine 2 have the same shared experience leveling system but Trine 2’s deviates from the original’s significantly. Instead of getting 1 point to spend in each character’s talent tree you’re instead given 1 point per level to spend on any one of the 3 talent trees. The difference is quite stark as whilst in the previous game the puzzles could be designed around knowing what kind of abilities a player might have in Trine 2 you can pretty much short circuit most challenges by going a specific build. To be upfront about it you can pretty much make the game easy mode by dumping all your points into the wizard, letting you do things like this:

Now I have no idea how the developers intended to have that puzzle solved but I have the feeling it wasn’t supposed to be anything like what you’re seeing above. That’s part of the charm of the physics based game play, letting you create solutions that weren’t exactly intended, but when most of the puzzles were trivialized by a power leveled wizard it made me wonder why there weren’t some limits in order to stop you from doing this. I guess Frozenbyte thought that was part of the fun and I can’t say I disagree with them on this.

The combat of Trine 2 is pretty much identical to that of its predecessor; being a fun distraction from the core puzzle based platforming but not a whole lot more than that. For the most part it’s very hack ‘n’ slashy with you being able to spam your way through hordes of enemies even without the aid of additional talent tree upgrades. The boss fights start off interesting although they’re also prone to being beatable through mouse and keyboard spam. The final boss fight was actually pretty intense even if it felt like it was designed with only one of the 3 characters in mind. Overall I’d rate combat as passable, being more of a distraction than a core piece of the game play.

There are some notable bugs with combat however. Some enemies are easily confused by standing near or on top of them and not in an intentional this-is-part-of-the-game way. The type that I most often found this worked with was the dual fire blade wielding goblins who if you got close enough to then jumped behind would think you were still right in front of them. They’d then get stuck in a loop of attacking in that direction, allowing you to wail on them from behind with no consequence. Some of the boss fights bugged out in a similar way to a lesser extent but it was obvious that the enemies were coded with a rather simplistic AI. It’s a relatively small complaint in the grand scheme of things but it was definitely noticeable.

As a I alluded to earlier the talent tree has also been greatly simplified allowing you to level each character as you see fit. The choice of power leveling the wizard was a simple one, the more I leveled him earlier the more experience I got access to, leveling the others faster. As you can see from the screen cap above, taken about an hour before the end, I had nearly all the abilities. In the end I think there was only 2 I didn’t manage to get but even that doesn’t really matter considering that there’s a respec button at the bottom, one that can be used as often as you want with no consequences.

Additionally All the ancillary aspects of Trine 2 have been stream lined from the original. The mana bars for every character are gone completely which I thought was weird to begin with but after playing through the entire game without it I’m glad they took it out. All the mana bar did was add tedium to the game, forcing you to go back to check points in order to restock if you accidentally created the wrong object (which was far too easy in the original) or lost it all from spamming flame arrows.

The story of Trine 2 is somewhat thin on the ground, at least in comparison to recent releases, but it is serviceable enough to keep the game driving forward. Although there’s not a whole lot of dialog in the game the voice acting is above the level of what I’ve come to expect from games like these, with each of the character’s voices fitting well with their perceived personas. Just like the original Trine I’ll have to commend Frozenbyte for not taking the cheap option and leaving the ending open for yet another sequel, something that never fails to annoy me.

Trine 2 is a definite improvement over its predecessor in almost all respects. The visuals and art direction are a lot better, a definite sign that Frozenbyte has confidence in the IP and is willing to invest more heavily in it. The streamlined game play takes away the tedium making the game much more enjoyable overall. Overall I was quite impressed with Trine 2 not feeling the compulsion to play through to the end just for the review like I did with the previous one. Even if you haven’t played the original I would still recommend Trine 2 as it stands alone well, especially if you’re a fan of platformers or puzzle games.

Rating: 8.25/10

Trine 2 is available on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox360 right now for \$14.99, \$14.99, and 1200 Microsoft Points. Gane was played on the hard difficulty with around 7 hours of total play time with 23% of the achievements unlocked.

## Uncharted 3: Same Old, Same Old Drake.

It’s not often that you see games stay as platform exclusives, especially successful ones. Since many publishers look to maximise their profit on any set of intellectual property a cross platform release, usually across the big 3 (PC, PS3, Xbox360), is inevitable especially if the franchise is successful. The Uncharted series from Naughty Dog is something quite special as whilst it has enjoyed success similar to that of say Mass Effect it has remained a platform exclusive for every release . The third instalment in this series, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, is no different and picks up sometime after the events that took place in Uncharted 2.

As in all Uncharted games you play as Nathan Drake, a rough and tumble treasure hunter with an eye for hunting down treasures hidden by one of his ancestors Sir Francis Drake. This time around Drake is investigating why it took his ancestor so long to sail across the east indies when he could have done it in a fraction of the time. This leads him on several quests to find the various items required to retrace Drake’s path and hopefully discover the treasure that remains hidden there. People from his past come back to haunt him in this adventure though and much of the back story between Drake and Sulley which hadn’t been explored up until now.

The Uncharted series has a reputation for being on the pretty side and Uncharted 3 is no exception. Whilst there doesn’t seem to be a vast improvement from that on previous titles there’s still some noticeable differences when you compare them side by side. It’s mostly in the small things like Drake’s face having a lot more detail to it. Since this is their 3rd release on the platform it follows that they’re probably pushing right up against the PS3’s limits, especially when the game ran as well as it did (I never noticed any slow down). Naughty Dog also get points for getting the lip syncing and motion capture spot on, something that too many games get horribly wrong.

Uncharted 3 retains the winning, Tomb Raider-esque game play style that has made it such a hit with its fans. Nearly every part of the game is filled with platforming sections, elaborate puzzle sequences, cover-based combat and a few quick time events thrown in there for good measure. Indeed at this point I’m willing to say that Uncharted is quite formulaic in its approach as the parallels you can draw between this latest instalment and its two predecessors is quite startling. This isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with it, Uncharted is successful for a reason, but this means its in the same category as games like Call of Duty. For some that will be off putting and I can understand where they’re coming from.

Now I’m not sure whether this has anything to do with me getting better at the Uncharted games or not but this time around I rarely struggled with any of the platforming or puzzle sections. The platforming sections really are just an organic progression blocker as Drake has very obvious queues about whether or not he can make it to the next ledge or not. It also seems that the developers, whilst keeping in the old hint system to help you get past a section should you get stuck, have made the NPCs that accompany you far more chatty when it comes to solving problems. Again it could just be me picking up on it more but it really did seem like the game’s overall difficulty had been taken down a notch or two.

Combat in Uncharted 3 is fast paced and action packed but felt like it suffered due to the inherent inaccuracy of doing a shooter on a console system. Now this could just be because I prefer the mouse and keyboard (and I could just shut up and buy the right peripherals) but most games like this compensate for that by helping you out a little, usually by locking onto the target once you get your sight in right the first time. Still there are times when I’d do a section and lay waste to an entire horde of baddies without breaking a sweat but it was just as common for me to struggle with bad aiming and misplaced grenades (is there a way to cancel a grenade throw? I couldn’t figure it out).

The quick time events also felt well placed for the most part, enabling Uncharted 3 to retain that movie level feeling whilst still letting you feel like you were in control of the action. There were a couple that dragged on for far too long however; long enough for my wife (who loves watching me play games like this) to leave the room and say “Call me back when this section is over”. It’s what my friends have come to call Epicness Fatigue when something is just so epic for so long that you get bored with it and just want it to be over. The game definitely didn’t need to be padded out at all, I mean its a relatively short game but still almost double the length of any recent FPS, so the few drawn out action sequences don’t do Uncharted 3 any favours.

The development of Drake and Sulley’s backstories was quite refreshing as it was something that was overlooked in the previous two releases. Up until this game I had just assumed that they were business partners of a few years and nothing much more than that. The story of Uncharted 3 reveals that they’ve been together for much longer than that which, if you retcon that back into the prequels to this, makes some of the decisions made by those characters seem very unusual. Still the backstory is tied in very well with the main plot so it works out anyway.

Overall the story is quite good, well above what you’d find in other games of similar calibre. Whilst I didn’t feel the same level of emotion as I have for other games I did genuinely care for the characters and hoped that certain events would unfold in the way that I wanted them. True to its Hollywood styling there’s an ending that’ll make everyone happy and thankfully doesn’t loudly declare that you should wait for the next one to come out. Undoubtedly there will be another, I believe Uncharted is to the PS3 as Xbox is to Halo, but a game always gets bonus points from me when they can wrap up the main story line like that.

Uncharted 3 might just be another instalment in a series that’s found its success formula and is sticking to it but that doesn’t detract from the fact that it’s just a damn fun game to play. Whilst none of the individual components stand out on their own as something revolutionary the seamless combination of all them comes together that makes something that’s greater than the sum of its parts. If you’re wondering why some people buy a PS3 over another console Uncharted 3 is definitely something I can point to as an example of what gaming on the platform can be like and indeed the Uncharted series is a great benchmark with which to compare other titles on the PS3.

Rating: 8.5/10

Uncharted: Drake’s Deception is available on PS3 right now for \$78. Game was played entirely on the medium difficulty setting with around 12 hours of game time and approximately 30% of the achievements unlocked.

## Limbo: Dark, Engaging, Atmospheric, Delightful.

Growing up as a gamer my gaming intake consisted predominately of platformers. The reasoning behind this is simple, the hardware at the time wasn’t capable of doing much more, and thus most games developers went the platformer route in order to make the most of their chosen platform. As the power of PCs and consoles started to increase and things like real 3D were possible the platformer started to take a back seat to other genres that had, up until then, played second fiddle to the platformers. The genre has experienced something of a resurgence in recent times with the independent developers rebooting the platformer genre for modern times. Limbo is one such title, and one that I feel I should have played earlier.

Without any hint of explanation of who you are, what your motivations might be or even what the controls are you are placed in control of what appears to be a small boy. His only defining features being the glowing eyes that pierce through dark world that he exists in. You then being your journey to nowhere, navigating your way through numerous obstacles many of them designed with a single purpose in mind: killing you in the most gruesome ways possible. Indeed the dark world that this boy finds himself in seems to be some kind of semi-futuristic place that’s hell bent on ensuring that the kid never makes it to his final destination, wherever that might be.

For a game with such simple graphics and limited colour palette the atmosphere that Limbo generates is nothing short of staggering. There’s little music or sounds to speak of, leaving the only constant sound being the soft wind and your footsteps. It’s strangely engaging, not exactly something I expected but taking a step back I can see a similar style in games like Silent Hill. The elements that are included then are done so deliberately and elegantly, giving you the feeling that the game’s creators spent an incredible amount of time on the all the little things that make up the Limbo world.

Whether intentional or the game play of Limbo has a sense of dark comedy about it. Whilst you’ll try your best to make sure that the little bugger makes it through each section safely it is inevitable that you’ll end up killing him in some of the most hilarious ways possible without even thinking about it. For me the first time was simply cratering him when I misjudged the distance to the floor below, his limbs flying off in opposing directions and the little glowing orbs blinking out. As the game progresses the ways in which you can die become more and more ludicrous, to the point where you’ll meet your end at the hands of fantastical futuristic contraptions.

On the flip side though I can see people playing Limbo as something of a survival horror rather than the dark comedy that I played it as. There are some moments that, if played with the lights off and late at night, would definitely give you a bit of a scare. Granted its nothing like the original Resident Evil series, something which gave me nightmares for a week after playing  it through in one sitting, but the atmosphere alone is enough to set some people on edge. Maybe my view of Limbo as a dark comedy is just a coping mechanism I developed so as not to get attached to the little guy…

The core game play of Limbo is that of a classic platformer mashed up with modern day physics puzzles. Neither of these aspects are terribly complex with the platformer sections being relatively forgiving and the physics resembling all other games that utilize the Box2D physics engine. Still many of the challenges will having you engaging in a good helping of trial and error to see which solution works best. There are also many ancillary challenges available for those achievement junkies that will test your problem solving skills more rigorously should the core of the game not prove challenging enough.

Thinking back on my play through of the game it’s interesting to remember how the environments changed from the dark, foreboding forest at the beginning to some kind of futuristic factory belonging to a mad scientist. As far as a plot goes that’s about all you’ll be able to get out of Limbo (save for a couple moments in the game and at the end) and what it means is left as an exercise to the reader but looking at the title you can probably guess what the changing scenery is a commentary on.

Limbo is one of those games that just simply begs to be played at least once and all in one sitting. It’s a short game, something that can be easily knocked over in an afternoon, but for a game of this type that short length works well in its favour. Whilst there’s little plot to speak of the story telling that Limbo achieves without a single line of written or spoken dialogue is quite an achievement and is one of the reasons why it has received such critical acclaim. Limbo then is a game that I believe anyone who calls themselves a gamer should play, just because it’s such an unique experience. One that is unlikely to be repeated at any time in the near future.

Rating: 9.0/10

Limbo is available on PC, PS3 and Xbox360 right now for \$9.99, \$15 and 1200 Microsoft Points respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC with 3.3 hours played and 23% of the achievements unlocked.

## Trine: A Refreshing Take on the Traditional Platformer.

It seems like the classic genres of games are undergoing something of a renaissance thanks to the now extremely viable independent game developer market. Whilst a lot of gamers will still go for the current staples (FPS, RTS, RPG) many independent developers are making a good living out of things like top-down shooters, adventure games and the good old fashioned platformer. What’s really surprising though is what sets them apart from their classic brethren and one such example of this is Trine which takes the idea of a platformer and turns it on its head by adding in all sorts of curious game mechanics.

You start off the game by being introduced to the 3 characters you’ll be playing throughout the game. They are (from left to right in the picture above) simply named as The Wizard, The Thief and The Warrior. The thief, in attempting to steal treasure from the Astral Academy, stumbles across a mysterious artifact that when touched bound her to it. Hearing the noise the warrior runs down to protect it, only to himself be bound to the object. The wizard, who has remained in the academy to study the skies, also came down to see what was going on and upon touching the object all of them vanished. From then on only one of them could exist physically while the rest would have to reside in the artifact, which the Wizard recalls being named The Trine.

It’s an interesting set up for the core mechanics of the game which are heavily physics based. You can only control one of each of the three characters at any one time and each of them has their own set of unique abilities. The wizard has the ability to conjure objects (platforms and planks) and control them via levitation. This also extends to a good number of environmental objects throughout Trine which will need to be used in order solve certain puzzles. He also lacks any form of direct combat ability being only able to thwart enemies by dropping things on them or conjuring objects that fall on them. The Wizard then is almost wholly dedicated to solving puzzles.

The warrior is at the complete opposite of the spectrum, being almost entirely used for combat. His initial abilities are quite simple, he has a sword which he uses to kill things and a shield that he can use to deflect things trying to kill him. As you progress he gets the ability to charge at enemies, useful for when they get a bit tougher and have shields of their own, as well as a two handed hammer that does more damage and can be charged up to shake the ground when released. Considering there are times when you’re swamped with enemies the Warrior is far from useless in this predominantly puzzled based platformer.

In the middle of these two extremes is the Thief being both a capable fighter as well as an essential part of the solution to some of the puzzles. Her main weapon is the bow which can be upgraded to fire up to 4 arrows in one shot. She also has a grappling hook which can latch onto any wooden or other appropriate surface which she can then use to swing around from. Her bow can also be upgraded to fire arrows for those few levels where there’s little ambient light but torches sprinkled around for convenience. Out of all the heroes I found myself using her the most since she was so versatile, even if I don’t have a single screenshot of her here (thanks to her being a bit tricky to use whilst also mashing the screenshot key).

The game itself is quite pretty especially when you consider that it was released back in late 2009. All of the environments are lush and rich with little bits of detail from the forests with plant life littering every corner to the dank dungeons with bones and all sorts of nasty things strewn everywhere. Trine also has an extremely vibrant colour palette which is amplified by the extensive use of bloom throughout the game. Whilst this might be seen as gaudy by some Blizzard has shown that a lively colour palette keeps people interested whilst also making it a lot easier to distinguish enemies from a bland background. Personally I quite enjoyed it, even if it seemed a little too outlandish at some points.

Trine also combines a few RPG elements so that they can throw ever increasingly harder puzzles at you as the game progresses. Littered through each level are green experience jars that you have to pick up with some of them dropping directly from enemies. Every 50 of these will grant you a level and a point to spend in upgrading your characters skills. These allow you to do things like conjure more boxes as the wizard, shoot more arrows as the thief and be more effective in combat as the warrior. There are also various chests hidden around each level that contain special items that can augment your abilities, grant special powers like resurrection or reduce downtime like restoring health if it drops below a certain level. Whilst you can complete the game without hunting all of these down they do make the game quite a lot easier if you do, as you can see below.

Thanks to its heavy reliance on physics for the basis of nearly all its puzzles Trine is also subject to the same emergent game play phenomena that all its predecessors were prey to. Whilst it’s obvious that the level designers had a certain solution in mind it’s obvious that there are easier ways of doing them if you mix certain abilities in an unusual way. The screenshot above showcases one such idea where I built a bridge using 5 of the wizards objects which I carefully counter balanced so it wouldn’t fall to pieces when I ran over it. This starts to take on a whole new level when you get the conjure floating platform ability as the wizard, especially when upgraded so the thief can hook onto it.

Whilst this game play idea does make the game infinitely intriguing at points it is also its ultimate down fall. The heavy reliance on the physics engine means there’s always quirks in the way it functions such as when you hit a ledge there’s a moment when your character is considered “standing” for a brief moment allowing you to jump again. This trivializes many of the puzzles and whilst you can avoid doing it the tendency to spam the space bar is not unique to me, so I’m sure many people have found it before. Additionally whilst the game designers coded a fail safe to stop you levitating objects you’re standing directly on you can put a single platform on top of anything and the levitate to your hearts content, wizard surfing your way past almost anything.

Combat, whilst well done for the most part, also let’s Trine down in some parts. Initially it feels like any other part of the game but towards the end there are points where enemies will continue to spawn endlessly until you get far enough away from that point. That’s all well and good but when you’re right at the end of a puzzle and the next check point in sight it’s a damned shame to have to cut through 50 skeletons just to get there, especially if you’ve killed 45 of them not 5 minutes ago. It’s the same complaint that many had with Dragon Age 2 spawning multiple waves of guys, ruining the idea of planning a strategy out before engaging.

Despite these complaints however I still enjoyed Trine throughout the 7 hours I spent with it. The wonderfully lush environments and emergent game play made me feel like I was figuring out solutions that had never been thought of before. Whilst there would be some frustrating times where I’d die over and over again I still kept coming back, trying every avenue I had available to me. The story, whilst simple in its ideas and execution, was enough to carry Trine through to the end and wrap it up succinctly, a rarity in today’s market. Overall Trine is an enjoyable experience for both the things it gets right and the flaws you can so lovingly exploit.

Rating: 7.5/10

Trine is available on PC right now for \$19.99. Game was played on the Hard difficulty with about 7 hours of total play time. I’d guess I got about 80% of the total experience and secretes available in the game.