The Trouble with Trine 2: Why the Game’s Puzzles Don’t SatisfyBy Kyle Mann | December 15, 2011 | Editorials | 2 comments | Share
Trine 2 packs more innate charm into its prologue alone than many games can eke out throughout the entire campaign. Its visuals make the screen pop with stark contrasts, bright colors, and dazzling effects; its music and sounds are similarly brilliant. I’m quite enjoying the game for the most part, and would certainly recommend it to a platforming or adventure fan. But in spite of everything the game does right, at the heart of the platformer there lies a flaw, not significant enough to hopelessly derail the fun, but enough to act as a thorn in my side for most of the game. The platforming is pretty standard for the genre, and the action is mindless fun, but it’s the puzzles that bug me the most about Trine 2.
In the best puzzle games, it’s clear that the developers have focused on player feedback, the instant knowledge that you’re progressing through the puzzle the correct way. Conversely, it means when you’re doing something wrong, the game nudges you back in the correct direction. Good puzzles constantly shout, “You’re getting warmer!” or “Nope, you’re getting cold!” In contrast, I’ve traversed entire sections of Trine 2 without knowing if I’m doing the puzzles right, or if I’m simply exploiting the game’s wonky physics–and that’s a big game design problem. The game robs players of the satisfaction of thinking through an environmental puzzle or outwitting the game’s developers, because the player never really knows whether he played by the game’s rules.
As an example, an early puzzle involves lining up a rising bubble, a log, and a platform in order to jump over to the next section of the level. Yet if you leap out far enough with the Thief, you can grapple yourself right over the chasm, allowing you to circumvent the entire puzzle. I’m still unsure whether this was a cleverly placed wooden tile for eagle-eyed players to spot or simply a design oversight. I don’t feel like an extremely smart or particularly skilled player when I do these kinds of things; I feel as if I’m back in the ‘90s using a Game Genie to bypass hard parts of a game, or taking advantage of glitchy code to skip out on something I’m supposed to be doing.
To be clear, these design problems of Trine 2 stand apart from a game that offers multiple solutions by design, from games that create sandbox puzzle experiences and expect the player to work out one of many different ways to overcome the challenges. One of the things many players loved about the first Portal (and subsequently mourned the absence of in its sequel) was the game’s tendency to offer more than one solution to its puzzles. Yet when completing a challenge, the player almost always knew whether or not he finished it off in the orthodox way Valve intended. To further drive the point home, Valve included challenges to extend the game’s life and make clear that the developer foresaw these ingenious solutions.
It’s true that a game featuring three different units may understandably offer up custom solutions for each playable character’s abilities, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on here, and I’ll tell you why. In Trine 2, the developers give the player all the necessary pieces to complete the environmental puzzles, then still allow the player to bypass the entire thing. So if I’m playing as the Wizard, I can create a couple boxes to scale and just leap over the puzzle, while the gears or platforms I was supposed to use sit around twiddling their thumbs. It feels sloppy and vague, not precise and measured as good puzzle games should, partly due to the sometimes sketchy physics.
Exacerbating the problem is the uneven leveling system: the Wizard can quickly level up to create 4 stackable boxes at once, an overpowered ability that can bypass a large chunk of the puzzles on its own. It feels less as if the game challenges you to come up with creative puzzle solutions and more as if entire puzzles go to waste due to a simply overpowered ability.
Thankfully, the flaw begins to dissipate as the game goes on and puzzles become more complex and restrictive. Where puzzles in the first few chapters are hit-and-miss, alternating between the confusing and the genuinely satisfying, by the middle of the game things begin to smooth over nicely. Instead of asking players to span gaps that are easily crossed without the platforms and pulleys the game makes available, challenges with very specific solutions become the norm. Switches, levers, gates, and portals help add a lot more guidance to the later puzzles.
In truth, Trine 2 is just fine. Fans of the first game will happily spend their $15 to frolick about the familiar levels with familiar characters, but from a game design perspective it fails to impress. For the next visit to the Trine universe, here’s hoping the set of puzzles Frozenbyte whips up are better defined, giving off clearer player feedback to guide gamers through their intricacies.