Review: Trine 4: The Nightmare Prince

8 Oct 2019

In the tradition of puzzle-platformers, the Trine series feels at once like it has a potent legacy and as if it’s something almost no one has ever heard of. The series already has three games under its belt, with the first one being one of those little indie gems that people who played loved, the second being an across-the-board improvement, and the third being…well, contentious. Not bad, but apparently seen as a bit too short and unsatisfying, and its reception left the series without any certainty of a fourth installment.

Obviously based on the title alone, that fourth entry happened. As you might expect from the decade-long gap between the first title and this one, the developers have intended it to serve as a new jumping-on point for players who have never played the previous games, while also providing fans another romp with familiar characters and mechanics. At the same time, it’s also meant to introduce new ideas to the franchise, like multiplayer problem-solving and a revamped combat system.

The game has been developed by Frozenbyte and is set for launch on October 8th on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, and Nintendo Switch. The PS4 version was played for this review.

It’s All Just a Bad Dream

Trine 4 kicks off the plot with separate tutorials for its three main protagonists – Pontius the Knight, Zoya the Thief, and Amadeus the Wizard. All three are busy with other aspects of their normal lives when they’re summoned to help retrieve Prince Selius, a young noble (obviously) who has been dabbling in some shadowy magic that he’s not supposed to. Since the three of them have worked together before, they figure it’s just a simple mission of retrieving someone and bringing him back to the care of the magical academy he’s supposed to be holed up in.

Needless to say, this plan goes awry almost immediately with the fact that Selius is neither a victim of his magical dabbling nor a villain. He wasn’t trying to get to where he is, really, but he also isn’t eager to be locked back under magical observation either. As a result, the tone of the mission takes on an interesting cadence, at once a rescue and a chasing down of an antagonist.

Of course, all of this is the motivation, not the moment-to-moment experience that makes the game compelling. The game relies on its three leads to provide that bit of storytelling, with a fair running commentary from Pontius, Zoya, and Amadeus as they traverse landscapes, fight shadow monsters, and uncover secrets throughout the various levels. And they are, in many ways, the most arch of stereotypes.

Zoya is a thief, snarky and profit-driven with a heart of gold. Amadeus is fussy, fastidious, and eloquent. Pontius is the doughty paladin with an affection for sweets. It’s the sort of thing that could become tedious almost instantly if the story didn’t play it precisely right, and the good news is that it does.

Instead of trying to play these characters up as being deeply motivated or original, Trine 4 leans on the fact that because these characters are stock archetypes, you can almost immediately start playing with their interactions and viewpoints. It’s clear that the designers are of the mind that no one’s going to be bothered if your characters are unoriginal so long as they’re well-written and charming, and so basically every moment with them just oozes charm and familiarity.

In other words, basically all of the dialogue between the characters that runs in the background of the stages is the sort of good-natured ribbing and cooperation that you only get from people who know each other very, very well. And because these characters are stock types, you don’t need to know them all from past games; you get a sense of who they are almost immediately and can just follow along, enjoying the well-done voice acting and the fairly straightforward but still engaging plot.

Put it another way: While I never found the plot of the game to be particularly novel, there was never a point when I wanted the game to just shut up and let me deal with the puzzles. It felt like curling up with a familiar book. Sure, I know how all the plot beats go, but that’s not the reason for re-reading it; it’s just a joy to go back through the paces.

That can be a bit of a tall order, but Trine 4 handles it naturally. All three leads play off of one another well, and Selius manages to keep your interest throughout as an odd combination of both the victim of a kidnapping and the person responsible. To say a lot more would spoil the plot, and you don’t want that; it’s a calming, simple joy to watch unfold organically.

Dream a Little Solution for Me

Having said all of that, Trine 4 was always going to live and die chiefly on its game mechanics. It’s a puzzle-platformer, after all, and it’s named after the artifact from the first game at the core of its game mechanic – all three characters are swapped between at the touch of the button, with puzzles requiring the skillsets of Pontius, Zoya, and Amadeus working together in order to get from one side of the screen to the other.

Right from the start, all three have distinct tricks the others don’t. Amadeus can conjure blocks (but only one at a time) and levitate both conjured and existing bricks around for various purposes, as well as nudging environmental aspects. Zoya swings from ropes, ties ropes between things, and fires arrows at distant targets. Pontius has his sword, his all-reflecting shield, and the ability to employ his considerable bulk to smash things.

That’s only to start with, however. It’s not too long before Zoya, for example, gains new elemental arrows that allow her to freeze or burn objects as needed. Pontius gets a charge to send items hurtling about the screen. Amadeus learns a short-range teleport, then to summon metal spheres for different uses. The list goes on, with each character gradually unlocking new tricks to take on different puzzles and add to your arsenal of how to sort out challenges.

Helping this feel organic is the fact that the levels aren’t really divided up into distinct rooms; they sort of are, but even as you can feel individual area transitions the scope of puzzles tends to change as you play. Frequently, the puzzles feel like organic dances. I need to get up to that ledge, but all I can see is this lower one; however, Amadeus can put a block on it. But the ledge can only hold its weight for a little while… oh, but Zoya can tie the block to a pair of anchors to keep it suspended, and that gives Pontius just enough space to smack something and create a new ledge to climb up. And then you’re into the next portion of the level, and it just keeps flowing.

Also helping this is the fact that the puzzles aren’t really tests of your reflexes but your understanding of the area’s logic. This is a good thing not because of the controls (which are a bit fiddly when trying to select between multiple targets for levitation/rope targeting but are generally crisp, clean, and responsive), but because it avoids moments when you know what to do but keep just missing a timed jump or shot or whatever.

You also do get the option to upgrade little elements of your abilities; there are several optional upgrades to your abilities as they unlock. They’re uniformly of the “convenient” sort rather than “necessary,” opening up as you collect the shimmering pink gewgaws strewn throughout the stage. I’d be reluctant to really call it customization, but it’s a solid bonus to doing what you’re already doing.

More satisfying (but less effectual in gameplay) are the various letters, treasures, and crafting items you find in each stage. Past the tutorial, each stage has one of each, usually requiring finding a tucked-away entrance and solving an additional puzzle. The design of the game is such that while I missed one or two as I went, keeping my eyes open meant I found most of them…but in a satisfying way rather than a “oh, is that all the challenge” way. The design is solid and good at guiding your eye, and it also encouraged me to pitch at a few spots that looked like potential hiding spots even though they didn’t have anything extra within.

Dream Puncher Deluxe

Of course, the one thing I haven’t discussed in all of this is the game’s “revamped” combat. which is…well, not the game’s highlight. I do enjoy that the combat really does encourage you to think environmentally, and you can get some mileage out of, say, Amadeus levitating enemies into spikes. But the combat is still largely a Pontius show, and while he’s definitely capable it feels like enemies attack too quickly and relentlessly and hacking with your sword takes too long to put things down.

That’s not to say combat is bad. It’s just not the game’s highlight, and those sections are the most chore-like bits of play. Fortunately, it’s usually quick and it never rose much above mild frustration for me. The boss fights are also more based on puzzling out mechanics than smacking stuff, sort of bosses-in-name-only.

Of course, the music accompanying the fights feels like an appropriate sting, an old-school RPG transition where the peaceful and almost meditative soundtrack cuts into sharper relief. This is not a failing in the least. In fact, the soundtrack perfectly complements the gameplay, soft and gentle in the background as you work your way through obstacle-strewn landscapes.

The game’s presentation of 3D sprites and backgrounds but with a 2D gameplay mechanic works like a charm, to boot. Ledges and safe spots are very clear at a glance, and the overall feel of any given area feels like a cohesive whole of a beautiful locale. It’s good that this is a game more about staying in places and exploring, because everything is blessedly gorgeous in this world. Even the smoky violet dream monsters are admirably designed, cartoonish and familiar while being distinctive and nice to watch.

The animations give the characters more personality, to boot; Zoya’s crisp and upright jog compared to Amadeus moving without grace or practice, and contrasted again with Pontius stalwartly tromping along. It coincides with what I mentioned before about the way the game handles its overall structure, that it’s all right if the game isn’t enormously original so long as it gets the personality right. And in both environment and animation, it has personality to spare.

Dream, Woven

In all honesty, I wasn’t expecting a whole lot from Trine 4; I’d played the original a long while ago and found it to be cute but suffering from some of the…let’s say hallmarks of puzzle platformers. Not bad, but not all that compelling either. And coming on the heels of a less-well-reviewed predecessor, it had some big hurdles to overcome.

What a pleasure, then, that it clears those hurdles with grace and aplomb. Trine 4 is an absolute delight. It’s charming, it’s engaging, it offers all sorts of fun little moments, and it’s shot through from top to bottom with an overwhelming joy at what it is. As mentioned, it feels like curling up with a favorite old book. Nothing terribly surprising, perhaps, but it’s not trying to surprise you; it’s trying to tell you a fun and pleasant story and it succeeds at giving you exactly what it says it’s going to do.

None of this means that it’s without issues; it is a puzzle platformer at its core, which will turn some people off, and the combat still doesn’t quite sing. But even the issues it does have are the sort that are ultimately none too difficult to overlook, just little bits and bobs that don’t reach the height set by other standout moments.

When you consider that on top of everything mentioned here the game also has a solid multiplayer mode (with different puzzles to work out) and plenty of hidden bits to collect, the game is well worth the asking price if you love puzzles. Heck, if you just want something fun and engaging to relax with sitting in front of a fire it’s well worth it.

Yes, I recognize the irony in finding a game subtitled The Nightmare Prince to be a pleasant little dream of a thing. But that’s the joy of it. It’s a simple trick, a sleight-of-hand, and it pulls the trick off over and over by being really good at that simple trick and doing it without a hint of shame. What else could you ask for?

~ Final Score: 7/10 ~

Review copy provided by Frozenbyte for PS4. Screenshots courtesy of Frozenbyte.