1st march 2016
Trulon: The Shadow Engine is going to be a hard review for me. I’ve been sitting here for the past ten minutes, trying to figure out how to start one of those reviews where I talk out of both sides of my mouth. I guess I should just warn you, Trulon made me fall in love with some of it’s ingenious game design, but then shake my head at the experience’s many missteps. I love the card based battle system, but hate the mind numbing pace and forgettable plot. By the end of this review, I hope you can understand why I’m saying I hope to see a sequel one day, but why I’ll probably never pick this experience up again.
Trulon begins with a bizarre opening of indiscernible production stills I imagine foreshadowing the game, before revealing a young girl named Gladia in her family home. Her father tells her there are monsters to the North of their land of Tripudia, so the ambitious monster hunter that she is decides to do what countless heroines before her have done; go get ‘em. The story soon branches out into a mysterious sickness affecting the citizens, and suspicions of evil activity from the neighboring kingdom of Maelon. So you and a young mage named Ferra goes out in search of answers, eventually bring on two more characters as you journey to save your town.
Sadly, that’s about as detailed as the narrative gets. Sure, there’s some exciting incidents along the way- but nothing most veteran players aren’t going to yawn at. For me, above everything else, an RPG is held up by its storyline. If I’m not invested enough to see the next chapter than combat will always become a tiresome slog. Trulon’s story isn’t bad- it’s just painfully boring. The game’s exciting incidents are barely either. Characters are rarely afforded the time to actually become investable. It just simply never gets past a rough draft and is rife with clichés.
There are moments where things look like they’re getting better. The map screen promises a large open world to explore, with your character visiting about four locations in the first territory. After journeying to the next one, you’ll quickly realize the game only has two overworld maps in total to explore. I immediately felt like I was duped with the promise of a larger world, only to discover the game ultimately has maybe 16 total locations, with a few of those being open environments designed for monster battles only. One nice feature, however, is the ability to skip overworld battles, by asking you if you’d like to investigate scenes when you do stumble upon them, and you can even leave if you don’t find what you’re looking for.
Now, the maps themselves are actually laid out very nice. They utilize the play area well, and the designers have done a great job of making them feel maze-like without things feeling walled off or overly convenient. The developers have also included environmental challenges in several of the maps as well, including patrolling sentries, spotlights and also puzzles to help break up the monotony of fighting in hallways. Enemies also lie in wait, letting you make strategic adjustments and equipment changes before entering battles, which may be less difficult but for me is a welcome addition.
That being said, the big downside to the game, at least for me, is the fact that the controls are entirely done through the mouse. This is because, as I suspected and confirmed after playing the game, Trulon is ported from an IOS experience. So, to move, you have to either click somewhere on the screen or click and drag your way to an area. You swipe cards onto the playfield and handle all of the menus through your index finger. The only problem is- I’m playing this game with a mouse, and this kind of control will make you want to scream when you realize how easy it would’ve been for the designers to include in controller support. I know this may sound like nitpicking- but I refuse to ignore lazy porting. This is Steam- not the Play Store- so port your game for the crowd that you’re going after.
The card-based battle system is a fun alternative to traditional RPG strategies and takes some cues from tabletop gaming’s adaptive charm. As you journey around the world, you’ll collect cards with different skills and strategies attached. Some might jump up your attack for a turn, or might nullify your enemy’s upgrades. Going into a battle unsure of what your prepared deck has in store for you is an awesome and sometimes frustrating model, especially when Lady Luck seems to be having a go. This makes you want to build a concise and beneficial stack, without bogging it down with cards that don’t suit your character’s unique strategy. This also harkens back to classic Final Fantasy games, where you’ll assign your characters to specific jobs, such as a healer, a defender, and brutes of steel and sorcery.
The game also has two types of magic, but outside of plot devices there really isn’t a difference other than half of your crew uses the other type. Since I can’t remember their names, we’ll call them Regular and Diesel. Unlike your health, which regenerates after every battle, your fuel doesn’t, and you’ll have to find floating orbs around the world to recharge them. So, specific spells can only be used by a particular character, if the card is drawn, and if you have enough magic to play the spell. While this is a clever idea, again reminding me of Mana from Magic: The Gathering, the game throws so many refills at you, you’ll hardly ever find yourself depleted. This fact kind of makes the two magic types a little underdeveloped and comes across as more of a plot device for the ending. Perhaps in the universe of novels this is explained more, but for me- it felt a little unnecessary.
That said, unfortunately, the game has a lot to learn regarding keeping these magical battles engaging and timely. Minor skirmishes can take longer than five minutes, with many hovering around the eight-minute mark for three enemies. At a certain point, enemies are no longer a challenge, but they’ll take ten attacks to finally bring down, with each move being accompanied by a long and drawn out battle animation (that doesn’t change with different moves). These unskippable animations quickly become minutes you’ll desperately wish you had back. Had the game included an option to remove these Dragonball-esque animations for the sake of gameplay, it might’ve saved me time and unnecessary frustration. That, or at least when I draw a bad hand, and I’m destined for a whooping, let me abandon the match instead of forcing me to watch my ass get slowly kicked.
I also feel the designers intentionally designed the game to be this long winded, as the entire experience can be beaten in just over eight hours. All in all, I think outside of the battle system, there’s really only about an hour and a half worth of storyline to this experience. It’s a real shame too, because there is an undeniable charm to the art style and battle system, that if they had invested more energy into expanding the storyline and locations we might’ve been looking at a great experience. I mean, this is based on a novel, right?
The game’s art style, as I mentioned previously, is very cute. It’s simplistic and childlike, but endearing and full of life. It reminds me of classic PSX games, with a style that takes all the ascetics of anime, but mellows them out for a wider audience. Everything from the environments to the enemies is just very imaginative, and everything has a nice level of care. The battle animations, however, do look really cheap, with character responding to pain by simply closing their eyes like they’re taking a nap. Gun-toting enemies shoot their guns at enemies in order to somehow apply immunities to themselves. I also had some problems with the isometric perspective in the game; especially when train tracks run parallel to a three-story flight of stairs. That’s some M.C. Esher levels of impracticality.
The soundtrack, which comes free with the purchase of the game, is fan-freakin-tastic. Honestly, for a cheap RPG, this soundtrack had some love thrown into it. I mean, it’s nothing you’d find in a Lord of the Rings film, but there were a couple of times the music did make me feel like I was in the Shire. It ranges from dark and brooding to whimsically magical. It’s going to be a soundtrack I plan on putting in my regular rotation of background music. The mixing of these songs, however, is awful, and moments are dulled due to the careless handling of them. Scenes where evil motivations are revealed, the same bubbly track callously continues playing as if nothing important is happening.
And finally, for the life of me, I have no idea what ‘The Shadow Engine’ is. Like ‘The Phantom Menace,’ there’s really no explanation of what the title has to do with the game itself. Perhaps it’s the machines that are poisoning citizens, but my guess it’s like ‘Infinite Undiscovery’; don’t think so hard about it. Well, I happen to enjoy thinking when it comes to RPGs, and sadly my thoughts are all over the place with this game. Its battle system has charm, but like a Neil DeGrasse Tyson speech it just takes forever. It’s presentation and storyline shoots for brevity but lacks the meat needed to keep one invested. It hard for me to throw out either my recommendation or condemnation for it- so I guess weigh out my words and decide for yourself if it’s worth picking up. While I’m glad I played it, I don’t think I’ll return to Gladia the same way I do for Grandia.
Card-based battles encourage smart deck building and responsive strategy.
The game’s art style and imaginative world help creates a real sense of player immersion.
The soundtrack, while limited, features a lot of great tracks with a fantastic range.
The game’s narrative inspiration is wasted on a diluted and forgettable experience.
Pacing is laughably bad, with a lopsided battle resulting in a five-minute beatdown.
The game was built with a small screen and swiping finger in mind- not a mouse.