Nigh on every inch plays into the pacing of the level (that usually come interwoven with combat and platformer sections), a mischievously hidden secret, the game’s narrative or one of its genius puzzles. And so each level is efficient in its use of space; there’s no crap in the way that’s just there to fill a hole, no invisible walls. Verticality and backtracking is also used well in order to get the most out of the space they’ve created, and due to that you often get to ascend through an area with the ability to look down from whence you came, reminiscing of earlier shamblings and of the hard work it took for you to get to where you are.
Likewise, you can peer into the game’s final areas through gratings at the very start, or maybe the exit door is just inches away from your position but a wall or door stands in between, and getting to the other side requires a laborious but fun trip through dense tombs laden with danger and surprise.
It’s during these moments of precursor and reflection – teased by the level’s close-knit and smart design – that a strange pleasure rises up in me. I haven’t felt that in a long time, but Rat King’s first person puzzle platformer TRI managed to resurrect it through level design alone. And so it amounts to a degree that I am forced to say, that even in its pre-alpha stage, I’m highly impressed by TRI.
After the tutorial level, which is overtly simplistic in its instruction so much so that even a days-old baby could crawl over the keyboard and surpass it, you enter into the game’s Chinese-style temple and start to descend to where ever your destination might be. I wish I could tell you, but unfortunately the story has been ripped out for the moment, which is fine because it will be inserted later when other components are finalized. And when it is I hope that it not only provides a narrative wave to surf through the levels upon, but also adds a sense of history to the rather plain walls that have nothing interesting to tell at the moment. For some reason, I get somewhat of an Egyptian vibe from the insides of these catacombs – it may be the dog-like statues you have collect in each level to unlock the exit – so I think that carvings of people, creatures and ancient text over the walls would really elevate your interest in your surroundings in TRI.
And I’d love to have even more of a reason to be curious of each and every structure and wall. You see, I already am anyway due to the secrets that are hidden around in small alcoves, on the other side of pillars, under ledges and across high-rise beams. There was a moment during TRI’s first level when I had a thought, and that was if they had placed a secret statue to collect at the end of this particular area that could easily go amiss, then they’ve won me over. They had.
Across a series of dodgy jumps I found a golden statue waiting for me, hidden behind a wall. Then, while close to the ceiling in this huge room, I looked down and noticed another hole in the wall that I probably wouldn’t have seen from another angle. With no fear of fall damage, I fell like a brick, eager to test my theory. At first I thought my new finding was a dud as it looked shallow and wasn’t enough of a distinction from the surrounding notches to become a winding corridor. But upon approaching it I slipped right in through exactly that – a narrow winding corridor – and emerged high above the huge central room of this level that the other smaller areas had snaked off from.
“I was sitting right back in my seat with my brain just baking in the pleasure the intricate level design and mysterious criss-crossing architecture was pumping out at me.”
I was this tiny speck against this room’s huge walls, and the hole I sat in and observed in amazement and the sense of scale wouldn’t have been something you would have easily spotted from the floor or even the extremely high and narrow ledges closer to the ceiling that I had to previously shuffle along in this central room to traverse a large blockade. And directly opposite me in this hole was one of the large pillars that characterized this area, and hidden away in its core another golden statue waved back at me. I attempted the leap, ensuring to hold the Space bar down so that, if I didn’t land squarely in the alcove, my character would pull themselves up. TRI rewards my curiosity and wont to explore its environments throughout like this.
And it feels so good.
Especially when peril and awe is shared in these spaces, as you find hidden pathways to crawl through and experiment with different methods of navigation. Even though these walls don’t have a story to tell they certainly speak, or should I say, they whisper their secrets in your ear, offering hints as to what they hide but only to tantalize so that it is you who must make the effort to explore and act on whim.
But there’s even more to TRI than basic first person platforming, as the second and fourth level introduce new mechanics that entirely change your conversation with these walls. You collect a machine of some sort, a prism, I guess. And with this you can place three points on any surface you like, and should they be in sight of each other and not too far away, then they’ll fill the space between them with a new surface.
If yellow in color then you can traverse it, but if orange then it’s too steep and you’ll have to delete it and draw another should you want to use it as a means to reach another area. With this, suddenly the limits are stripped away and you really can start to peer into all of the holes in the walls, climb up to areas that seem innocent enough but are actually hiding secret areas, and traversing gaps then becomes a mathematical puzzle in itself.
I wasn’t actually too keen on the introduction of this new ability at first for a couple of reasons. Firstly, there’s a sluggishness in the mouse traction that decreases your accuracy, which is something you need when placing points around an environment. In some areas this did actually disappear, so I’m wondering if it has something to do with the fuzzy overlay that TRI is coated in – something else I thought was a bit excessive and unnecessary, really. But the other thing was that it took away that restriction in the player when climbing.
Suddenly, you didn’t have to make your way around the environments being extra careful to not fall off as you did so. You could just make your own platforms and climb up, and I feared the game would lose the sentiment – that feeling – that the first level really nailed for me. Luckily, it did actually manage to keep hold of it, and by the time I got around to Level 5, Labyrinths I believe it’s called, I was sitting right back in my seat with my brain just baking in the pleasure the intricate level design and mysterious criss-crossing architecture was pumping out at me.
“…you’re all over the bloody walls making Spiderman jealous.”
By this time, you’ve acquired the ability to rearrange gravity by sticking to the triangles at any angle. So now you’re all over the bloody walls making Spiderman jealous. Reaching simple levers to progress requires finicky rearranging of triangles to create a slope or a wall that you can walk up to reach the top of a room. Except you then find out it’s not the top of the room, as you later drop in from five times that height. And when you land you look back on your previous work and how hard you thought that was half an hour ago, but since then you’ve climbed the equivalent of a mountain to this tiny molehill, and you feel great, like a conqueror slamming a flagpole atop a mountain.
Before I forget, the end of this level – where you place the three dog statues you eventually scrounge – is upside down at the top of a HUGE vertical shaft. Yeah – level design to make you ache and delight.
TRI could be my new TR1 – the titles are close enough when you abbreviate that 90s classic as it is.