For gamers, these are extraordinary times. In the last four years alone, about three-quarters of Steam’s catalogue has been published. Steam, the western hemisphere’s largest digital game store, is fourteen years old. This, to me, is mind-boggling. Through the increasingly prevalent roles in which early access and crowdfunding play in smaller studio projects, I can say with some certainty that we’ve entered a new renaissance for gaming as a whole. However, in saying that, this massive influx of content has also brought with it the muddying of gamer’s expectations.
Every day, games from all around the world are being released – many of which are attempting to break new ground. New genres and archetypes are being forged, or are at least being attempted, on a daily basis. Yet, as with all human endeavours, it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. For every harrowing and exhilarating SUPERHOT, there is a defunct, taciturn and bile-fueling Galactic Hitman. For each Undertale that’ll bring modern art in the trappings of old, there is a Hikikomori No Chuunibyou to make you cry until you beat yourself to death with a hardback. Troll and I, while ambitious and novel in a way contemporary audiences would expect an experimental action-puzzle game to be, suffers from failings in all aspects of its design. Its storytelling is baffling, its gameplay grating, and with a tsunami of technical shortcomings, forms a most egregious package.
Troll and I is a third-person puzzle-action game that gives players control over a teenage boy named Otto and the titular Troll. The opening cinematic begins in England, where a drably voiced, moustache twirling man of wealth foreshadows a plot to capture the Troll. We find Otto somewhere in the German wilderness, living with his mother. After a brief hunting trip, Otto encounters cabal of otherworldly monsters. Their presence coincides with the destruction of his homestead, and he’s quickly swept from his mother’s heaving Aryan bosom and into the massive mitts of the Troll. Once united they set off on an adventure to…well, I’m not entirely sure. There is no discernible arc to the narrative, and the devices that are needed to make Troll and I an interesting story are either insufficient or absent. The protagonists have no goals for most of the game, and the low production value of the game’s animation dooms the story to failure.
As far character dynamics go, the gentle giant archetype juxtaposed with Otto’s frailty is fertile ground for a potentially fascinating tale, but Troll as a silent character needed a hell of a lot of quality animation to sell himself as something with feelings and thoughtful responses. What he gets instead is a series of limited, lifeless and unconvincing movements and characterless grunts to define himself with. Otto’s gestural palette is similarly anorexic, but by Simon Templeman’s larynx is this guy’s vocal performance more bemusing than a student review rendition of The Room. It’s ear-clasping, face-palming, teeth-grindingly bad. The concepts of pitch, pace, inflexion, emphasis and tone are fundamentally alien to the talentless trouser-stain Spiral House hired to embody this waste of binary.
The writing, too, is atrocious. There is no gradual ebb and flow to show the forging of a meaningful relationship between these two characters. Instead, their journey takes leaps over caverns of logic. One minute Otto is desperately trying to pry his mother from what appears to be certain death in an inferno, only to merely comment that he thinks she should be just fine two chapters later. Take the day off, gentlemen, why don’t you. The running commentary that Otto has in any given situation also runs in a loop. If you like hearing someone repeat the same sentence more times in an hour than a tweaker with syphilis, be my guest, immerse yourself. Whatever potential Troll and I’s premise initially offers is quickly trampled upon by this bizarre melange of disastrous narrative inequities.
The gameplay in Troll and I also had the potential to be interesting, but in execution is mediocre at best. The basic mechanics for both Otto and Troll are functional but designed to instil frustration. The game forces the player to trudge through hours of tedium to upgrade basic abilities to a point where they are useful. Case in point is Otto’s spear throwing mechanic. Taking an over-the-shoulder view not dissimilar to Gears of War, Otto can throw spears of various types crafted from scavenged materials. The crafting system is just fine, but when aiming at a target, the reticle on the HUD will sway with such exaggeration as to make the game arbitrarily difficult. It’s like trying to shoot at an air rifle gallery under the influence of absinthe muscle relaxants – i.e. fun to watch others struggle with, but a straining experience first hand. This design choice, I suspect, was made in an effort to add some level of challenge to the game once the developers realised that programming AI that’s fun to fight is super challenging.
The enemies of Troll and I are both dull and annoying to fight. Those that don’t just rush you will hang back at a distance and fire shots until either of your characters dies. In itself, this wouldn’t be so bad if not for the crappy sway of Otto’s spear throwing and the dead basic melee attacks. Hit three times with Otto’s club, and he can then execute a finishing move that will render him invulnerable for the total frames it takes for the finisher to run. The animation for this, as expected, is the same every damn time, and loses what little oomph it had to begin with. Troll is a melee-focused fighter, but I use the term liberally here. Troll’s attacks are woefully imprecise, and his attack frames often have a wildly fluctuating start-up, so anticipating when to strike is pointless. You never know exactly when or where Troll will hit, and apparently, he has magic to use. However, once again, it’s barely useful and doesn’t offer much variety in the dispelling of cookie-cutter enemies.
The puzzle-solving aspects of the game are simple enough, but poorly designed visual cues and haphazard tutorials often result in repeated moments of utter befuddlement. There is a hint system, but it’s deliberately limited in the most condescending way imaginable. If used more than a couple of times, Otto will say “I think you know where it is.” To which I say, “Where what is? You snotty-nosed, turd-locked anachronistic gob-shite.” I felt myself trying to be apologetic for Troll and I during its first two levels, but very quickly found I couldn’t stand to play it for more than twenty minutes at a time. I would just end up swearing at the top of my lungs and irritating my poor neighbours. However, it was the moment where this small budget, hackneyed piece of bloated shovelware had the gall to actively chastise me for being too thick to figure out its poorly telegraphed puzzles that I lost all hope I had of finding something positive to say about it. I have no time for games that lack the necessary self-awareness to know when and how to respect its audience, and neither should you.
I’d like to say that was the end of my grumbling, but the flaccid art direction of this game is not only dull, the technical underpinnings are atrocious to boot. Never have I seen such an ugly game run so poorly, even on the Xbox One. Moments where the otherworldly monsters are creeping out from crevasses beaming with blue light brings the framerate to a crawl. I would pin this down to the use of multiple light sources to create this effect, but I didn’t care enough to try and investigate. That was pretty much the final nail in the coffin for me. Why trudge through a boring story, and struggle with terrible controls, only to have everything move like molasses when something interesting is supposed to be (but isn’t) happening?
Troll and I never ceases to appal, impugn or confound. The time I’d spent with it, I liken to a mild form of torture, like having to listen to your in-laws passive/aggressively assert their petty concerns over a burnt roast of turkey. You could call it experimental, but it’s neither bold or imaginative enough to earn such a label. It doesn’t even fall into ‘so bad it’s funny’ territory. To put it bluntly, Troll and I didn’t have the artistic or design talent needed to make the most out of its concept. It’s the sort of game you’d only spend money on to spite the child of a relative or acquaintance you despise.