Originally published in 2017, for The Australia Times Games Magazine
Troll and I
Developer: Spiral House
Publisher: Maximum Games
Format: Xbox One (reviewed), PS4, PC, Switch
Coming into Troll and I, I really didn’t know what to expect.
When it comes to reviewing videogames (or heck, just videogames in general), I’m usually well acquainted with the subject matter, and have some foreknowledge on just what the subject entails.
With this particular title, though, things were different. Outside of a small introductory video presented by one of the developers, I came into Troll and I blind.
Unfortunately, upon booting it up – I wished I really did lose my sight.
First, some context. An action-adventure game that can be played both in single mode or split-screen multiplayer (yes!), Troll and I is set in 1950’s Scandinavia, and puts you in the shoes of a young teenager named Otto – a poor boy who spends his days hunting boar so that he and his mother can eat. During an outing in the woods, a mysterious fire breaks out in his town, causing him to lose his way, and to be attacked by monsters. Its here where the eponymous troll (creatively named ‘Troll’) saves his hide, and the two form a friendship. They try to find their way home, whist being hunted by both monsters and a human mercenary force (led by the villainous ‘Eugene’), and uncovering the mysteries behind the Troll’s existence.
The story is good enough – and may have even been gripping in a better game. Unfortunately, the narrative suffers immensely due to one unfortunate fact; Troll and I isn’t a very good game.
When the very beginning of the game is so aggravating that it makes you want to quit, you know you’re in for a memorable experience.
First, an explanation of the mechanics. Set in quasi-sandbox environments, you play as both Otto and Troll, switching between the two in order to take advantage of their unique abilities. As you can probably guess, the smaller Otto is used for more cerebral gameplay, whilst his burly friend is all about smashing stuff and lifting heavy objects.
To progress, Otto needs to craft equipment and weapons, climb certain walls and even hunt animals. Strangely, the scavenging system reminded me of The Last of Us, as its handled in a virtually identical way. Otto can defend himself from enemies, and find hidden collectables, which do an admirable job of providing backstory to the world Spiral House have created.
In contrast, Troll can decimate his enemies by pounding them, pick up large objects (like one early puzzles that uses an aeroplane wing as a bridge for Otto), and interact with magical shrines. He can also carry the boy on his shoulders, in order to lift him to certain areas.
In theory, all of this sounds like a perfect mixture of varied gameplay (especially in multiplayer mode), but Troll and I falls in to some dramatic pitfalls.
First, let’s go back to my aforementioned frustrating first moments. Starting with a hunting exercise as Otto, the game’s drawbacks are immediately evident. In a scene that a million other games have done effortlessly, here it’s unbelievably clunky, with the bad frame rate and muddy visuals making it physically painful for me to look at. Following shiny boar tracks, the game punishes you for being too slow and too fast at the same time, whilst directly hitting your quarry with spears seems to only register half the time. All the while, Otto’s incredibly annoying voice drones on endlessly, making the introduction an utter chore. This patchy experience continues in the next couple of scenes, as the boy dies endlessly because I didn’t see a poorly-highlighted path, or decides to randomly hit a tree branch whilst sliding down the mountain. Oh, and every death results in a long loading screen. One of which required me to restart my console. Because of course.
This hilariously bad opening is emblematic of the rest of Troll and I. The game is functional, and you can certainly complete it – but the experience is so clunky and glitchy, there’s really no reason to pick it over the umpteenth other videogames out there. Crafting is a pain, with certain tools hard to acquire – and in certain places, if you don’t have the arbitrary item needed for an arbitrary puzzle, then you have to restart the entire chapter. As such, you’re discouraged from experimenting, instead relying on your paranoid hoarding skills. Even something as simple as killing enemies with Troll is aggravating, with the big oaf constantly swinging at air, as his tormentors run around mindlessly. Unacceptable.
It pains me to say this, and I am well aware that the game was made on a relatively small budget – but when you’re vying for attention in the same marketplace as Breath of the Wild or Horizon, the end result isn’t going to win any favours for Spiral House and Maximum Games.
Visually, the game is a mess, with graphics that look like one of those cross-generation Xbox/Xbox 360 games. Animations are stilted, and it runs about as smoothly as an N64 game. The art style too, is a big disappointment, with generic characters and goblin designs, and Troll himself looking immensely punchable.
Sound fares a little better, with a pleasant, subdued score and passable acting (Otto gets a bit more tolerable after the intro).
I must also applaud the developer for implementing couch co-op multiplayer, when so may are abandoning it in this day and age. If you can grab a friend with low expectations, you can certainly have an ironically-enjoyable time.
All in all, Troll and I is one of 2017’s first stinkers. It’s painful, because underneath the hideous visuals, dog’s breakfast gameplay and limited budget, there are some good ideas on offer. You can tell that the developer was invested in the world it created, and the Scandinavian setting is a breath of fresh air from the Americanised stories of almost every other game. Hopefully Spiral House will get a chance to make a sequel, because with some redesigns that are actually viable within its budget, Troll and I could actually be a decent franchise.