Review: The Frostrune01 Mar 2017 0
Review: The Frostrune
Released 01 Feb 2017
The derogatory phrase "adventure game logic" is used to criticize the tendency of adventure games to require absurd leaps in reasoning to solve their puzzles, to the degree it feels the player is simply guessing what madness the designer had in mind. The most notorious example of adventure game logic was in 1999 's Gabriel Knight III: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned, coming at the tail end of adventure's heyday. In order to rent a moped, Gabriel was required to fashion a disguise by creating a false mustache--so far so sensible. This was accomplished not by, say, getting a Geraldo Rivera costume from a Halloween shop, but by using the only available source of natural hair--a stray cat--and attaching it to Gabriel's face with maple syrup.
But the final step was the real head-scratcher: the player had to draw a mustache on the id with a marker, because the person they were impersonating _had no mustache_!
But then this sort of adventure game died off, attributed by some to the rise of 3D graphics but by others to a suicide-by-obscure-puzzle-design. Now there has been something of an adventure game renaissance, driven by digital distribution, Kickstarter, and new touchscreen devices. Yet often, these new school adventures are criticized for being simplified and streamlined to the point of austerity. A masterful adventure game strikes a balance between the baroque trappings of verb lists and the economy of single-tap puzzle-solving. Unfortunately, The Frostrune verges too far toward the latter.
The Frostrune is a new school adventure game built for mobile with a theme of Norse myth. The player is a young girl castaway on the shores of a deserted village. She is shortly tasked with discovering and banishing the evil that brought ruin to these people. To do so, she will travel in first-person through several dozen scenes, gathering tools and magical items, and solving puzzles using the clues given in the environment.
The painted backgrounds effectively establish the desolate setting. Most compelling are the human-constructed spaces, which make use of traditional architecture and design and are filled with classical tools like looms and forges. The traditional Norse artwork that decorates these spaces gives them a unique feel, separating them from more generic medieval fantasy. The outdoor drawings are somewhat less successful; there are several branching paths through the forest that are not differentiated enough to keep sense of where one is.
The backgrounds are mostly static, with some animation like distant lightning flashes or flickering fires, but this is appropriate to the setting, an abandoned village. The art does a good job of directing the eye towards the available exits and touchable hotspots. Items that can be picked up are clearly separated by color or design, so there is little need to pixel hunt for a solution. Exits are also clearly marked with paths, so it is not difficult to see where the player can go. However, it is sometimes difficult to recall where one should go. Even after I understood that the "back" button at the bottom always sent me back to the previous screen, I would find myself getting turned around in an environment that is not really that large. Being unable to look from side to side hampers the sense of immersion that the artwork is otherwise quite successful at eliciting.
The interface is straightforward, consistent with any other tablet-era adventure game. Tapping on an item interacts with it. Using an inventory item is likewise simply a matter of opening the inventory, and tapping on the item and the place it is to be applied--no verbs are required, nor are inventory items used together.
The sound design is well-done and evocative, particularly the choice to have all voice acting in Norse with subtitles (eleven languages are available!). The sound is creepy and atmospheric in the spirit world and pastoral in the real world, a nice counterpoint to the ghost town the player explores. However, sound is not necessary to play the game, so if you don’t want to bother your sleeping partner with Old Norse chants, you can play on silent.
What story there is is delivered through these chants. There are a handful of ghostly NPCs that the player will interact with, where interaction is limited to hearing what they have to say and bringing them what they want. In a genre known for some of the most thoughtful narratives and compelling characters in video games, the lack of story here is glaring. Something bad happened, some people died. The player character arrived via shipwreck and will eventually find the big bad and beat it. But here there is no sense of threat or something being at stake, no dark secrets to uncover. The characters are purely transactional--they want something, you get it, they give you what you need--with no character arc. After gaining the ability to travel to the spirit world, the puzzles also lack a clear sense of progression; the player is gathering totems for an unclear purpose, and the final struggle comes out of nowhere and is resolved just as quickly.
Half of the puzzles amount to using the appropriate tool for a situation. When you need to dig, you need a shovel. To cut, a scythe. While this is initially refreshing, eventually one wishes for something a little more lateral. The remaining puzzles rely on the ability to see into the spirit world and more often than not take the form of locked puzzle boxes, where the combination is in plain sight somewhere else in the game world. Solving any of these puzzles is simply a matter of memory. Where could I use a pulley? Where did I see those painted figures before? There is no imagination required, no experimentation. On the few occasions where some might have been required, instead the game suggests exactly what you need to proceed—a late puzzle involving a necessary key magically frozen to a body might have required some creativity…if the player character didn’t immediately offer the solution upon interacting with the key.
A hint system is available, but poorly implemented. The game itself is very linear, so it would make sense to just have a button that offered a suggestion on where to look for your next step. Instead, tapping on the hint menu brings up a numbered list of hints, requiring you to scroll all the way down to find the most recently unlocked one. When I tried to use it, however, the most advanced hint was several steps beyond my current position - I had to read several hints backwards to find the relevant one, spoiling the next puzzle entirely. Closing a hint closes the menu entirely, so the player has to make their way back into the menu system and scroll all the way down yet again. Moreover, the hints are not really “hints,” which to me implies suggestions or questions that guide to the answer. The hints spell out what you need to do next explicitly—useful when stuck but not too much fun. Luckily I never again got stuck enough to go looking for help.
This is where I came to long for a little more adventure game logic. The Frostrune is just too easy, and it is easy because it depends only on memory and 'vertical' step-by-step reasoning. The adventure games of the 1990s were rightfully criticized for their incredible leaps required to solve their puzzles, but at least they stretched your brain--even if it was only to make you question the designer's sanity.
Because of its dull puzzles and half-baked story, It is difficult to recommend The Frostrune to anyone but die-hard mobile adventure gamers and/or people with a passion for Norse mythology.