Troll & I won’t be taking home many awards yet easily snaps up an accolade for being one of the year’s most bizarre, “out there” releases. Developed by Spiral House, it combines gritty survival with mythical fantasy in a 1950s, post-war Scandinavia.
A maniacal millionaire has put a bounty on what he believes to be a real-life troll wandering the idyllic woodlands of northern Europe, and while his motives aren’t entirely clear, he’s determined to hunt down this folklore legend using a private army that’s at his beck and call.
Meanwhile, in a ramshackle settlement, a young boy named Otto ventures into the forest in search of game to hunt for dinner. Upon his return, he finds his home in flames and is separated from his mother. Running for his life, Otto scrambles across a bridge, only to stumble into a dreadlocked behemoth he goes on to call “Troll”.
While Spiral House has clearly cherry picked systems and mechanics from a range of third person action titles, they slot together in a unique, if awkward, fashion. The easiest way of summing up Troll & I to seasoned gamers is as a mix between The Last of Us and The Last Guardian. There are also parallels with the lesser known and vastly underappreciated Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom.
It actually took me by surprise how much the gameplay attempts to mimic Naughty Dog’s own masterpiece. The camera and movement feel almost identical, as does the way in which Otto scrambles for resources, fashioning them into items and weapons. There’s also a certain sense of freedom when approaching groups of enemies. While stealth is always an option, you can also bombard foes with ranged attacks or get up close and personal.
In terms of consistency and all-round quality, the two games couldn’t be further apart, however. Sneaking up on guards and monsters is fiddly and unreliable, Otto’s spear-throwing is toothless, and close combat amounts to little more than button bashing. It wouldn’t be so bad if the sections in between were varied and engaging. Instead, Spiral House plugs these gaps with tedious platforming and puzzle solving, usually separating the two protagonists and forcing them to navigate two parallel paths.
One common obstacle they love to re-use are faintly glowing piles of debris. Available in blue, green, and red, these can only be cleared by crafting a spear tipped with a corresponding shard colour. It goes without saying that binding puzzle solutions to a scarce number of crafting resources isn’t the game’s best idea. Having wasted a number of shards early on, there was a point in Troll & I where I couldn’t progress. Dreading the prospect of starting a new game, I had to scour every nook and cranny until, roughly an hour later, I found the one piece of material I needed.
Where Otto can sneak around and access tighter areas, Troll is used to haul makeshift platforms and swat aside groups of enemies. Despite the awkward camera angle and his general lack of dexterity, he’s the only viable choice in most combat situations. Otto’s weapons will simply glance off bigger targets and he’s also prone to getting killed in a single hit from rogue spears flying through the air.
When a game features two contrasting protagonists, there are certain expectations. Whether it’s The Last Guardian, Brothers, or even Army of Two, there are systems and mechanics that breed a certain degree of symbiosis. Aside from a handful of painfully slow puzzles, there isn’t that sense of seamless co-operation. This is compounded by the typically braindead AI of Otto or Troll when switching control between them. In combat, they’ll happily stand still taking hits as if they were just enjoying the weather. They’ll also ignore the basic follow command, sometimes wandering off in a completely different direction.
The tone of their relationship, and that of the game in general, does nothing to make the player feel emotionally invested. Otto will frequently hurl insults at Troll in the game’s emergent dialogue, just seconds after supposedly poignant cutscenes. The game also follows in the footsteps of 2013’s Tomb Raider by having Otto sobbing after his first kill, only to slit the throats and bash the skulls of human enemies who are literally just around the corner.
Other, more pressing issues mean that snags in performance go generally unnoticed alongside ugly character models and a lack of visual flare. On several occasions we also ran into game-breaking bugs as Troll got caught on some of the geometry, unable to free himself.
Slapping down poor video games never brings me much pleasure, especially those that genuinely show promise. While it has a unique setting and some solid ideas, boring level design and a general lack of imagination when piecing together all of these components leaves me with very little to praise.
Version tested: PlayStation 4 Pro