Treasure Adventure Game: Diamond in the Rough

Criticism

First off, I’m going to be discussing some spoilers here, so please don’t let me ruin for you the wonderful sense of discovery in playing Treasure Adventure Game. It’s a side-scrolling platformer that’s a sort of Zelda/Metroidvania type game, where you explore the world and solve puzzles. Go play it now, it’s an amazing indie title and you won’t be disappointed!

2014-07-24_00003Ok, glad you played it! Now, I can normally be quite harsh in my criticism, and I have a stern word or two to say about TAG, but the game itself manages expectations: It’s a free title, so it’s hard to begrudge it very much, and it has an “About” section where it lays out an adorable message from the creator, pictured to the right. I find the creator’s story personally inspiring, and Treasure Adventure Game is clearly a labor of love. And an inspired one at that: though described as a ‘love letter’ to games of the past, this is no nostalgia romp. It plays with and challenges some genre tropes in ways that I found very exciting.

2014-07-27_00001The game hits all the right notes when it comes to platforming/exploring: You jump about and explore a pixel-y landscape that’s filled with obstacles, NPCs, puzzles, etc. The game world feels surprisingly alive. First, it’s huge. I kept thinking I had reached the end of the map, but was surprised there was always another island to reach, which is a wonderful feeling. Getting around this truly massive landscape can occasionally feel tedious when you need to backtrack, but it’s a small price to pay for getting to explore such a lovingly rendered world. Secondly, it has some curious detail elements usually absent from similar games: it not only has a day/night system, but also has a weather system, and a wind system, and a full calendar and lunar cycle system. Not all of these matter to the same degree gameplay-wise, but it helps make the world feel like a real entity you’re exploring, and I appreciated their inclusion.

I was also impressed at the originality in the locations. In a game like this, you expect to hit all the usual clichés: the forest level, the lava level, the ice level, yadda yadda. And indeed, it does touch on some of the usual elements, like a pyramid level, a jungle level, etc. But you don’t generally expect the giant floating graveyard island level, the psychedelic mushroom people level or the underwater factory level. I thought some of the set pieces felt really fresh, and showed true creativity in the world building and level design. At times, the game really captured the feeling of exploring somewhere inherently new, which really drives home the central theme of adventure.

2014-07-28_00007The story itself hits some great notes as well. Even if the ending is a bit of a disappointment, it provided a great narrative underpinning to the exploration adventure and had some great twists. It was actually love at first sight for me: the opening narration relates an adventure that precedes the main game, and its shown as sepia polaroids. It’s a great setup and it makes it feel like the protagonist’s adventure is just one story that exists in this world, rather than the world existing purely to tell his story. The game tasks you with finding twelve magical artifacts, and I loved that these useless treasures were the stereotypical tools a game like this would have: the magic feather, the magic sword, the magic ring, etc etc. But the tools that we collect over the course of the game are the sail, the flashlight, the bottle, or the cannon. Fantasy genre tropes are very difficult to subvert successfully, but I loved how Treasure Adventure Game felt like its own thing. It’s really the perfect syncretization of the classic games it’s referencing, and the modern and unique perspective of its creator. For instance: early on I noticed little grey swirly things on each island, and correctly surmised this would at some point be a fast travel system. However, I imagined it’d just be a warp-gate style affair, I could never have guessed the system would be “Putting dimensional rifts in a bottle to access a bizarro black and white alter-dimension where it’s easier to travel.” Likewise, with the diving bell, I expected you’d only be able to dive at predetermined points. The realization that the overworld’s entire ocean has a bottom is stunning. As someone who plays a lot of games, I think I’m fairly difficult to surprise, and I was delighted at how often Treasure Adventure Game succeeded in truly surprising me.

2014-07-22_00003There are a few off-beats though. The art is serviceable but somewhat inconsistent, and the music is fine but repetitive. These misses are easy to ignore since it’s largely the work of a single person. Harder to ignore are some of the “Nintendo hard” elements, which ranged in severity from “That was way too tough but I feel good for beating it” to absolute controller-throwing fist-waving “What the fuck, game!” rage. Take a look at the screenshot on the left: to get to that little pot (which contains a miniscule amount of coins), you need to do three jumps with no clearance, which requires perfect timing. Ok- a tough jumping puzzle. If you mess up and fall, you can’t actually jump high enough to get back to where you started. Instead, you need to do a lengthy walk around the level to return from above. This seems like a bizarre message, in that it says that playing the game is itself a punishment. While many of the platforming challenges felt tough but fair, too many felt openly hostile to player- like requiring 20 lines of un-skippable dialogue while restarting difficult boss fights. The technical term for this is total horseshit.

2014-07-25_00003There are some design issues here, and it doesn’t succeed for me as a platformer (a good lesson in how to have a soul-crushing difficult platformer while still being fun, Super Meat Boy is a master class), but as a Metroidvania exploration game, it really is top-notch. When I finished it, I felt that sort of brief sadness you get when you finish a great book or game, the regret that the experience has come to an end. Hopefully I’ll get to enjoy the whole experience again: the creator is expanding the concept into a more fully realized game called Treasure Adventure World, and I’m excited to see how it progresses.

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