Thursday, March 06, 2008

The Great Tree Review

The Great Tree, developed and published by Reflexive Entertainment.
The Good: Enjoyable gameplay, lots of stackable power-ups and upgrades, fair difficulty, pleasing graphics, nice audio indicators, straightforward controls
The Not So Good: Can be very tough, laggy mouse control takes practice, just the campaign/story mode
What say you? A fine mouse-driven collection game: 6/8

A computer mouse lends itself towards unique applications you will only find on the PC. Sure, you can try to substitute an analogue stick, but the precision a mouse can deliver will be missing with “lesser” peripherals. If the consoles truly were superior to the PC, then why do many first person shooters have an “auto-aim” feature? From the developer known for their Ricochet series comes The Great Tree, a game where you collect objects while avoiding enemies using the mouse to navigate in a 2-D environment. Is The Great Tree great, or simply firewood?

Despite the game being in just two dimensions, The Great Tree looks very good. The overall theme is great: as you progress “up” the tree, you will encounter static (with a couple of exceptions) but detailed backgrounds that fit the game well. There are plenty of nice objects, from glowing pollen to detailed enemies. The spells are also rendered well and easily identifiable during gameplay. The Great Tree is never too complicated on-screen, which promotes ease of use. The Great Tree simply has well-designed graphics. The sound in The Great Tree is not too shabby either, with pleasing background music and fanciful effects. The sounds associated with different game actions (having a full ponytail, using spells) are distinct. I was very pleased with the presentation of The Great Tree.

The Great Tree is a single-player campaign-only game where you progress through the storyline, eventually unlocking additional abilities and more difficult enemies. While I always like to have additional play more and “skirmish” battles available, the amount of content present in The Great Tree is decent: the campaign takes a good day or two to plow through. Basically, you are collecting pollen (denoted by glowing orbs) and depositing it at the top of the screen while avoiding enemies that are flying across the landscape. This is done by using the mouse and the controls work well; there is some intentional mouse lag (upgrading your fairy will result in more responsive controls) that takes some getting used to. Once you have collected the required amount of pollen for that level, you move on to the next one. You will have to worry about health: after a certain number of enemy hits, you are dead and must start the level over (with no other penalty). You should also rescue “Swees” encased in green orbs by collecting smaller green orbs from enemies; Swees not only give you experience points but also usually spawn a special power.

The special powers are used to kill or halt enemies, among other things. There are lightning storms, star bursts, and shields that kill, freezes that freeze (surprise!), health replenishers (I think that’s a word), lots of pollen, and pollen attractors. Killing enemies is good, since it will increase your multiplier and give temporary bonuses to pollen collection. You can also get a multiplier by collecting a full supply of pollen without using your special close-quarters weapon. Usually, it’s better to make quick collections if you have a high multiplier (4x or above) than to wait for a full pollen count. In addition to the special powers, you can receive permanent upgrades in the form of wings (granted at specified intervals during the campaign) that can dodge attacks or kill opponents if they injure you, to name a couple of examples.

There are some role-playing elements to The Great Tree: you can upgrade your agility (movement speed), health (health), strength (how much pollen you can carry), and magic (how often you get power-ups). The upgrade speed is controlled by the game, since there is a pre-set number of Swees available on each level. New things could unlock more quickly, but each level goes by quickly enough to get something new during each play session. The Great Tree starts out slowly (to ease new players into the mix), but once you upgrade your character and the enemies and spells pick up in pace, the action becomes very hectic and enjoyable. The game is actually quite difficult, even on “normal” settings. This is mostly due to my poor playing strategies (venturing near the edge of the screen where enemies spawn) so if you like a non-trivial, challenging game then The Great Tree is great. The predictable AI patterns make the game fair, as you won’t be wrongly targeted; learning the moves of each enemy type makes maneuvering and surviving a lot easier. The Great Tree does seem to err on your side if you are close to hitting an enemy, and all of the deaths I have encountered have been mistakes on my part. The difficulty does ramp up considerably in the final level of a section, as the background comes to life and usually shoots crap at you. Overall, though, I found The Great Tree to be a pleasing challenge with simple controls but enough auxiliary features to make playing the game less monotonous.

How do you make a mouse-collection game interesting? By doing what The Great Tree does. The combination of great graphical and sound design, role-playing elements, simple controls, and a number of neat spells makes for an entertaining game. The Great Tree is a bit too basic in the beginning, but once you start getting stacked powers and multiple stat bonuses with tons of enemies on-screen, the action picks up considerably. The game is never unfair with AI that homes in on you, although the stationary enemy present in the last level of each location is quite annoying. The Great Tree is also not trivially easy (as a lot of arcade or puzzle games are) and takes some skill: successfully navigating through a tight squeeze is satisfying. To help on your journey, you are given a choice of upgrades, and each category is equally important to making your choices is difficult. I would like to see additional levels, an editor of sorts, or other supplementary features added to the game, but the story-driven campaign is enough content to justify getting The Great Tree. This game will not make converts to the genre, but The Great Tree is well-designed and great fun if you like this type of game.