To steal a line from Jon Irwin, "The platforming genre, once dominant, has now been relegated to counterprogramming." Which is to say that the two-dimensional platformer has overtaken, like kudzu, much of the niche and indie landscape that isn't dominated by games that involve shooting things in the face. For mobile gaming, that idea is more or less maintained if you swap face-shooting for physics-puzzling or colored-block-sliding. But that kind of reductive generalization doesn't leave room for nuance, and nuance is exactly what you need to talk about Terra Noctis.
At first blush, Terra Noctis [$.99] seems pretty derivative: the pits are inexplicably endless, the physics are rudimentary, and the enemies -- pumped in straight from the Mushroom Kingdom -- die if something lands on their heads. Even the narrative introduction seems particularly on the nose: Allen is a nightmare who isn't scary enough to pass his monster exams. Desperate, he sneaks out of school to find a way to get scarier. The idea is never revisited.
It's not long before Fire Fruit Forge starts to introduce new mechanics: shooting, power-ups, puzzles, three different types of currency, and a bat named Columbus who guides Allen to secret areas and sometimes, bafflingly, lets him ride around on his back. Unfortunately, these do little to dispel the first impression: some of the mechanics don't really affect the core platforming, and the ones that do are one-note concepts that don't add much.
There are three different collectible items that can be spent: blue fairies buy power-ups, red fairies unlock the next hub-world, and golden coins unlock bonus levels. It's kind of weird that a game about crushing goomba skulls involves so many ways to buy stuff.
I like the idea in theory -- collectibles have long been a staple of the genre, and Fire Fruit Forge are right to give Allen's monetized pixie dust mechanical value. Because these items are hidden throughout each non-linear level, players are ostensibly motivated to explore. This, in turn, introduces a risk-reward element to Terra Noctis' points system and OpenFeint leaderboards: player score is based both on speed and collection, and climbing the leaderboards depends on managing both.
There are problems with the system, though. The power-ups add very little to Terra Noctis, and using them never become a regular part of my strategy. This devalues the importance of the blue fairies, which in turn makes collecting them less gratifying. It disrupts the balance of the entire system. Similarly, the red fairies and coins are too easy to find, and the levels they unlock are too cheap: not once was my progress impeded by a lack of funds. In other words, not once was I motivated to explore Terra Noctis in a meaningful way.
The other supplemental mechanics, like shooting and flying, simply aren't creative enough to keep Terra Noctis moving forward. The first time I shot a bat to complete a puzzle was neat, but the shooting function hasn't changed since. These things are largely tangential to the running, jumping, and head-stomping, but adding extra mechanics isn't the same as using them effectively. It doesn't help that the environments and level design change very rarely, despite there being four different hub-worlds to explore. Visually and mechanically, Terra Noctis is a static place, and the entire experience can tend to feel same-y.
Despite the lack of variety, Terra Noctis is buoyed up by its visual design. You'll explore the same vague forest and cave designs over and over, but the backgrounds are a nice example of parallax scrolling, and the foreground has a lush, storybook feel to it. The animations are fluid and expressive -- I especially like that Columbus, the helper-bat, manages to seem anxious and excitable, even though he's basically just a set of eyes with wings. There's an undeniable charm and innocence that runs through every piece of this game.
You'll also hear the same four or five synthpop tracks during the course of the game, but the Herbie Hancock-esque score -- no, seriously -- is used judiciously to set the tone for each level.
It doesn't hurt that Terra Noctis is so fun to play. Even disengaged from the high-level design choices, jumping up and down and stomping purple goombas is a treat, thanks in no small part to the game's controls: they're simply the most sensitive and responsive virtual buttons I've encountered to date. They aren't perfect, though, since the buttons are placed too closely to one another -- I often find myself going left when I mean to go right.
(The other systemic bugbear in Terra Noctis is hit detection: Allen's hitbox seems too big and he often finds himself stuck in a ledge or block. This might lead to a few unwarranted deaths, but the checkpoints are spaced evenly enough that it never becomes a huge issue.)
Still, the level design is generous enough to accommodate those lapses, and the most significant exploration is vertical, not horizontal. Players sometimes get cut off from areas they mean to explore, but Terra Noctis is usually pretty good about expanding and bottlenecking appropriately. In all but a few exceptions, you can feel free to wander around, comfortable with the knowledge that you will eventually circle around toward the critical path.
Maybe it's a good thing that Terra Noctis' more ambitious designs fall through -- there's a lot of fluff that distracts from the core. As it stands, the game's fairy-tale premise evokes something akin to coming home for a long weekend. The game's strengths are found in the understated joy of jumping through space, of seeing some unreachable ledge or platform and guiding Allen to it. Terra Noctis, through its intuitive controls and design, provides simple pleasure. This is comfort gaming -- familiar, identifiable, and care-free. I'm ready to spend Martin Luther King Day in my pajamas, guiding Allen through the rest of his quest. I'm pretty sure I know where he's heading.
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