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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (461)

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Greak: Memories of Azur 3.5/5
Yaga 2.5/5
Riverbond 3/5
Bug Fables: The Everlas... 4.5/5
Front Mission 1st Remake 1.5/5
Middle-earth: Shadow of... 3.5/5
Bladed Fury 3.5/5
Ruzar - The Life Stone 3.5/5
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin 3.5/5
Mighty Switch Force! Co... 2.5/5
Aegis of Earth: Protono... 3/5
Torchlight III 2.5/5
Cyberpunk 2077 3.5/5
Mario + Rabbids: Sparks... 4.5/5
Eiyuden Chronicle: Risi... 3/5
Psychonauts 2 4.5/5
Castle in the Clouds DX 4/5
Ocean's Heart 4/5
Just Die Already 2/5
Sable 2.5/5
Midnight Castle Succubus 4.5/5
Tower and Sword of Succ... 4/5
Thronebreaker: The Witc... 3/5
Battletoads (2020) 1.5/5
Door Kickers: Action Sq... 4.5/5

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Pine   PC (Steam) 

Hollow and Rotten    2/5 stars

Back in 2017, a new Dutch Indie startup calling themselves Twirlbound launched a Kickstarter campaign to crowdfund an ambitious new game development project, which would be published by Kongregate (you know, the Flash/browser game guys). The Kickstarter succeeded, though not by nearly as massive margins as other Indie darlings both before and since, reaching 121,000/100,000 Euros – that is to say, a shoestring budget.

The game in question, “Pine,” first caught my interest around the time of its crowdfunding campaign, as it promised to be a novel blend of genres, namely Action/Adventure and City-Building Sim. In the halcyon days of my youth, I remember being blown away by the handful of SNES titles that endeavored to do the same, using the dominant Action game genre of their times; things like “ActRaiser” and “SoulBlazer.” The idea, then of a modern Action/Sandbox game with an open world and dynamic city-building going on inside that sandbox made my mind tingle with possibilities.

The game launched in 2019, after a meager two years of development to a deafening silence. Nobody made any to-do about this new release, and I was content to wait for a solid discount before buying, as usual. That discount came in 2021 in the form of 100% off when the Epic Store gave away “Pine” for free. I jumped into it almost immediately.

Unfortunately due to a number of possible reasons ranging from lack of developer experience to sub-par tools to that afore-mentioned shoestring budget, “Pine” ultimately failed to deliver on what was initially advertised during the Kickstarter. I should have been suspicious when Epic gave it away, since they pretty much never give away anything good.

“Pine” is a Unity Engine game. Surprisingly, it actually looks decent for a game developed in that engine, so at least the art team put in a reasonable effort. The visuals are vibrantly colorful and stylishly cartoony. However, while the non-human creatures that inhabit the world are cute and interesting in their own unique ways, the humans themselves are generally quite hideous, looking like some gross hybrid of a Cro-Magnon and a Hobbit. The other downside with the game’s visuals is the fact that the Unity Engine is ‘quirky,’ to put it kindly, and does some generally weird things, like causing all of the grass textures to randomly disappear, or causing a certain character to flicker uncontrollably.

Audiowise, “Pine” tends to be very proud of its soundtrack. And while the music contained within the game is good, it doesn’t bring itself to the fore nearly often enough. Most of the game is accompanied by the all-too-typical wind and generic ambient noises. I really don’t understand why game developers who actually have good music for their game and know they have good music for their game refuse to actually have it accompany at least 80% of the game! Heck, make it an option in the settings for players to decide how much OST they want while playing. “Pine” is mostly unvoiced. The humans in the game speak a gibberish language, while the sentient non-humans each have a couple of distinctive noises, but nothing close to dialog.

Technically, “Pine” is alright. Aside from the visual Unity quirks, there are other Unity quirks that I think mostly come down to inexperience. It’s easy to get stuck in world geometry due to iffy blocking volumes in numerous locations. But at least the game supports Xinput out of the box and runs stably on modern hardware.

“Pine” is the story of a young human boy named Hue who lives in the world’s only human village in a pine forest atop a series of cliffs. Hue’s brother is a constant dreamer, wondering about the world below, which the villagers only refer to as “The Out,” and insist is filled to bursting with dangerous monsters.

One day, as the whole tribe celebrates the construction of a new treehouse in the pine village, the cliffs give way beneath said house, plunging it to the depths below. This initial tremor is followed by more, and before long, the village is decimated and Hue’s brother is lost in a landslide.

Setting out to find his brother (or his brother’s remains) and, hopefully, a new, safe place for the humans to set up a new village, Hue ventures into The Out…

… And finds it full of various beast-man races, all but one of whom is absolutely terrified of humans, for some unknown reason. The friendly race of pot-stirring beaver-merchants known as the Tambas agree to help Hue on his quest to relocate the human village, and encourage him to start by digging-up the past.

Overall, “Pine’s” plot is incredibly weak and incredibly railroaded. In an open-world game with some Sim elements tacked-on, player agency should be paramount, yet every one of the major plot beats is forced, and they all feel really unsatisfactory. “Pine” is also a ridiculously/mercifully short game, clocking it as around 20 hours, give-or-take. Of course, this short length is the result of both the game’s pacing being overly rushed and the plot, such as it is, simply not having much territory to cover. Everything about the game’s major themes and narrative is painfully predictable.

When we were first introduced to Twirlbound’s ideas for the world of “Pine” via Kickstarter, we were lead to believe that it would be an open, almost “Breath of the Wild”-esque experience of exploring, crafting, and spelunking through ancient ruins, combined with a City-Building or Economic Sim filled with trading, upgrading cities, forming alliances, and all that good stuff. And technically “Pine” has all that, but it’s just executed in the most half-assed way possible.

Yes, “Pine” is an open-world sandboxy island, and the player can take Hue anywhere. However, there are no interesting climbing mechanics and, ultimately, nothing to do until engaging with at least one of the game’s dungeons.

Yes, “Pine” has dungeons, called ‘Vaults.’ Specifically, there are three of them, and each one houses a unique tool that upgrades Hues capabilities. There’s a spyglass/balloon combo that can be used to see hidden puzzle clues or floated in their air at any point to cause all nearby resources, treasures, beastmen, and villages to appear on Hue’s map… until the player recovers the balloon, thus the map features up to 10 stick pins that can be plopped on points of interest before they disappear… but they can’t be labeled. Next, there’s a belt-buckle that emits a burst of electricity… which is only useful for activating a tiny handful of machines in the game… and which is supposed to stun enemies in combat… but doesn’t. Lastly, there’s a taming harness that allows Hue to befriend any non-sentient animal in the world. There are four types: A horse-like thing Hue can ride, a bird that can be used as a springboard (to solve exactly two puzzles in the entire game), a walrus that is useless, and an electric salamander that will prove a valuable battle companion… until it dies.

Yes, “Pine” has crafting. However, only the end-game gear is worth crafting, since it’s actually powerful, while all of the intermediate tiers of weapons and armor all feel like varying degrees of ‘wet noodle’ or ‘damp tissue’ when using them in battle. Crafting also relies on Hue’s ability to carry materials, and the starting bag capacity is ridiculously small. Upgrading the bag (and eventually getting the Best Armor) simply involves collecting a number of unique green orbs all over the island, which are one of two resources that don’t respawn over time (or instantly upon loading a saved game). However, collecting these things either requires a stupidly thorough amount of exploration, which will then lead to retraced steps when the plot forces Hue to go there again later, or it requires the player to rush as much as possible to get the three items from the Vaults in order to make exploration actually feel productive.

Yes, “Pine” features simulated demographics and economics, with each of 5 different tribes of beastmen doing their own thing, as the AI governing them attempts to gather resources, improve their cities, and capture more cities. However, none of these factions can ever be permanently defeated. Furthermore, offering materials, food, and whatnot to one faction to improve Hue’s relationship with them automatically worsens Hue’s relationship with ALL the other factions, thus there is no sensible set of alliances. The player’s best hope is to be allied with one faction, neutral with one faction, and hostile to the other three… IN THE EARLY GAME. Ridiculously, exploring the Vaults pisses off EVERYONE (except the Tambas, who, as I mentioned, just like stirring the pot), which makes it harder to form and maintain an alliance with even a single faction as the game progresses. Of course, making alliances is generally useless, since the beastmen don’t sell anything of particular interest in their crappy shops (where bartering is king, since there is no currency), and wasting resources befriending people who will go hostile due to plot railroading is absolutely pointless.

Of course, after all that plot railroading, the very final mission of the game actually feels, ever-so-slightly, like what “Pine’s” true potential could have been. In this mission, the Tambas broker a peace deal between Hue and a faction of his choice. The player is then actually tasked with taking over a city for that faction, upgrading the newly-installed allied city to its maximum tier (out of C, B, and A), and defending it from two waves of invaders. THIS is the type of thing that should have been absolutely central to progressing through the game, yet it was handled abysmally throughout, up until the bitter end.

Not only are “Pine’s” novel gameplay mechanics poorly executed, but even the basics are painfully annoying. “Pine’s” ‘survival-crafting’ inspirations see the game saddled with a nearly pointless stamina system. Weapons and armor don’t need upkeep, but Hue himself needs to eat food items to keep his stamina up. Running, jumping, swimming, swinging weapons, and every other physical activity that requires stamina in real life drains Hue’s meter. But since food restores stamina AND health, running out of stamina (which decreases Hue’s speed and attack power) is never really a worry. And, sadly, “Pine’s” ‘action-combat’ inspiration is none other than the dreadful ‘Dark Souls,’ with slow, clunky weapon animations, a finicky and useless lock-on button, and lots and lots of dodge-rolling. End-game combat almost feels balanced with the previously-mentioned Best Weapons and Armor in the Game, but the rest of the game is just an unbalanced slog, where Hue will usually be up against multiple combatants who can kill him in 3-4 blows, while he must whittle away at their impossible amounts of armor and health. As a result, combat in “Pine” is nearly always unpleasant and best avoided whenever possible.

“Pine” is an amateur-hour collection of broken promises and poorly-designed, poorly-executed mechanics. It has one brief moment when it shines as the type of game it was meant to be… But then there’s the rest of it.

Presentation: 4/5
Story: 2/5
Gameplay: 1.5/5
Overall (not an average): 2/5



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