The Swedish company Donut Games is a prolific casual gaming developer known for satisfying, single-minded apps with simple concepts. Typically, you master one skill—sidescrolling through an obstacle course, catapulting characters toward targets, strategic pathfinding through tile-based boards—and use it in basic score- or time-attack sessions. Donut Games has fared well on these one-trick ponies, but their latest release, Traps N’Gemstones, displays greater ambitions for the developer. Falling into the genre known to early Nintendo veterans as “Metroidvania” (or “Castleroid”, if you prefer), this Indiana Jones pastiche is a platformer that incorporates exploration and adventure to modest success.
In the world of Traps N’Gemstones, generations of Bedouins have protected an ancient Egyptian pyramid whose labyrinthine interior holds untold treasures. When sacred artifacts begin to disappear from their shrines, the Bedouins have one natural choice of savior: a whip-cracking, fedora-sporting “freelance archeologist” who has what it takes to navigate the guts of the pyramid to return the lost artifacts to their proper places. Much like the movie hero on which your avatar is clearly based, he must brave hordes of rampaging rats and darting snakes, as well as some mythical monsters, on his hunt for the holy items a mysterious looter has secreted around the temple.
True to its genre roots (most especially the Gameboy classic Metroid 2), you run, jump, swim and roll through a maze of rooms with moving platforms, spiked walls, holes that plummet to deeper levels, and secret passageways that give way to hidden rooms. Two things help you remember where you’re going and where you’ve been: One, the map you can access at any time, which marks rooms of especial interest with a little dot, and the division of all of the rooms into four color-coded clusters. And two: your path is lined with hovering gemstones and gold coins that contribute to your score, and also keys which open treasure chests containing helpful items like a whip, a pistol, or most importantly, stolen relics. You won’t know which relics correspond to which of the many empty altars you’ll find on your journey, but placing the right relic on the right altar moves giant hieroglyphic-covered slabs that block the way to deeper recesses of the pyramid.
Visually, the game stays within Donut Games’ cartoony comfort zone, but the clean, bubbly rendering and saturated neon colors keep the eye engaged. Your artful dodging around hovering torches and flying spears is nicely animated and the controls are smooth as can be. The only iffy decision is that while directional buttons are tucked discretely in the bottom right- and left-hand corners, the attack button is placed above the Right directional, causing you to partially obscure the field of play when you want to whip mummies or man-sized tarantulas into shape. You’ll get used to it quickly though, since what you need to focus on is usually relatively centered.
You’d be well advised not expect too much excitement from the game’s fight element, anyway. Encounters with enemies are brief, as most creatures endure a maximum of two lashes or one bullet; the only exceptions are the tough leaping scorpions, which are Traps N’Gemstones’ nearest boss equivalent, and the golden pharaohs who need to be lured into spiked pits. These skirmishes are really just a distraction from maintaining your orientation in the maze, which can be extraordinarily difficult in, say, a room where you are rapidly fired between cannons through a network of crisscrossing tunnels. The game saves your last location each time you close the app, but you may wish to retrace your steps to the beginning and start from scratch if you can’t remember which altars you’ve already checked to see if they’re right for your latest relic. As with the classic platformers from which TNG is descended, this frustrating experience is less a flaw in the design, than a windup for the satisfaction of discovering new areas of the pyramid.
Let’s say, though, that you have a great virtual sense of direction and you can easily lick the light puzzle-solving required by rooms with trap doors, flooding chambers, and strategically rearrangeable crates. After you’ve set things straight in the temple reliquaries, you can go with a score attack approach. Points accumulate when you snatch gold out of clay pots and cloth sacks, and grab gemstones out of the air, but if you run into a bat or drift into a jellyfish, your score is wiped clean. The game records your personal best, so you are always encouraged to beat your own high score. Surviving a full playthrough would be an excellent challenge. This is not to claim that this relatively simple game will hold evergreen appeal, but it should keep the average gamer busy for a while.
Traps N’Gemstones has many virtues, so if there is one sticking point, it’s that long-time fans of Donut Games may balk at the $4.99 price tag. This is not just a price one might expect to find on a game with greater complexity or name recognition, but it will come as a surprise to consumers who are accustomed to the developer’s usual $0.00 price point. That said, Donut Games may be forgiven their miscalculation on their first foray into more involved gaming, since the lightweight TNG is still easy on the eyes and consistently entertaining. If Traps N’Gemstones signals the developer’s continued expansion into more diverse and challenging games, then the supporting this initial experiment will be well worth it.
Is it Hardcore?
Though not exactly innovative, this Metroidvanian mix of platformer and adventure elements will be a nice surprise for Donut Games fans, and a pleasantly vapid diversion for old school gamers.