Pine is incredibly ambitious. Successfully funded on Kickstarter roughly two-and-a-half years ago, small Netherlands developer Twirlbound set about working on its big idea. The project promised to combine many genres: the adventuring of a Zelda title, Shadow of Mordor’s intricate AI simulation of NPC friendships and rivalries, a dash of Fable‘s hero’s journey, and a Bloodborne-inspired combat system for good measure. Promising Breath of the Wild on a shoestring budget, Pine very nearly achieves its lofty ambitions, featuring an engaging world, impressively deep simulation, and a wide variety of gameplay systems. However, the clunky controls, poor communication with the player, and a raft of bugs prevent Pine from reaching its full potential.
In the tiny island nation of Albamare, evolution played out a little differently. Alongside humans, groups of other creatures also gained sentience, edging humans out of their territories with superior physical attributes. So inferior are the humans to the other species that only a handful remain on the island, a tribal group living upon a crumbling mountaintop. This isolation brought them peace, for a while, but the peace was not to last. The shifting soil they live upon turns into a landslide, killing several people and destroying much of the village. The tribal humans have always been afraid of the outside world, but with half the population wiped out they have little choice but to let Hue, a curious young man, explore beyond their home plateau. As Hue looks for a new home for his people, he discovers a world more complicated than he could have ever imagined.
The world outside of Hue’s little village is vibrant and teeming with life. While perhaps a touch small compared to other open world games, the map is dense, containing a wide variety of biomes, hills, lakes, and valleys to explore. Crafting materials are abundantly distributed across the land, regrowing at a steady clip. This bounty of food items, stones, logs, flowers, and gems is quickly put to good use. On his travels, Hue can gain ideas for new crafting recipes, turning sticks and stones into makeshift traps or improving weapons. Food restores health and reenergises him for battle. Any item he does not have an immediate use for can be thrown into a nearby donation bin, which will gain him favour with the nearest tribe.
Alliances between the island’s inhabitants are constantly in flux, with Hue’s actions having a marked effect on the world around him. Relations between groups are divided into hostile, neutral, and allies, with the current relationship affecting both how Hue can interact with the creatures, and how they interact with each other. Allies will trade with Hue, offering a friendly wave as he goes past. Neutral creatures are more skittish, keeping their guard up but otherwise going about their business. Hostiles will attack on sight, often ignoring smaller monsters to take on the human threat.
Manipulating these relationships is key to progressing through Hue’s journey, as he will need to interact with each race to uncover the deeper mysteries of the world. Raising friendship is easy in the beginning, a few items in the donation box enough to sway opinion. Each action taken has knock-on effects, however: making a donation to the Krockers, for example, a race of large crocodile-like beings, will anger anyone they are at war with, causing Hue to lose standing with the opposing race. Helping a group to upgrade their village will see the idea spread like wildfire across the map, with better buildings and weapons at every turn. Relationships will continue to shift even when Hue is not involved, warring and trading as the leaders desire.
This deep level of simulation is the core of Pine‘s appeal: a living, breathing ecosystem that is constantly changing. It is also, however, the source of much of the bugginess of Pine. Most of the story quests need a group to be in a certain state to progress, hostile, neutral, or allied, but the unpredictable nature of their behaviour means they can switch between states at the most inopportune time. This results in odd behaviours, such as people attacking when they are supposed to be neutral, animal monarchs refusing to interact with the player, or quests being brought to a standstill since poisoning their king was apparently not upsetting enough to break the alliance.
Once one gets used to the volatile nature of the simulation, if something strange occurs the player will know the best choice is to step away and try the quest again later. In the early stages of the Pine, however, stuck quests are quite frustrating, as alternatives are lacking. This is compounded by extremely barebones quest text, which will not help the player determine why their current approach is not working. While the whole world is open to explore from the start, only a single quest is available at the beginning: to explore one of three vaults. Once a vault has been chosen, all other options are blocked off, but the quest text does not reflect this, leading to confusion. Things improve considerably after the first vault is completed, with a large number of quests becoming available, giving the game the flexibility it desperately needs. Some more side quests earlier on would help the game considerably, as the gameplay experience is best when the player has a lot of options.
Hue’s adventure involves a lot of combat, both from monsters in the overworld and the sentient races. Each group has a unique approach to fighting: Krockers and the moose-like Carablin favour hard-hitting melee moves, slow but powerful. The fox-like Fexel are potion masters, throwing smoke bombs and healing constantly. The large flightless birds of Gobbledew are the all-rounders of the animal kingdom, using both melee and ranged attacks. Hue’s movements are slow and deliberate, requiring the player to carefully watch enemy movements to find a moment to strike. Enemies hit hard, but their attacks are clearly telegraphed, similar to the Dark Souls style of combat. For the most part, combat works well, but the lack of a proper dodge button is frustrating. When locked on to an enemy, the wimpy side-step does little for evading blows. An approach to get around this limitation is to not lock on to the enemy at all, and run back and forth to evade attacks. Thankfully, for those who do not enjoy this style of combat, the game autosaves often, meaning little progress is lost after death. Most encounters can also be avoided entirely by either running away, or maintaining a decent reputation with all the groups.
Less impressive are Pine‘s platforming challenges, located both as optional extras in the overworld, and annoying obstacles in the dungeon-like vaults. Hue’s jump is extremely sluggish, requiring the button to be pressed well before the edge of a platform. No concessions are included to help with correcting a dodgy jump, like the ability to grab onto a ledge or allowing the player to leap just after they have stepped off the platform, known as ‘coyote time’. Compounding this frustration is the design of the vaults, where a missed jump often requires a long climb back up to the previous position. While the vaults have some nice puzzles, lots of flicking switches and checking ancient markings, the platforming aspect taints the whole experience. Completing a vault simply evokes a feeling of relief, not accomplishment.
A lot of thought and care has clearly gone into the visual design of Pine. The environment is lush and beautiful, an explosion of colour that shifts depending on the time of day. Each of the races has a unique design, reflective of their different cultures. However, this personality could be better reflected in the writing; talking to a non-storyline NPC will draw from the same small pool of generic comments, evidenced by a Krocker remarking ‘I was scared when a Krocker came to our village’. Main characters fare a little better, but with such a fascinating world on display, not delving deeper into the lore feels like a missed opportunity.
The main issue holding Pine back is poor communication. Tutorials are close to non-existent, a brief display of button prompts before pushing the player out to explore the world. This is particularly notable with the combat. If one is unfamiliar with the Dark Souls style of fighting, the two minutes spent explaining the concept is woefully insufficient. No options exist for sorting or storing inventory items, a big omission in a game focused on crafting. The map is hard to read, white icons upon a pale background with no key for the icons. Quest text is basic and, at times, confusing. With item-based quests, half the time the player will be given the item and the other half only the crafting recipe, with no clear distinction between the two. A significant patch dropped during the review process, which corrected some of the glitches and writing issues, so hopefully more of the same is on the way.
If the communication issues and bugs can be cleared up, Pine has the potential to be really special. When everything works, the little sandbox of Albamare is a delightful place to explore. In Pine‘s current state, though, a great deal of patience is required to deal with the poor platforming, obtuse writing, and strange AI behaviour. Should one push through these issues, however, they will find a charming adventure that creates a beautiful blend of seemingly incompatible ideas.
Reviewed on PC. Also coming to Nintendo Switch.