It is tempting to argue that Early Access should only be for certain kinds of games - ambitious games, experimental games, games with a certain degree of the unknown to them. Setting aside the fact that developers can do whatever they want, this approach makes Trine 3: The Artifacts of Power seem like a weird fit. In my memory, this is a series built of wonderfully poised platform adventures, in which elegantly rendered Sleepy Hollow tree limbs curl around a range of ingenious physics puzzles. With its wizards and warriors and its pan-piped soundtrack, it's a bit like spending an evening in Peru's favourite Tolkien theme pub. It's a known quantity, and it has a certain polish.
In reality, Trine's often been a little more complex than that. The physics, while entertaining, have always felt slightly wonky, and the puzzles, built to be completed by any of three different characters, have tended towards the murky and the fudgeable. Most of all, the developers have never been brilliant about leading a player's eye towards what's important and away what's not in this lavishly detailed world. Trine is like an evening in a Tolkien theme pub, then, but it's a lock-in, and, every now and then, the staff gets plastered. In other words, there is probably room here for the kind of tweaking and recalibration that Early Access allows for after all.
Whatever the case, the hour I spent with Trine 3 this morning delighted me. It's the same old charmer, really, beautiful sights and a zip-along narration hurrying you past things that might otherwise annoy you. The big change this time around is the shift to proper three-dimensional environments, and Trine 3 handles it all so well it pretty much feels like the levels have always worked this way. There's a noted absence of fuss: a fixed camera tracks you as you race across a rickety bridge, say, and then follows you inwards as you head over meadows and sandy beaches to the glittering rocks that mark the horizon. I actually had to load up Trine 2 to prove to myself that this stuff was actually new.
In truth, in the two short campaign levels the Early Access build currently offers, this shift doesn't really add that much in mechanical terms, although there's a lovely moment when you float between platforms, headed down through a valley carved between towering rock faces, bound for the entrance to a dreamy grotto below. For the most part, you're swept along from one checkpoint to the next like old times, deciding which of your three heroes is best suited for the latest challenge. The fact that your focus might turn inwards or outwards as well as left and right is hardly a huge deal.
The heroes are the old reliables: the wizard, who conjures blocks and levitates stuff, the knight, who brawls and pummels the ground in a suitably seismic manner, and the thief, who can swing from a rope, fire arrows and wall-jump and shimmy with an easy grace. A ferry magician, Big Daddy, and Lara Croft, in essence - a strange crew, perhaps, but these are strange times.
Each of the heroes is entertaining enough to allow you to forgive the fact that they all still need improvement. The thief's lithe animation lets you put aside fussing over the aiming system for her bow, which is a bit fiddly, while the pleasure with which the knight sets about his battles covers up the fact that his brawling is a touch too simplistic to be truly engaging. This is a broad theme for the whole game, inevitably. One of the weird things about Trine as a series is that none of its elements are particularly brilliant, but something magical can happen when they're all drawn together.
Trine 3's levels pull you along at full speed, as you race from puzzle to combat - not much of it - and off to a platforming challenge. The first level introduces the characters one by one, and serves as a reminder of the individual things they're good at. The second throws them all into the same setting together, as they head off towards a teetering castle on the horizon for reasons that I skipped past by accident.
It's a nice journey, if rather a short one at present, and while stand-out puzzles aren't really Trine's stock in trade, there's still some reliable fun had with pulley systems and the Wizard's ability to create boxes to weigh down switches. There's a great bit where you have to flit between characters to take down a troll who's smashing away at a wall, the thief shooting hotspots before the knight jumps on the wizard's crate and hacks away at an arm. There are also a couple of neat puzzles that hinge on the thief's ability to fire a rope into one object and then tie that rope to something else - knotting open a door that wants to swing shut, for example, or fixing a lever in place. By the time this splinter of campaign was done, I wanted much more of it. This is definitely an Early Access game I will check back in on.
Elsewhere, there's an additional challenge level, of which we're ultimately promised a series. Each of these limits you to a single character and then piles on the hurdles. The only one available so far stars the thief, and it's an entirely agreeable mixture of wall-climbing and rope-swinging that highlights a strange problem in the current build in terms of the persistency of the grappling hooks you fire into the environment. After two minutes of working on a pull-cart, the ground was littered with them. It also makes you wonder whether Trine would be better suited to levels that are built to a specific character's strengths, rather than levels that have to accommodate all three heroes - and lose a bit of their puzzling precision in the process. Beyond that lies an amusement park level, a huge un-dressed chunk of geometry that showcases the various gadgets in the Trine universe and lets you muddle around with them aimlessly. It's a makeweight, presumably, but an excellent one.
There's also an editor, which is dauntingly complex if you're an idiot like me, but which also promises a slew of brilliant stuff to play with from the wider community. There's co-op multiplayer too, the online component of which is currently a mess of glitchy audio and teleporting companions, sadly. (Trine 2's co-op was always fine when I played it, so I'm assuming the developers will sort this out before final release.)
All of which makes for a small game at the moment, but one that promises to bloom as new campaign levels are added and as the many glitches are whittled away. This last point is going to require rare balance, though, since the weird thing about Trine is that the occasional shonkiness of the whole proposition is actually part of the appeal. Strange as it sounds, for every instance I've cursed getting stuck in the geometry, Trine's grinding gears have given me unlikely memories to cherish.
Often this is quite literally true. There was a great moment at end of Trine 2 when an enemy that was chasing me got chewed up by the cogs of a drawbridge they had glitched into, a reminder that this series above all others delivers a sense that its clockwork worlds are actually built of proper moving pieces, some of which can go comically awry. I would hate for Trine to lose any of its character as it heads through Early Access. I'm pretty sure it won't.