You can count on Guillermo Del Toro. Whatever he touches is gothic and imaginatively overblown, and he takes us to fantastic worlds. Even if you’re not a fan, there’s probably one of his movies that you respect, at least for its looks.
Trollhunters – and the sister-shows Wizards and 3Below – are a collaboration between Del Toro, Dreamworks Animation and Netflix, and they carry all of his hallmarks. It’s Spider-Man, but twisted through a Guillermo Del Toro mangle: a young teen gains power and the great responsibility that goes with it, but instead of solely protecting the human world, he has to defend the world of trolls, too. As Del Toro has done in the past, he dollops in some myth – mostly Arthurian – and borrows high concepts, including time travel and aliens. It’s non-stop, and where other shows are afraid to upset the status quo, kill off characters and the like, Trollhunters definitely goes there. It’s recommended, particularly if you have kids approaching the teens.
So we come to Trollhunters: Defenders of Arcadia, which picks up where Chapter 3 of the Netflix series left off. The character XXX has been turned into a YYY, ZZZ has been defeated and the ??? is over. There you go, spoiler free rundown of where we are. The plot of Defenders of Arcadia is what I’d call “have-my-cake-and-eat-it”: Porgon, the trickster troll, has found a magical device that allows him to hop, skip and jump to various points of Trollhunters’ past. This means that you get to visit the landmark moments of all three series, encountering all of the major baddies. It’s a Greatest Hits of Trollhunter, and you don’t have to worry about messing with the core storyline as you’ve got a time travel device to timey-wimey everything back to normal. New players can get a whirlwind tour of the universe, and old-timers get to relive their favourite moments. Everyone’s happy.
Aside from being a Trollhunters game, which my household is VERY excited about, the other point of interest is that it’s overseen by developer WayForward Games. They’re best known for the Shantae series – some of the most beloved and culty platform games out there (and a darling of the game-collecting scene). In theory, bringing the platforming know-how of Shantae to Trollhunters is a great mix. Will that surface in the game?
Shantae is evident in the broad strokes. You’re in a traditional 2D platforming environment, and there’s an emphasis on hacking and slashing at the trolls who stomp over towards you. The platforming is less demanding and more to give you a choice of paths, and the combat is a one-button affair. The levels are on the short-ish side, with some strewn collectibles, including gnomes, socks and horngazels, distracting you from the race to the finish.
Unlike Shantae, however, this isn’t a game with any challenge for experienced gamers. No, this isn’t Shantae: Trollhunter Edition – not even close.
So, we come to the odd break that a lot of reviewers are going to have to deal with: Trollhunters is specifically made for pre-teens who love the show. This isn’t a game that is aimed at kids and adults alike. Trollhunters: Defenders of Arcadia is aimed solely at kids.
Now is when I feel like I need to ‘defend’ Defenders of Arcadia like a Mountain Troll. As a parent, I’ve seen my children trying to grapple with games that are supposedly made for them. Gigantosaurus: The Game and Ugly Dolls are good examples, and from the same publisher too: these are games that are purportedly made for kids, but the developers get kids wrong. They’re too wordy for children who can’t necessarily read well; they’re paced slowly; they need complicated button combinations; they introduce dozens of complicated concepts that rely on experience with games. Making games for kids is an art, and Outright Games can make games that understand that. You won’t find many reviewers championing Paw Patrol: On a Roll, but what the hell, I will! It does a job!
For the pre-teens it’s aimed at, Trollhunters gets a whole lot right. The complications are toned down so that important stuff can shine: there’s a wide variety of enemies that have enough difference to make them a challenge for a kid to overcome. The collectibles are fun and just out of reach. The Trollhunters characters merrily wander in and out of the experience, voiced well, and there’s a hub area where you can hang out with them and play Go Sushi or gnome target practice. And while there are a few abilities (some attached to the player, like a glaive, while others involve calling in an ally), they’re staggered over the game and never overwhelming.
Importantly, for those who have a couple of Trollhunter-lovers in the family, it’s also a co-op affair. The whole game can be played with Jim and Claire in the same world, helping each other out (no friendly fire here), and this detail might make Trollhunters an insta-purchase. If you’re reading this as a parent (or you’re in the age group I’ve been talking about), then you can be reassured that Trollhunters, minus some smaller issues, is a sound buy. You won’t be called over constantly to get them over a hump. For the group that the game is made for, it’s well-pitched entertainment.
Now, if you’re reading this as a grown adult who wants some easy achievements, or – heaven forbid – you like Trollhunters, Shantae, platforming games or some mix of them all, then the review becomes a tad more nuanced…
Trollhunters is basic. Sub-Lego Star Wars basic. I don’t think I missed a jump to a platform once – they might move, fade out or fall away, but you’re given so much leeway on each jump that it’s as taxing as walking the dog. Combat is simplistic, with one sword-attack at the start, and a couple of other ranged-oriented attacks that you’ll gain by the end. However you will get dealt a fair bit of damage, mainly because of niggles with the combat rather than any real difficulty in the enemies (these issues include enemies that are unintentionally camouflaged by the environment, attacking you before you realise they’re there, and the direction that you’re attacking in switching randomly, facing you away from the enemy at the worst possible time). But all in all, nothing here will challenge you.
The collectibles at least click your brain into gear, but they’re rarely more than a branch on a critical path. If the game looks like it wants you to go right, go left. There are indications that it might stray into RPG territory before it pulls back: you can buy upgrades to your armour and allies, but they’re lightweight and limited, and side quests are included but are mostly fetch quests or reasons to backtrack. The levels themselves are not your traditional Shantae labyrinths of multiple 2D environments; they are left-to-right and pretty similar to each other.
If you’re an achievement hunter, it’s got what you’re after: core progression gives you pop after pop, and there’s no more than five hours of work here before 100% is yours. If you’re a platforming or Shantae fan then you probably know what I’m going to say: you might be able to squint and think it looks like Dead Cells, but my gosh it is not. If you’re a Trollhunters fan, it’s a game that manages to remind you why Trollhunters is great, but it’s a mixtape of the series: it doesn’t really build on the story in any meaningful way. So, if you’re here for some juicy lore or character revelations, it probably won’t deliver.
I’m of the opinion that you should score a game for the audience it’s made for, and Trollhunters: Defenders of Arcadia on Xbox One is a pre-teen game that delivers on what its audience wants. It’s a brisk romp through all of the best characters and locations in the game, with barely a hiccup along the way. What it sacrifices in complexity or any kind of innovation, it gains in player-friendliness and an adventure that – for the kids in this house, anyway – will make them want to hack, slash and jump all the way to the end.