Mike Russo's Spring Thing 2024 Reviews

The Trials of Rosalinda, by Agnieszka Trzaska

I wrapped up my review of Spring Thing 2021’s The Bones of Rosalinda with a tossed-off wish for an eventual sequel, off the strength of its winning characters and engaging gameplay. Three years later, that wish has been granted, and it’s worth pausing for a minute to note how tricky sequels can be, balancing the audience’s desire for things to stay the same while also feeling different – characters should evolve but too much, the scope should broaden but not unrecognizably so, the gameplay should stay familiar but boast new twists and turns, and the plot should raise the stakes without undermining the original. With so many balls to juggle, it’s almost inevitable that one or two will fall, right? Yet Trials is a banger of a follow-up, delivering everything a sequel ought to and making it look easy.

The core of its success is once again the characters: double act of Rosalinda, a free-willed skeleton, and Piecrust, a wizard shapechanged into a mouse, is as compelling as ever, two plucky underdogs who use all their wits and heart to look out for each other. The supporting cast is even bigger this time out, though, and every one is a winner, including some returning favorites from Trials, like Teckla the conscientious ogre and Albert, a former servant of an evil wizard trying to make good. The newcomers make a strong impression too, though, with even some initially-antagonistic characters eventually joining team Rosalinda to help save the day.

Similarly, the story is much the same in its broad contours – there’s a naughty magic-user up to no good – but this threat feels distinct from the small-time necromancer of the first game. The villain has many more henchmen, and illusion-based powers that can strike terror into the hearts of all the living characters. The setting is also more engaging than the sometimes-samey dungeon of Bones; after an action-packed prelude that quickly shuttles between environments, the meat of Trials plays out in a haunted forest that’s grown up around a ruined magical city. It’s a standard fantasy locale in some respects, I suppose, but it’s enlivened by compelling images like an atmospheric underwater sequence where you need to swim among the city’s fallen buildings to recover an artifact.

Also in the if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it camp is the parser-like choice-based gameplay. Once again, there’s a linear tutorial that carefully walks the player through the key elements of puzzle-solving, which involve switching between Rosalinda and her detachable, independently-controllable skeleton-limbs and Piecrust with his ever-growing magical powers. It’s a fast-paced affair, jumping around to a few different locations and introducing a new faction of overzealous religious warriors, which winds up pushing Piecrust more to the fore, as Rosalinda’s capabilities tend to require more set-up to be useful; regardless, it’s an effective refresher that benefits from a clear UI that makes it easy for the player to navigate a suite of options that could otherwise feel overwhelming. It helps that the puzzles are well clued, and progress in the main forest area carefully constrained, so that the player usually has a clear sense of where they need to go to advance the plot, and has a manageable two or three obstacles to work on at any time.

The writing throughout is unpretentious but effective; there are occasional passages where the tendency of each noun to have exactly one adjective starts to feel awkward, and a few typos (largely places where the past-tense narration slips into present tense), but the dialogue is strong, with each character having a distinctive and appealing voice. And while this is no indie platformer screaming I AM AN ALLEGORY, there are some pleasing thematic resonances between Rosalinda’s e pluribus unum puzzle-solving body and the way the larger group of characters bring their own unique skills and personalities to bear to support each other; it’s also no coincidence, I think, that the few truly irredeemable villains are the ones bent on controlling other people for their own ends.

So yeah, another Rosalinda game, another triumph. This is about as good as this strand of IF gets; if you added graphics and told someone this was a lost LucasArts demo, they’d believe you. I’m not as unconflicted about calling for a sequel this time out, largely because of a plot development that’s satisfying here but might make future installments tricky (Piecrust’s transformation back into a human, I mean – wizards are fun and all, but they’re not mice, now, are they?), but I’m more than willing to be convinced.