Trulon: The Shadow Engine is a surprise, largely because screenshots do it little justice. With colorful environments and 2D sprites, it pays homage to classic incarnations of fan-favorite JRPGs like Breath of Fire or Xenogears. While the battle system sets Trulon apart from the histories its aesthetic calls upon, the real spirit of the game lies in an enthralling storyline; a great strength that is fast outweighed by its abrupt conclusion.
Trulon's story begins lighthearted and simple, with two children essentially playing as warriors, unaware the world around them is beginning to crumble. Gladia, the main character, is a young girl and Monster Hunter, though this title is hardly taken by her elders, given her youth. Her path is at first paved with the corpses of nonthreatening overworld monsters like flies and karate monkeys. Soon after, she stumbles across the source of a spreading illness, the likes of which village healers are unable to cure, inspiring the yet-younger mage, Ferra, to become part of her unfolding story.
Through poison, political intrigue and forbidden merging of the world's magics, Gladia earns two more companions, each with their own strengths that round out the evolving party's weaknesses. Yet, their part in the story remains fairly small, the narrative focusing on Gladia and Ferra as they become unwitting participants of a looming battle for land and power. Gladia especially grows hardened and sometimes callous, a leader born of harsh realities and circumstances. The older Rom and Valencia seem more the observers, whispering occasionally of the diminishing naiveté of their children companions like weathered war vets watching over the birth of a new generation of soldier. It's all very emotional and very poignant.
It's also very short. As interesting as the story is, its brevity gives Trulon's shortcomings as a video game a great deal of room to shine. It's worth noting that this review is based on the Steam version, rather than the mobile releases. Trulon was originally a mobile game, later ported to PC; that it's a port shows in the hard edges of objects and sparse landscape, game assets clearly optimized for smaller resolutions and less forgiving frame rates than what even lower-end computer systems are capable of. The charm of the game's graphics are maintained even when blown up to 1080p, thanks to game textures presumably repurposed for Steam prior to port, but the sparseness of the world map and dungeons skips Trulon's environment from "nostalgic" to simply "dated".
Trulon's audio isn't especially noteworthy either in or out of combat, though the quality is appreciatively crisp and clear for a mobile port. Pleasant, languid melodies in towns and overworld maps quickly blend in and out with faster-paced battle themes that ultimately neither excite nor offend, and it all tends to fade into the background over the play session.
2D sprites decorate the landscape, representing your team, various NPCs and enemies alike. While the sprites themselves are beautifully crafted and a welcomed change from typical 3D models, they feel lifeless in a combat system where actions are processed more like events, each character's attack prefaced by the same recycled animation overlaid on top of a battlefield, rather than within it. Most battles are scripted to happen and, though there are relatively few given the scope of the game, huge enemy health pools make each fight feel like a boss battle. While this isn't necessarily to the game's detriment, each fight feeling dangerous and strategically paced, battles simply aren't visually interesting, and the repetitive frill becomes tough to bear.
Where combat fails visually, it's mechanically much more engaging. Traditional turn-based RPG and card game mechanics are melded to create a system that allows for spontaneity. Cards are equipped in a separate menu beside gear, and are pulled in battle every turn, each hand specific to a character, each character able to hold up to five cards in addition to a Wild Card and a plain Attack card. Impressive combos are spawned from intelligent combinations of Assaults – an attack style that can be equipped instead of traditional armor or weapons, each with its own special use – and utility cards, creating the potential for huge bursts of damage while the randomization of cards prevents their abuse. Occasionally, this also becomes a source of frustration, and the use of cards in battle is never explained in the story, similar to much of the world's lore.
Without a longer story to keep the game afloat, Trulon is burdened by the weight of its less impressive components. Having completed every battle I could find, including some optional ones purely to grind additional party levels, NPC sidequests, and a lot of backtracking during parts of the game where the story was light on direction, total playtime still only clocked in at 6 hours, 31 minutes. Indeed, there is even an achievement for completing the game in under five hours. At its mobile price point of $5, this is reasonable, the interesting combat system and engaging story worth the price of admission. At the Steam price of $20, it feels like the prologue to a story rather than the companion piece to one. Add to this a lack of replay value and several game-breaking bugs, including quest progress resetting and occasionally losing control over your character, and Trulon becomes nearly as much a disappointment to play as it is a joy.
Trulon: The Shadow Engine was reviewed on PC via Steam with a code provided by the publisher.
Potential for a great, genre-defying game cut short just as this Steampunk adventure truly picks up any steam. Feels more like a demo of a game than the entirety of one, making the $20 price tag for the PC version a hard sell.