Since Windows Phone did not receive a new Xbox game last week, my review this week will look at an indie game from Singapore-based developer Aureoline Tetrahedron.

Terrene is a vector graphics game for Windows Phone 8 that looks deceptively similar to arcade classic Asteroids. In fact, it turns out that “terrene” is kind of a synonym for “asteroid.” Who knew? Surface details aside, Terrene’s gameplay and atmosphere are more challenging and contemplative than Atari’s classic arcade game. Do smart ideas make for smart game design? Read on to find out.

One line at a time

Terrene for Windows Phone 8

As first glance, Terrene does look just Asteroids. Players control a spaceship that must avoid oncoming asteroids in order to survive. The ship and asteroids are vector-based, meaning their visuals are composed of lines instead of sprites or polygons.

Terrene’s low-key visual presentation lacks the neon color and flashy effects of games like geoDefense, but it’s not entirely devoid of color. The “Extra Content” menu allows players to choose from eight different themes. These basically just swap the background color for something brighter than the default gray. But choice is always good, and I enjoy the classy theme names like “Tangerine Lambda” and “Azure Atmosphere.” Wait a minute, isn’t Lambda the forbidden dance?

Okay, the game’s single piano music track is unlikely to stir a dancer’s loins. But it does imbue Terrene with a pensive mood that complements its mildly educational focus (which we’ll get to in a bit). It would not be mean to describe the music as serene.

Space tractor

Terrene for Windows Phone 8

Although Terrene shares a similar visual design with Asteroids, its gameplay works much differently. Your Federation logo-like ship lacks a weapon, for one thing. No blasting space debris to pieces here. More significantly, the player ship doesn’t even have thrusters. Without a standard means of propulsion, the ship is forced to use a tractor beam to get around.

Tapping an oncoming asteroid pulls your craft towards the object. The catch is it also pulls the rock towards the ship. Pull too long and you’re guaranteed to strike the asteroid and lose a life. That serves as a metaphor for human relationships, if you think about it. No matter how much you love someone, you have to give them some space. Cling too hard and the whole thing comes crashing down on both of you.

Navigating a field of asteroids by jumping from rock to rock can be quite challenging. Besides learning when to let go, you also need to master pulling on rocks that have already passed your ship by in order to slow down or just get out of harm’s way. There are usually numerous asteroids on-screen (they come in procedurally generated patterns) so while you’re negotiating between one or two rocks, another one will often come along and smash your ship to dust.

Whether you can get your head around Terrene’s physics-based dangers and unique method of navigation is hard to predict. Me, I found the rock-hopping to be more challenging than necessary. I love games with grappling mechanics such as Bionic Commando Rearmed and Super Metroid. But the core mechanics in those games are so much easier to grasp.

To my mind, Terrene would be more approachable if firing your tractor beam at an asteroid did not also pull the asteroids towards your ship. Jumping from rock to rock without getting hit would still provide plenty of challenge, but that change would dial down the frustration a bit.

What’s in a word?

Terrene for Windows Phone 8

Terrene’s store page claims the game revolves around “space physics, social interaction and logophilia.” That description is inaccurate because the Windows Phone version has no social features at all. The Android game (which released only a week before this one) at least had leaderboards, but calling a leaderboard “social interaction” is a stretch.

I can’t blame anyone for lack of familiarity with the last word in the above description: logophilia. The term (not found in actual online dictionaries) means “love of words.” Terrene actually does involve words, though you wouldn’t know from its deliberately obtuse store description or store screenshots.

From time to time, one of two items will float by during gameplay. The first is an extra life. The more interesting items are called data disks. When the player picks up one of these disks, the game displays the definition of a random obscure word at the bottom of the screen. According to the help screen, these words are the lost “lores” of mankind.

A couple of examples:

  • Onygophagist: a nail biter
  • Emetic: causing vomiting, nauseous

The words are obscure and complex, to the extent that players are unlikely to remember them. The oddness of those words is likely a result of the developer originating from Singapore, where English is only one of four national languages.

I like the idea of an action game teaching players new vocabulary words. But the implementation needs improvement. First, the words themselves are just too unlikely to be used or remembered by players. Some of these words might as well be Linnean names for animals – so few people would remember them, so why try to teach them?

Word choice aside, the data disk collection isn’t “gamified” enough.  See, the words you collect don’t get saved anywhere. You could end up seeing the same word again the next time you play, or never again. So much potential wasted.

What should happen is any words collected get unlocked in a word list. Maybe the same word won’t show up again until the player has collected them all. That way, the collectible element would add replay value to the game. And browsing the list of words outside of gameplay would give players a much better chance to learn and retain the word.

Too close for comfort

The developer based Terrene on an iOS game called Tractor Beam. Both games play the same way, though Tractor Beam lacks the word learning element. Unfortunately, Aureoline Tetrahedron was too honest about his gameplay inspiration. He credits Tractor Beam developer Manufacturing Content within Terrene and on its store page.

The result? Manufacturing Content actually asked Aureoline to pull Terrene from the Android and Windows Phone stores. Never mind that Tractor Beam is only available on iOS, NOT the two platforms where Terrene ended up. Aureoline has already de-listed the Android version of Terrene (whether forced by Google or not, I don’t know). According to this blog post, the Windows Phone version will eventually disappear as well.

The practice of cloning games has been going on ever since the invention of arcades. Imagine if the makers of every Doodle Jump clone pulled their games from the market; a whole genre would disappear. It’s not wise to tell another developer “Hey! I copied your game!” But I don’t believe Terrene and Tractor Beam are so similar that Aureoline should pull his own game, regardless of what Manufacturing Content says.

The best scenario would be for Aureoline to “sack up” and continue improving on Terrene. The game is rough – as any game developed by a single inexperienced programmer is likely to be. But by revising the store description to be more honest and informative, adding online leaderboards, and allowing players to collect and view words outside of gameplay, Terrene could become a special indie title. In case all that doesn’t happen and you’re still interested, buy the game now while it’s still around!

  • Terrene – Windows Phone 8 – 33 MB – $.99 – Store Link

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