There’s something strangely cathartic about watching cute cartoony animals marching off to their doom, oblivious to the dangers that lie ahead. Lemmings was great not just for its level design and presentation but also for the way in which its blissfully ignorant critters were always mere seconds from annihilation.
EliteWare’s debut Android game, The Penguin Trials, harks back to this Amiga masterpiece with helpless penguins that need guidance from a higher power to herd them safely from igloo to flag pole. It’s far from perfect, but the quirky concept and clever level design make Penguin Trials a worthy test of your time.
Penguin Trials doesn’t allow you any direct control over your five little penguins. You guide them around levels by moving crates and jump pads, and by destroying wood stacks. Sometimes you need to trigger a switch to open a pathway, which is as simple — or difficult — as getting a penguin to walk over it.
Early levels teach you the basics.
There are 48 levels in all, each with the same goal: to safely guide at least one penguin from the igloo to the flag. It doesn’t matter if you lose any other penguins along the way, although you’ll be unable to move on to the next level unless all penguins are accounted for — so if one gets stuck somewhere, you may need to start over.
Your penguins have awfully inept survival instincts. Not only will they cheerily wander into spikes or fall off the face of the earth, but also they’ll drown if they fall into the water. Yes, that’s right — these penguins never learned to swim. The game offers a wall of text at the beginning of each of the three sections to justify all the plot and gameplay contrivances, but these serve only as color.
Words of encouragement.
It’s a simple game with basic mechanics, but Penguin Trials is seldom easy. Three factors keep the challenge up — two of them desirable and the other a problem.
Let’s start with the bad part, since it further explains how to play.
You move crates and jump pads around the level by dragging them. There must be no penguins within two tiles above, below, or to either side of the object when you release it. This makes it very tough to manage placement in tight spaces, even with the penguins freezing in place until you release the object on a valid spot — a valid spot being on top of another object or anywhere not slicing through rock.
No major problems so far — just some tricky timing to get used to. But then you realize how precise you need to be.
The tiles are tiny. Objects can slip out of position as you’re releasing them, simply because the subtle change in your finger pressure shifts to that point. It’s needlessly frustrating. With no pinch-to-zoom — or any zoom functionality whatsoever — you have to just put up with the clumsiness of a tile system inadequately optimized for touch.
Moving objects on a tiny grid. Note that no penguins may be within any of the highlighted area when you release the jump pad.
As I write this, there’s an issue with the speed-up button changing the distance penguins travel off jump pads or fall off ledges — which significantly alters the dynamics of many puzzles — for better or worse, and generally both. It’s less pronounced now than in a previous version, but still enough to noticeably affect the penguins’ relationship with their environment. The developer is hard at work fixing this and other minor bugs; there was a crash bug I encountered while reviewing the game, but it’s been patched up.
Puzzle It Out
When you’re not fighting to get objects where you want them, The Penguin Trials makes you think. Many levels are far from straightforward, challenging you to figure out how to move a penguin from the bottom to the top of the screen or to find a path through a big stack of wood chips interspersed with spikes.
Creativity pervades through every facet of the level design, encouraging you to experiment with different ways to reach the goal. At no point did I feel the design become stale, even as I wished for more detailed visuals and a touch of Lemmings’ job system — which involves assigning each lemming a job (climber, builder, digger, etc) to perform as soon as the opportunity presents itself.
You need to trigger that switch to remove the barrier around the goal. But how?
Different levels challenge you in different ways. While I appreciate the elegance of the ones that require you set everything up then sit back and admire your handiwork, I most enjoyed the trials that needed more hands-on time — constantly shuffling objects around the map because you need them elsewhere, and always trying to keep up with the frontmost penguin without leaving any behind. I like to save them all!
A Much Simpler Lemmings
The Penguin Trials is far simpler than Lemmings and its many wannabes, but it gets — almost — all of the essential things right. Its graphics are basic, but functional with a pinch of cuteness. Its penguins have an aura of blissful ignorance, even as they pop out of existence on contact with anything bad.
No, stop! Turn back!
Pacing feels about right, thanks to a speed-up button that powers through the slow parts like waiting for penguins to waddle across the screen. There’s an ebb and flow to most levels that I particularly enjoy — causing frantic tapping and planning on the fly at one moment, then a more relaxed preparatory move the next. And the fact that only one penguin needs to reach the goal allows ample room for experimentation.
I just wish there were more to it. I don’t just mean more levels, which would of course be lovely, but extra mechanics, added polish, more animations, new environments, and new objects. And maybe a level editor, too. The game is a pleasant little distraction that’ll keep you busy for a few hours, and a solid effort from a first-time developer.
In that capacity, I wholly recommend The Penguin Trials. But boy does it have potential to be so much more!