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The Sandbox: Breathing New Life Into Old Formulas

The Sandbox: Breathing New Life Into Old Formulas (photo)

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Like indie films, indie games are free to take chances that their mainstream competitors can’t, but in exchange have to work with limited financial resources that put a crimp on grand stabs at novelty. Because of that, indie games tend to stake out a unique ground where convention and experimentation meet. As seen in “Braid” and the wealth of kick-ass downloads for the iPhone, they tend to take risks within the confines of recognizable genres, whether they’re “Mario”-esque run-and-jumpers, puzzlers or combat-strategy games. Putting fresh twists on the familiar has seen some thrilling results from these under-the-radar works. That’s definitely the case with “Trine” and “Machinarium,” two excellent new indie releases that show what a bit of imagination and artistry can do for the same old formulas.

“Trine,” developed by Frozenbyte and published by SouthPeak Games for the PC and, as of two weeks ago, the PS3, is about the efforts of three heroes — a wizard, a thief and a warrior — looking to locate a mysterious soul-binding object known as the Trine that holds the key to restoring their evil-plagued world. On the surface, it’s just a side-scrolling platformer, one in which you navigate a character from left to right, fight similar-looking enemies, jump over chasms and onto moving ledges, and solve puzzles in order to proceed to the next stage. It’s a tried-and-true recipe that’s far from revolutionary, and that’s part of the point — “Trine,” like so many other indies that don’t have a marketing budget, has to make itself immediately appealing to an audience weaned on traditional big-ticket franchises. It entices with a well-known structure, but underneath its old-hat exterior lies a deceptively rich adventure, not to mention one of the year’s most purely entertaining gaming experiences.

One of the first ways “Trine” separates itself from the pack is its beauty. With deep, vibrant colors and graphics that stunningly replicate the sort of fantasy-world look of “The Lord of the Rings” (or a Terry Brooks novel come to life), Frozenbyte’s game is gorgeous. That’s also true of its character animations, which boast fluidity and personality, and blend seamlessly into landscapes of dark caverns, rolling hills and underwater canals. But “Trine” is more than just a pretty face — it also offers subtle tweaks to standard mechanics, like gameplay that requires you to switch back and forth between the three “Gauntlet”esque protagonists on the fly in order to complete obstacle-course puzzles custom-made for different abilities (the warrior’s strength, the thief’s leaping and grappling hook, the wizard’s power to move objects and create others from thin air). “Trine” combines genres in order to create something at once old and new — it’s innovation on a modest but inspired scale.

That’s also true for “Machinarium,” created by Amanita Design and available for PCs and Macs. Unlike “Trine,” whose luscious 3D characters have to make their way through a 2D environment, everything in the Flash-based “Machinarium” is two-dimensional except for the story itself, which begins as a peripheral concern but soon becomes incredibly absorbing. The game puts you in control of a nameless robot who, at the outset, has been thrown out of his crumbling hometown city and must find a way back in. Once that’s completed, other tasks follow, all accomplished by way of a point-and-click style that’s been around since the dawn of gaming, and that, faithful to the genre’s roots, is put in service of puzzles that can be screamingly challenging.

“Machinarium”‘s riddles generally require you to locate key hidden items on the screen and then use, combine or manipulate them in some way in order to allow the robot to make it to the next screen, at which point a new puzzle crops up. It’s a rinse-and-repeat template that’s eased by a helpful hint system, which can provide both a generalized idea of what needs to be accomplished as well as a detailed diagrammatic walkthrough. Structural variety kicks in about one-third of the way through the game, when you’re presented with a more wide-open landscape full of multiple, interrelated paths.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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