So, your dog's dead. That's a real bummer, right? It was an ordinary afternoon when blam-o, lightning strikes and sends the little pupper to another world. Things start looking a little bleak until you realize you can possess and control your four legged friend. Surely that'll be useful in a world-spanning adventure where you fight sword wielding lizardmen while chasing down a sarcastic wizard?
Trials of Azra is a co-op puzzle platformer that focuses on inhabiting and manipulating the deceased corpses of your fallen enemies. It sounds pretty gruesome, but actually it's kinda cute. The whole game is drenched in this pixel cartoon simplicity that makes it wildly entertaining, even when you're dying over and over again because that stupid mushroom keeps puffing blasts of poison whenever you try to jump on that one platform.
The star of the body-swapping show is Sam, an unassuming kid with spindly little arms and a killer coiffe. Sam has a basic energy shot used to dispatch enemies along with an expandable array of magic powers that deal more damage in more creative ways. Ever wanted to shoot a laser out of your hand or zap baddies with a charge shot? Yeah, Sam can do that. It'll cost some mana, but he can do it. He can also jump and roll forward, but let's face it, you're here to possess gargoyles, not do the Mario.
Stand near a fallen enemy and Sam will take control of its body. While manipulating the beast you'll have access to all of its special powers. Those yellow eye-guys have a bouncy jump, for example, while slimes climb walls, rats slide through tiny passageways, little devils shoot fireballs, and gargoyles carry enemies (or Sam) through the air. There's a great variety of baddies to defeat and inhabit, enough to make you giddy each time you see something new to conquer and control. Rounding out the main features are an in-game abilities shop and occasional boss fights that strip out the possession mechanic in favor of pure platforming.
Puzzles in Trials of Azra take place in a series of self-contained rooms where the goal is to get Sam to the exit in one piece. The door is usually shut tight, and to open it you might need to flip a lever or plop an enemy on a button to hold it down. Standing between you and said door are spikes, magic barriers, moving platforms, angry dogs on leashes (for real), and good old fashioned pits. It's a pretty basic setup, but the construction makes each stage interesting, especially when you start possessing enemies and flying/crawling/rocket-shark-dashing around the place.
Co-op in Trials of Azra is simple and easy to initiate. At any point in the game a second local player can press enter to join in. When Sam takes control of an enemy, bam, it's player two's time to shine. Your co-op friend has complete control of the game at this point, so much so that the camera even follows them around. A key difference is that you can still move Sam while the possessed enemy is active, cutting out a lot of the back and forth found in single player. Co-op simplifies many of the puzzles and just makes the whole thing more seamless.
True, expansive cooperation is a little inconvenient in Trials of Azra, however. The camera sticks with whoever is in control of the enemy until they press a button to give up control. When the camera scrolls away, Sam gets a tiny window in the corner of the screen that shows his immediate surroundings. It's not much, just enough to let you step on a switch or hop up a few platforms. Even though Sam can move, he really shouldn't, since his death means the end of the level. This puts a huge cap on multiplayer and prevents much exploration or timing-based puzzles. Most levels don't require true split screen, though, so this small window mechanic is enough to get the job done.
The puzzles in Trials of Azra tend to work themselves out, making this more of a platform puzzle game than the reverse. Once you get the layout of a level it's pretty easy to see what needs to be done. Getting enemy bodies in place and pulling off the solution is another story, one that can lead to a little frustration thanks to the game's less-than-precise control scheme. When you do mess up, a quick level reset puts things back in the right place, letting you try again without losing too much progress.
Trials of Azra is the sort of indie game that sits right on the edge of novelty. Everything about it just works, there's no painfully missing feature or obviously broken mechanics, but no wildly innovative must-try gimmicks to catch your attention, either. The puzzles are well thought out, and co-op is serviceable if a bit on the simple side. You'll keep coming back to the game over the course of a few days or weeks, completing a handful of levels at a time, slowly making progress towards the end. Enjoyable on your own, a bit better with a friend, and all around a puzzle platformer worth playing.