The heavily-teased next game from 22Cans and Peter Molyneux, The Trail, was quietly released on the app store and Android last night. And who could deny the studio a little circumspection? As its previous projects show, hype is a double-edged sword.
22 Cans’ first game, Curiosity: What’s Inside the Cube, was much-covered and resulted in the case of Bryan Henderson: the ‘winner’ who cracked the final cube to become Godus’ ‘God of Gods,’ who was eventually left with naught but empty promises. Godus itself, conceived as Molyneux’s triumphant return to the god genre, ended up something of an incubus - the truth is that it just wasn’t very good but, thanks to the weird relationship Kickstarter creates between fans and studios, the developers couldn’t quite leave it behind or make anyone happy.
For a while things got ugly - and while not excusing 22Cans’ mistakes, the studio and Molyneux in particular became something of a pinata. So you can see why The Trail just appeared one night, with no lead-up interviews, no grandiose promises, and relatively few expectations. And among the first of many surprises is that it’s really quite beautiful.
The Trail’s idea essentially comes from much larger, often open-world games. You know when you’re walking through some gorgeous landscape, and start slowly spinning the camera around with the right stick? It’s something I associate with games I love, the Grand Theft Autos and Bloodbornes. The Trail’s core play is a long path that your character automatically walks on, as you control their speed, rotate the camera, and swipe to grab objects from the surrounding landscape.
It may not sound enormously engaging, but there’s something appealing here. It helps that The Trail is so good-looking, with a flat-shaded style that allows it to create landscapes of local detail and scale. One minute you’re on a smooth road in the sun, looking down on some great river, the next the trail winds through thick forests, takes great loops around hills, and crests the horizon to reveal the next great sight.
Alongside this are various mechanics, but this central activity of walking through a lovely place - with a beautiful soundtrack - and looking around is really nice. It’s a peaceful, untroubling, diverting style of play, perfect in its way for the noodley instincts of a mobile omnivore - and when played on a packed commuter train, or even late at night in your own home, it becomes an engrossing bottle world.
The Trail’s more traditionally game-like mechanics are well thought-out, but sometimes the good it does is undermined by the intrusion of free-to-play mechanics. While walking along the trail many different types of objects appear around your avatar, most of which can be picked up and placed in your backpack with a quick swipe - after the early stages there are loads of pickups around, so your walks become more interactive by default.
This in itself is a well-executed activity, with sensitive controls and punchy SFX, but the best touch is how the items pile up in your backpack - the top of which is shown at the screen’s lower edge. Once the backpack’s near-full the objects start piling up and out of it, but you can keep anything that will stay balanced and in the pack - and anything that falls out can be immediately picked up again. It means you can, basically, game the system a little - stumbling to the next camp with a juggled pile of valuables twice the volume of your backpack.
At the camps these items can be crafted into clothes, trinkets, and weapons - there are four character development paths you can switch between, which reward you with new recipes. Then you can use these, or trade them, with the idea being to leave each camp with a more or less empty backpack for the next gathering spree. Trading is great: yourself and other adventurers throw items onto a conveyor belt, which reduces the price of items as they move closer to destruction. It’s a frenzied time, as you rush to get rid of junk and acquire anything useful - but with a competitive mindset, because the best trader always gets a prize.
The Trail deserves real credit for the minigames around trading, chopping and hunting. Not because they’re exceptionally brilliant, but because they’re simple and fun. Chopping trees is just repeated swipes on a trunk, but if you line them up right your axe will last longer. Hunting is a matter of poinging a rabbit by aiming and pulling back a slingshot’s rubber. Each takes seconds to complete, and The Trail transitions in and out without skipping a beat.
Equally transitory - but special - are the figures of other players walking the trail. There appear to be a mix of NPCs, particularly near the start, and actual players, but in the latter case you see a name and their country of origin. These encounters are fleeting but special for that, like when I rested at a campfire with a Saudi Arabian, a German and an Israeli, we had a furious trade-off, then we all parted - temporary intruders on each other’s world. And it’s just nice, a communal pleasure almost, to see others padding along on the same journey you are - even though there are brief shout-outs, and you can ‘rob’ exhausted players, interacting with others is not as important as seeing them.
What intrudes upon The Trail, and it’s terribly sad, are the compromises 22Cans has clearly had to make in order to get this thing finished. When you ‘win’ at trading, you’re given the option to double your money by watching a 30 second ad. At points on the trail, a billboard woman will also offer you 30 second ads in return for items. These are for the worst kind of mobile rubbish, but the rewards are tempting - meaning you end up grudgingly watching quite a lot of them, because they mean less grind.
That’s one thing, but I can excuse ads - we’ve all got to make money somehow, and The Trail is free. The only moment that really knocked my opinion of the game was after I’d reached a certain point, well past the beginning, and my character’s clothes began to degrade at an incredible rate. I crafted a jumper, a nice jumper it was too, and basically it survived for about 10 minutes.
At this point The Trail was desperately trying to get me to repair my kit with ‘favours,’ the premium currency, but I wasn’t ready to spend yet - and so my jumper just disappeared. I figured it would just become useless and I could repair it at some later time, but the game took it away from me. And instantly I’m less warm towards The Trail. A switch flicked in my mind, and I don’t feel so good about collecting things to craft things - when I know that they’ll degrade and need money to fix.
To be clear - I don’t have a problem with F2P games in principle, and spend money on the ones I like. What I don’t like is when the F2P structure leads to negatives like the above, overtly frustrating bottlenecks that punish a player for not paying. It’s beneath a developer like 22Cans, or it should be, and it taints all the things that The Trail gets right.
Despite this, which comes down to 22Cans having to make money in a cut-throat mobile marketplace, The Trail feels like a game that is finally - finally - showcasing what the developer can offer. It’s by far the most interesting thing 22Cans has made, building an experience from what in other games is an incidental feature, and trusting that rather old-fashioned qualities like beauty and discovery will delight players. Curiosity was a clever gimmick, while Godus was a traditional design revisited - but The Trail feels like something new. If only it would let you relax a little more, and lay off the hard sell, this would be a memorable journey indeed.