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Paper Trail review: a beautiful puzzler I had a (mostly) miserable time with

Lo-fi beats to get extremely stressed to

Paige meets some fishing frog fans in puzzle game Paper Trail
Image credit: Newfangled Games/Rock Paper Shotgun

I’d like to start this review with a question: What’s the difference between overcoming a challenge and thinking “I did it!” and one that leaves you sighing “It’s over!”? I may leave little insights scattered throughout. A Paper Trail, if you will. A puzzle game named Paper Trail that has you solve discrete head-scratchers by folding the screen like a piece of paper in different ways to create new paths, I might even say, if I were trying to cram a bunch of information right at the top without breaking theme. Let’s talk about it.

Paper Trail stars Paige. She's your desktop-terrarium-garden-variety lo-fi girl protagonist, studious and relaxed to the point where she’s immaculately vibed her way into space-time continuum-bending powers. All those hours-long study sessions have paid off in more mundane ways, too. She’s just been accepted to university to study astrophysics, but her parents want her to stay home, so she decides to run away from her sleepy seaside town to follow a deer she saw in a dream. Students! One of the characters in her village is a lighthouse keeper called ‘Winslow’. Maybe don’t do that in your cute puzzler because then I’ll just think about lobsters and dread, but it’s a nice set-up.

To progress on her journey, Paige will have to use her powers to navigate obstacles by creating new paths. This is where the folding comes in. You can preview the reverse side of a screen at any time. So, an early puzzle might see Paige needing to cross a river, so you spot the bridge on the reverse side, then fold it into position. There'll be plenty of additions to this formula later, like movable blocks and statues and sliding platforms, but the initial twist is that you can’t move a section of the screen Paige is standing on, nor pull the page over her. So, it’s not just about finding the right way to contort things, but also where to stand during each step of the solution so you don’t block yourself.

Paige studies and relaxes in Paper Trail
Image credit: Newfangled Games/Rock Paper Shotgun

What begins as a promise of a chill graphic novel adventure with the occasional head-scratcher soon reveals itself to be a fat airport puzzle book. This is a world filled with what I can only describe as ‘puzzle dungeons’. Like an effective dungeon in an atmospheric crawler, they feel both oppressive and endless. One puzzle rewards you with the next: a slightly more obtuse riff on the previous, with added complications. Sometimes, I’d look at that lovely art, and I’d start to appreciate how cleverly a puzzle was designed just as I was finishing it, and I’d wonder if I’d just had a bout of anhedonia or something, because I just did not enjoy any of them.

One culprit is a button that gives you step-by-step instructions how to fold the screen, and another culprit is me having absolutely no self control in using it. I can’t expect to feel any sense of accomplishment when I’ve effectively grabbed a walkthrough, but even when I forced myself not to peek, I just felt incredibly flat after solving something. I'd solve a puzzle. I'd walk to the next screen. It would be bigger and more complicated and I'd just sigh loudly and prepare to start grabbing corners and edges and moving them around until something made sense.

Some puzzles you can look at, intuit, and solve them before moving anything. Sounds satisfying, but it just feels like going through the motions. Perhaps knowing I always had an out, via the hint screen, made everything feel disposable, and perhaps there’s just a fundamental suchness that makes puzzles satisfying that Paper Trail lacked for me. Either way, I just couldn’t summon up any joy or emotions aside from stress and, honestly, feeling like a big lunk-lummox for not having the breezy, starry-eyed time that the game’s presentation told me I should be having.

Ancient ruins in Paper Trail
Image credit: Newfangled Games/Rock Paper Shotgun

Because how can I stay angry at a game with this art? I must be a sundried bin bag of an emotionless goon to not sit in enchanted wonder instead of glazed-over annoyance. It’s not just the overall colour and cosiness, but the underlying detail. Places feel ancient and delphic. Crumbling tiles and carved reliefs. Trees that sway static in implied motion. It takes the Bob Ross school of happy little inanimates literally, with swamp rocks I’d quite like to make friends with. The use of colour and lighting, too, is marvellous. It shouldn’t be possible for something as monochrome as grey stone to have this many contrasting hues, but there’s nothing thin or flat about these paper places.

The spaces are accentuated further with likeable characters that spout funny lines in a sort of bloopy simlish. I would have devoured a graphic novel of this stuff, just to hang out for a bit. The actual plot sequences are scenes set usually before and after a dungeon (‘world’), and they gelled with me far less. They’re all monologues from Paige where the writing takes an odd tonal shift. It’s suddenly overly twee and like it’s trying too hard to coax feelings out of me. There’s no real plot, either, just these flashbacks and monologues tying a disconnected journey together.

You also have to fold these sequences to progress them. By your third of fourth cutscene, the paper folding stops being cute and becomes tedious. I’ve just solved ten million puzzles and I’ve seen the trick already. Let me rest the controller on my lap and watch a cutscene. Let’s just say it’s …no page turner! (my typing fingertips immediately burst into flames and I spin my hat around 1080 degrees then give the camera the finger guns.)

I’ve kept you in suspense long enough. The difference, I think, between finishing part of a game that makes you think “I did it!” to one that makes you think “It’s over!”, is that the first type makes you feel capable but up against the odds, and the second type just makes you feel stupid. In presenting itself as something for everyone, feeling excluded or incapable in Paper Trail just made me feel stupid. Stupid for not solving its puzzles quick enough, stupid for relying on its guide, stupid for not enjoying something so beautiful and inventive. Stupid for not appreciating the screens I did solve without too much trouble. Stupid for not appreciating the complexity of the ones I struggled with.

An ancient door in Paper Trail
Image credit: Newfangled Games/Rock Paper Shotgun

It’s very possible I’m just not good at thinking in whatever specific lateral way the game wanted from me. I could have imagined how someone else who was good at these puzzles might have felt about Paper Trail, and wrote a review from their perspective. It would have been cheerier, and it would have saved me admitting how bad at it I was. That feels dishonest though. And honestly, I had a mostly miserable time with this.

But, as a great plumber once said, It’s a-me (problem). I didn’t finish Paper Trail. I got about 80% of the way through then got to a puzzle that annoyed me so much, I reasoned any more time I spent playing would just make me harbour an unreasonable amount of anger towards the game. Not useful for anyone, really. My opinion wasn’t going to change, it was only going to get louder. So I quit! And now I feel great! I did it and it’s over! Synthesis! I apologise in advance for my runaway verbosity here but, in conclusion: art nice. Game not nice. Maybe you’ll make a beautiful origami swan out of it, but all I ended up with was a pile of origami boulders.

This review is based on a review build of the game provided by the developer.

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