Paper Trail Review: A Beautiful Puzzle That I Had a (Mostly) Terrible Time With


I’d like to start this review with a question: What’s the difference between conquering a challenge and thinking “I did it!” versus one that leaves you gasping “That’s it!”? I can leave little observations scattered throughout the game. Paper Trail, if you will. A puzzle game called Paper Trail, where you solve discrete puzzles by folding the screen like a sheet of paper in different ways to create modern paths, I might even say if I tried to cram a ton of information at the top without spoiling the theme. Let’s talk about it.

- Advertisement -

The stars of Paper Trail are Paige. She’s your lo-fi terrarium-garden-heroine girl, studious and relaxed to the point of impeccably vibrating for time-space-continuum-bending powers. All those hours of studying 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 flee her sleepy seaside town to follow a deer she saw in her dream. Students! One of the characters in her village is a lighthouse keeper named “Winslow.” Maybe don’t do this in your cute puzzle, because then all I’ll think about is lobsters and fear, but it’s a nice introduction.

To continue her journey, Paige will need to apply her powers to overcome obstacles by creating modern paths. This is where folding comes in. You can preview the reverse side of the screen at any time. So an early puzzle might have Paige crossing a river, so you spot a bridge on the reverse side and then fold it into place. Later on, there will be many additions to this formula, such as moving blocks and statues and sliding platforms, but the initial caveat is that you can’t move the part of the screen Paige is standing on, or drag the side above it. So it’s not just about finding the right way to warp things, but also where to stand during each step of the solution so you don’t get stuck.

Image Source: Newfangled Games/Rock Paper Shotgun

What starts out as a promise of a chilled graphic novel adventure with the occasional puzzle soon turns out to be a hefty book of puzzles in an airport. It’s a world filled with what I can only describe as “puzzle dungeons.” Like the effective dungeons in an atmospheric crawler, they feel both overwhelming and endless. One puzzle rewards you with another: a slightly more obtuse version of the previous one, with added complications. Sometimes I’d look at the stunning artwork and start to appreciate how cleverly designed a puzzle was as I finished it, and wonder if I was just having an anhedonia attack or something because I just didn’t like any of them.

One culprit is the button that gives step-by-step instructions on how to put the screen together, and another culprit is that I have absolutely no self-control when using it. I can’t expect to feel any sense of accomplishment when I successfully figure out a solution, but even when I forced myself not to look, I felt incredibly deflated after solving something. I’d solve a puzzle. I’d move on to the next screen. It was bigger and more complicated, and I’d just sigh loudly and get ready to grab corners and edges and move them around until something made sense.

Some puzzles you can look at, feel out, and solve before you do anything. It sounds satisfying, but it just feels like I’m going through the motions. Maybe the knowledge that I always have an exit, via a hint screen, made it all seem useless, or maybe there’s just a fundamental nature to puzzles that makes them satisfying, and Paper Trail lacked that. Either way, I just couldn’t summon up any joy or emotion beyond stress and, frankly, feeling like a substantial, clumsy bruiser because I didn’t have the straightforward, starry-eyed time the game presented me as if I should have.

Ancient Ruins at Paper Trail
Image Source: Newfangled Games/Rock Paper Shotgun

Because how can I stay mad at a game with such art? I have to be a sun-dried garbage bag of dispassionate scum not to sit in enchanted wonder instead of glazed irritation. It’s not just the overall color and coziness, but the hidden details. The places feel archaic and Delphic. The crumbling tiles and the carved reliefs. The trees that sway statically with implied movement. It literally takes the Bob Ross school of cheerful little inanimate beings, with the bog rocks I’d like to be friends with. The apply of color and lighting is also wonderful. It shouldn’t be possible for something as monochromatic as gray stone to have so many contrasting hues, but there’s nothing gaunt or flat about these papery places.

The spaces are further accented by likeable characters who deliver entertaining lines in a kind of sappy simlish. I would have devoured a graphic novel about being there for a while. The actual plot sequences are scenes that usually take place before and after the dungeon (the “world”), and I liked them much less. They are all monologues from Paige, where the writing takes a strange turn in tone. Suddenly it becomes too sappy and like it’s trying too challenging to get my feelings out of me. There’s no real plot either, just these flashbacks and monologues connecting the detached journey.

You also have to fold these sequences to progress them. By the third or fourth cutscene, folding paper stops being cute and becomes tedious. I’ve just solved ten million puzzles and I’ve seen this trick before. Let me put the controller on my lap and watch the cutscene. Let’s just say that this is… not a page turner! (My typing fingers immediately burst into flames and I rotate my hat 1080 degrees, then give the camera finger guns.)

I kept you on the edge of my seat long enough. The difference, I think, between completing a part of a game that makes you think “I did it!” and one that makes you think “I’m done!” is that the former makes you feel capable but against the odds, and the latter makes you feel stupid. By presenting itself as something for everyone, Paper Trail’s sense of exclusion or inadequacy made me feel stupid. Stupid because I didn’t solve the puzzles quickly enough, stupid because I relied on its guide, stupid because I didn’t enjoy something so stunning and inventive. Stupid because I didn’t appreciate the screens I solved without much trouble. Stupid because I didn’t appreciate the complexity of the ones I struggled with.

Old door in Paper Trail
Image Source: Newfangled Games/Rock Paper Shotgun

It’s entirely possible that I’m just not good at thinking in the specific, horizontal way that the game wanted me to. I could imagine how someone else who was good at these puzzles might feel about Paper Trail and write a review from their perspective. It would be more fun and save me having to admit how bad I am at it. But that seems unfair. And honestly, I mostly had a terrible time with it.

But as a great plumber once said, it’s me (the problem). I didn’t finish the Paper Trail. I made it 80% of the way through and then I came to a puzzle that pissed me off so much that I decided that spending more time playing would just make me hold an unjustified grudge against the game. That won’t facilitate anyone. My opinion won’t change, it’ll just get louder. So I quit! And now I feel great! I did it AND end! Synthesis! I apologize in advance for my incessant verbosity, but to sum it up: the art is pretty. The game is not pretty. Maybe you can make a stunning origami swan out of it, but I ended up with a pile of origami boulders.

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

Related articles