Imagine you’re riding a motorcycle down a hill. Now imagine that everything around you is on fire and exploding. Now imagine that you’re about to fall off the bike and be gruesomely incinerated, and that’s considered a success. Trials Fusion is a best kind of madness, and when it’s at peak performance, there’s not much else like it. Sadly, Trials doesn’t like to stay at the top of its game for too long, but we’ll get to that.
Trials is a 2-D platformer disguised as a racing game, and jumping into the first few tracks is as easy as ever. You’ll first notice just how nice the game looks, some (frequent) graphical stutters aside. Trials Fusions is one of the most surprisingly good looking games I’ve seen from these new consoles. The colors pop, the lively backgrounds seem to go on for miles, and the tracks curve into screen from far off into the distance. You’ll ride your bike up and down hills, through ruined cities, into the sky, and more. There’s a good sense of variation as you ride through the available tracks. Textures and shadows do seem to have trouble loading at times when you’re picking up speed, and you’ll notice this more on some levels than others. Not every track in the game is marred to much by this, but there issues are hard to miss. Also, in some levels where the sun is visible, they make it waaaaay too bright. Those levels can be hard to see at times, because the sun will pop out and completely obscure your view. It only happens in a handful of areas, but it’s weird that it couldn’t have been toned down a little.
While playing, it was hard avoiding comparing Fusion to Badland and Donkey Kong Country Returns. Both are hectic platformers who focus on looking nice, and always providing something interesting in either the gameplay, the scenery around you, or both. Nearly every level in the game has similarly memorable moments, many coming in the form of a really odd sense of humor. Race through a desert, and you’ll discover at the end that there’s a giant monster waiting to swallow you into the sand. Fly over the end of the track just enough and you might be greeted by another hilariously awful death for your rider, in the form of crushing, incineration, or worse. Did I mention the aliens? There’s an incredible attention to detail, even in how shots are framed. These people went the extra mile to give you a good zoom out when the time is right, just to let you appreciate the physical comedy of a man riding a motorcycle off a skyscraper. Almost every track in the game has some silly something that will make you laugh, and the moment I rode through an exploding factory and was engulfed in flames during a particularly awesome jump, I was along for this whole ride no matter what.
But, the whole ride isn’t worth taking, due to some unwieldy design decisions that feel very distant from the tight, fast paced tracks in the early hours of the game. After completing 5 of the eight worlds, you’re greeted with the sixth, which is essentially the start of the second half of the game. From this point on, tracks aren’t about flying through with grace, they’re about moving slowly through obstacles, trying again and again to overcome one difficult jump. In the first 5 worlds, I probably died less than 100 times. In the first few levels of world 6, I was racking up more than 100 deaths on individual obstacles.
I’m not opposed to difficult platformers. Super Meat Boy is one of my favorite games, and I completed every single level in it, accumulating more deaths than I care to admit. The thing about Trials Fusion is…you don’t feel like you have any control over what’s happening. The physics will eventually allow you to cross a wide gap after you fiddle with them enough times, but I never felt like I had actually accomplished anything after completing a hard jump on my 256th try. I was just mad that the game decided to waste so much of my time, and I wanted that feeling of the early game back. Success feels like it involves more luck than any kind of skill, and brute forcing an obstacle for five minutes can usually get you to the other side, it just isn’t any fun to do it. After completing this set of levels, your reward is just…more levels like them. I wanted to ride free, do flips, get up to high speeds, and see crazy stuff happening in the background. From this point on, you’re forced to crawl at a snail’s pace through rocky gaps, and it feels like a completely different game, one that I have no interest in ever returning to.
Thankfully, there is plenty reason to return to the good tracks, coming in the form of challenges. Every track in the game has three extra objectives to complete on them, and they’re almost all unique and great. They ask you to play the game in a different way, or to find new parts of your favorite levels that you didn’t even know existed. Think of the Star collectibles from Mario 3D World: They aren’t there to just be nonsense collectibles, finding them is a reward within itself because they force you to think about the game in a way that isn’t reach point B from point A. Some challenges ask you to find secret exits, some have you riding without leaning on your bike, some want you to reach somewhere while riding under a certain speed, and others just want you to figure out how to accomplish some nearly inexplicable task.
One of my favorite challenges only gave me this line of text to go on: “Offer at least 1 football to the god of footballs in the temple ruins.” This is a game about riding a motorcycle, excuse me? The actual use for the challenges is to earn money for aesthetic customizations like helmets or new tires, which I basically never touched, but seeing my dude turn into a ticking time bomb as he dove into a crater was reward enough for me. The game constantly has as much fun as you by leaving hidden references throughout levels and in text, but never hits you over the head with any of it. Some jokes range from hard to miss (see the Elder Scrolls reference on the level select screen) to pretty obscure (crash your bike next to a certain statue and you’ll get a zoom in on it to read what the inscription says), and they’re all incredibly rewarding to seek out.
There are other things to do besides the simple side scrolling tracks as well. There is a series of levels where you perform tricks on your bike you increase a combo for high scores. These are fun, but sometimes infuriating, because the game has a hard time keeping track of when you’re doing a trick. “Hey game, did you see that sweet triple backflip I did while hanging off the back of my bike? No? Okay, thanks for the score penalty because you missed it, dick.” Some of the skill games from Trials HD return here as well, though not as many as I would have liked, and some of them don’t work half as well as their previous counterparts. When you get to the part where you fling your body off a ramp, let me know how exactly it’s supposed to work, because I still have no clue. In Trials HD, this mini game worked perfectly, plus there were bowling pins at the bottom that you were flinging your flailing corpse as, and that’s still hilarious.
The multiplayer components fit smoothly inside every level in the game, which adds more than I expected it to. If you play any level that a friend has completed, their ghost will ride through the level with you, and it becomes a constant struggle to outdo the other rider on the track. Once you’ve completed the stage, your ghost will also ride the track if you play it again, which leads to almost every single player track in the game having at least two other riders there, even though you’re playing by yourself. If you’re one to get joy from knocking your friend’s high scores off a leaderboard, this inclusion of racing their ghost makes it all the more satisfying when you take them down. There is also an multiplayer component which is a good deal of fun with up to four real players, but a limited number of tracks and no online support for the first few months after launch stop it from being as good as it could be.
While Trials Fusion may be an uneven game, it’s a game I choose to love even though it actively tried to push me away. About half of it nails what it wants, but it nails it so damn hard that I can almost pretend the other 50% isn’t there. I had such a good time with the first 6 hours or so (and I still have plenty more challenges to complete in those early stages) that I don’t have to worry about dipping into the latter half’s frustration again. Sure, if the levels only got increasingly better as it went on, we’d be looking at a serious game of the year contender. But as it stands, I’m still looking at what’s probably my favorite game on these shiny new consoles, and it was a pretty smooth ride while it lasted.