Trials HD is a brutally punishing game that does everything it can to remove the frustration from the punishment.
Last week I wrote that the perceived difficulty of a game is less affected by the individual challenges that make up said game than it is the ramp-up in difficulty and other elements surrounding those individual challenges. Essentially, punishing games can be fun. For all the negative connotations of the word, it more describes a very demanding style of gameplay than a level of difficulty. Punishing the player while keeping him entertained is a tough balancing act, but Trials HD strikes that balance: A brutally punishing game that does everything it can to remove the frustration from the punishment.
There are many, many, checkpoints in each course, nearly one after every obstacle. If you go off a ramp, you can bet there’s a checkpoint on the other side. This ensures that the only challenge players are ever concerned with is the one directly in front of them. It’s always frustrating, in any game, when we fail a challenge and must then replay the build-up to that challenge; having to slog through that same build-up over and over again turns playing the game into actual punishment, as in an unwanted consequence for failure. Trails HD realizes this and never forces the player to replay large sections of a level. Once an obstacle is overcome, it can be forgotten, and the player can focus all his attention on what’s next.
Retrying Is Easy
Then there are the Skill Games, a collection of seemingly random mini-games that offer the player a break from the main mode. They range from seeing how long you can stay balanced on top of or inside a ball, to how far you can ride up an ever-steepening slope. Some of the skill games (like the one in which you try to break as many bones as possible in a single fall, or the one where you try to fling the rider as far as possible) provide a cathartic release of any anger garnered in the main game. But for all their fun, they also teach the player valuable skills necessary to pass some of the later courses, such as balance, keeping momentum, and (especially) climbing. So even as we take a break from the main courses, the game is helping and preparing us for more.
Trials HD panders to the player in every way except lowing the difficulty. While playing other punishing games, it can sometimes feel like the game is giving itself an unfair advantage in order to up the difficulty, which can anger players and convince them to quit. But in Trials HD, it feels like the game is helping us, urging us on despite its merciless courses. We’re not actually competing against the game; the courses serve as an arena in which we compete against ourselves and our friends for the best time. The game does urge us on by offering medals, but sometimes it’s satisfying enough just to be at the top of you Friends List, even if you only have a silver medal. Competing in such passive, inanimate courses means that any mistake is clearly our fault. If we can’t get up a steep ramp, it’s not because the game is steadily increasing the incline, it’s because we’re not hitting the gas at the right time. The only person we can ever fault is ourselves. That’s what makes Trails HD punishing in all the right ways.