Trials of the Blood Dragon review
Trials by fire.
We have the 1980s to thank for any number of embarrassing cultural trends - neoliberalism, an epidemic of mullets, Christopher Lambert's acting career - but sometimes I think the decade's most terrible legacy is allowing video game creators to pass off shabby design as quasi-satirical retro entertainment.
Take Trials of the Blood Dragon, RedLynx's rather inexplicable sequel to Ubisoft Montreal's open world shooter spoof Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon. Is it a wayward, drunken mess of a game that buries a fabulous platforming pedigree in bolt-on mechanics and garish production values? Why yes, of course it is. But don't you see? That's the point! Everything was crappy in the 1980s. It was an age of unbridled material excess, all surface glitter and no substance. To expect anything genuinely considered or elegant (or even just plain fun) for the £12 Ubisoft is asking would be to do the premise, nay, the era itself a disservice.
It almost sounds convincing at a distance, but this isn't our first ride on this particular rodeo. 80s spoofs are a well-established, surprisingly competitive subgenre, as RedLynx and Ubisoft rather self-defeatingly acknowledge here by referencing the likes of the acclaimed Hotline Miami, in amongst confused allusions to the Power Rangers, Super Soakers and Rambo. And Trials of the Blood Dragon is simply too shambolic and conflicted an experience to get away with being a work of irony or "unapologetic" nostalgia.
Unleashed upon a blameless public during Ubisoft's E3 presser, the new Trials continues the story of Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon's Rex Colt, or rather of his cyber-commando kids Roxanne and Slayter, who have been requisitioned to fight the stinking Commies in their crusty old dad's absence. The good news is that Roxanne and Slayter are both bikers, and you'll spend much of the game's miserly 2-4 hour running time biking. During these, more substantial sections, the feel is much as in any Trials game - a question of feathering the gas pedal and shifting your weight back and forth with left analogue stick to adjust your orientation and momentum, as you blast through a series of ramps, deadfalls, vertiginous plunges and rollercoaster loops.
RedLynx's real-time physics engine remains a thing of spiteful beauty, an unseen but always-palpable god who must be treated with the utmost respect. Lean a little too hard into a slope or misjudge a jump ever so slightly and you'll tumble arse over tit, resetting to a checkpoint and squandering a chunk of your completion score. You don't need to achieve a certain score to progress (though you do need to worry about the clock), but the temptation to start the level from scratch when you foul up is difficult to resist, and the triumph of a clean landing is all the sweeter for the many, many times you'll crumple your head against a girder.
This is the Trials that captivated players, critics and developers alike back in the halcyon days of Xbox Live Arcade, and it has lost little of its fundamental potency. Some of Trials of the Blood Dragon's more eccentric courses even add to the appeal - the one that sees you trying to escape a skyscraper under the influence of hallucinatory drugs, for example, cue nightmarish shifts in terrain and lighting, or the Vietnam course that ends with you surfing an ICBM. There's also a crude but serviceable grappling hook during certain courses that feels like it might have been a solid innovation, given a bit more thought about how grappling complements the underlying interplay of inertia and traction.
But alas, that's just part of the package. Taking its cue, perhaps, from some of the weirder custom courses created by fans of its previous titles, RedLynx has thrown together an incredibly half-baked assortment of on-foot shooting, jetpack and stealth sections in a misguided effort to vary the tempo. I'm not sure I can overstate how ghastly these stretches are, and I can't believe they survived playtesting. The jumping controls are floaty and characterless, a mockery of the fluidity of the action elsewhere. The stealth - which thankfully gets very little screentime - boils down to avoiding spotlights and ducking behind crates, and the jetpack is a work of teeth-shattering, pad-twisted incompetence that handles like a kite in a gale. If the core of the game dredges up warm memories of Xbox Live's downloadable gaming renaissance, these bits recall the absolute dregs of the now-retired Indie section.
The stealth, shooting and jetpack levels aren't hived off from the biking, either. One of the game's cruellest touches is that the story concludes with a homage to the Gigatrack from Trials Evolution, a behemoth of a course that's at once majestic and fiendish, taking a high but rewarding toll on both your dexterity and stamina. In the Blood Dragon version, this once-enthralling epic is rudely chopped into thirds separated by flaccid run-and-gunning. In amongst the script's barrage of in-jokes, the game also offers up a neat microcosm for its own failure in the form of a mercifully brief level where you have to tow a trailer bearing an enormous spherical bomb. The slightest bump is likely to set the bomb off or knock it from its cradle, forcing a restart, and this being a Trials game, buffets are frequent. Thus Trials of the Blood Dragon in a nutshell - RedLynx's celebrated Sonic-on-a-motorbike formula, shackled to a gigantic, pointless ball of exploding nonsense.
It feels like Ubisoft has overplayed its hand with the Blood Dragon series. The spoof B-movie setting worked well for Far Cry 3 because everybody was sick to the back teeth of triple-A action games that aspire to the status of Serious Art, while clinging on hypocritically to smelly adolescent power fantasies. Trials of the Blood Dragon can't pull off the same trick because Trials has never claimed to be anything other than what it is, a barmy but skilfully designed platformer with great bike physics and exotic courses. The last game wasn't some dreary arthouse totem, begging to be lampooned - it was a game with chrome spaceships and fire-breathing unicorns, for crying out loud. Trials needs an injection of 80s flair like, well, it needs a shooting section. Or that sodding jetpack.
A near-complete absence of online elements or multiplayer is the cherry on the cake. There's little here that warrants revisiting, some trivial unlockables and the pressures of leaderboard competition aside, and the prominent presence of a Trials Fusion storepage link in the hub area suggests that the idea is more to introduce players to the series than serve up something decent in its own right. If that is the real objective, the developers have bungled it up spectacularly. In seeking to do for Trials what Blood Dragon did for Far Cry, Ubisoft and RedLynx have all but consigned it to the grave.