The majority of the time, the term “walking simulator” is used in a derogatory manner to downplay many quality experiences. However, in the case of The Trail: Frontier Challenge, there sadly isn’t a better fit. From developer 22cans and the legendary (though some might say infamous) designer Peter Molyneux, this stroll across the countryside attempts to add more mechanics to its surroundings, but in doing so it forgets to make the actual act of walking even the slightest bit interesting.
After picking your character, you’ll arrive on the shores of the New World with the goal of making it to Eden Falls, a nearby town where you look to set up shop with a house and eventually run for mayor. With not even an item of clothing to speak of, you follow in your Uncle Rufus’ footsteps, charting your trail to the aforementioned town and stopping off at various camps along the way.
It’s a fairly flimsy premise, and it never amounts to anything substantial. You’ll exchange letters with your family back home in England as you progress and let them know of your travels, but it’s never too in-depth as you select specific details to be included in the messages. The disappearance of your uncle is an ever-present subplot, but it never becomes the clear driving force for progression. While other games of the genre place the story front and centre, The Trail’s paper-thin narrative quickly fades into the background.
For saying its core concept revolves around travelling from camp to camp, the game doesn’t do a good job of making this process interesting. You will follow a strict path that you cannot deviate from; the only actual directions you can move in are forwards and backwards. You’ll be able to swing the camera around you and pick up nearby objects once they become highlighted with a press of the ZR button, but thanks to the minimal amount of interaction, navigation just isn’t exciting in the slightest.
Once you do reach each encampment, you’ll be able to craft new items out of the materials collected on your travels, barter for goods or sell objects off for cash, or spend your currency in the surprisingly large skill tree. As well as that, you’ll be able to accept challenges to be completed on your next excursion, such as finishing within a certain time, collecting a set number of items, or chopping down enough trees for wood. These goals do add an extra layer to travelling, but they’re tasks that you really should be carrying out anyway, especially if you want access to higher quality goods.
You could craft a slingshot to be used for hunting rabbits while on the road, an axe will chop down trees by the wayside of the path; alternatively, you could stock up on food as you pass it to conserve energy, but this really is all the gameplay loop amounts to. Things do get a little more in-depth once you reach Eden Falls and begin to construct your house and customise it, but it’s going to take you a fair few hours to even get there.
Despite how simple its gameplay mechanics are, the skill tree that weaves its way through every activity is surprisingly deep. Split into five separate branches, you can look to improve your overall navigation, enhance your hunting skills for catching food, and then upgrade your cooking knowledge to fry it, or develop your tailoring so you can invest in fashionable clothing. With a number of advancements to be found within each branch - along with smaller developments to boost them - there’s a genuine amount of improvement to be embraced.
The quality of a port to the Nintendo Switch is always a hot topic, and unfortunately The Trail: Frontier Challenge fails to do the platform justice. In handheld mode, the game fails to hold a consistent framerate as the experience stops and starts with frequent hitches and brief pauses. The menus suffer too, as it can take a second to load everything in while the sluggish control scheme makes them a chore to navigate. The title fares a little better when docked, but those on the go are in for a rough time.
When it’s not stopping and starting, the game’s art style does stand out. Its blocky and bold colours help to paint a vibrant world that is a joy to observe, and with a relaxing soundtrack to compliment it, the overall experience can be a peaceful one. It’s just a shame that when things kick into motion, the vibe can be ruined by the inconsistency of its performance.
The Trail: Frontier Challenge is too much of a barebones experience for us to give it anywhere near a solid recommendation. The act of getting about is minimal when it comes to interaction, and the performance issues turn the game into far too much of a slog. The skill tree and the art style itself are two brief high points, but they’re not enough to make us recall this trip through the countryside with any degree of fondness.