Paper Trail review: Folding, unfolding, and refolding an adventure

A puzzle game all about folding pieces of paper also tells a story about leaving the nest.

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Newfangled Games’ Paper Trail is a puzzle game with a familiar premise, and a familiar aesthetic that puts it in the ever-growing “cozy” genre that’s become so popular for… reasons. But while the game looks familiar from a distance, the actual application of its style to the gameplay concepts feels distinct and is far more challenging than you might expect at a first glance. I’ve come away from Paper Trail not fully sold on it as a total package, but impressed at its full commitment to some easily perceivable goals.

Getting into the fold

The opening page in Paper Trail
Source: Newfangled Games

In Paper Trail you play as Paige (ha, I get it), a girl who lives in a very whimsical, small town sort of area populated by silly-looking characters who speak in a cutesy mumble that’s one part Peanuts and one part Banjo-Kazooie. She wants to pursue a life as an academic, but a lot of weird stuff about the local environment and local… locals present barrier after barrier. Luckily for us, Paige has an apparent supernatural ability to fold the world like paper, which she can use to solve problems. Problems such as freeing a lighthouse operator who got trapped by the lighthouse because the road disappeared or something? Don’t think about it too hard, just do the paper thingy and it’ll work out.

The paper thingy, as I so elegantly put it, is the crux of Paper Trail. Each screen is, basically, a sheet of paper with a front and a back. As Paige, you can not only walk around on any navigable space, but you can fold the page from any side or corner, over itself, as long as Paige herself isn’t blocking the way. By folding the paper over to impose the back over the front you can create new paths, reveal hidden secrets, complete bizarre ritual circles to open doors, and of course find kitschy, little collectibles.

There are no dotted lines here

The puzzles get more and more complex over time
Source: Newfangled Games

It’s a little hard to wrap your head around in practice, so I imagine just reading words about it isn’t very graceful either. One early style of puzzle is matching dice to complete bridges. Your path may be blocked by a chasm, with a die on one edge. On the back side of the page/level, there’s a die with a matching number. If you fold the page over so that the two dice touch, they light up and you can pass. Not only must you connect the dice, there also has to be a logical path you can follow after. It’s possible to have the dice touch, but with no navigable path fully set. It can go the other way around, too.

More complicated mechanics or variables are introduced over time, such as locked doors and keys, boulders you have to push onto switches, and the circles I mentioned earlier. Each of these challenges requires a slightly different approach to how you fold the paper, dependent of course on what’s actually on the other side. And you always have to be cognizant of where Paige is standing, and how that impacts your ability to move both yourself and the paper. It’s more complicated than it seems at first, and can be a lot to keep track of as each screen grows more complicated.

For a puzzle game like this, the key to success feels like striking a balance between challenge and ease of use. You want to feel challenged, but not so much that you have to sit there and stare at the screen while your brain chugs to life and the gears break off all the rust and cobwebs to start turning effectively. The designers want to challenge you in a way that feels satisfying as the puzzler, but don’t want to scare people away either. The worst case scenario feels like a situation in which players are resorting to trial and error, or even guides. Hint systems can be a point of safety there, but again it’s all about the balance. Luckily that’s a perfectly tangible concept and has no wiggle room for interpretation or individual, subjective experiences. Right? Oh no.

Okay, there are some dotted lines

A look at the colorful and paper-y visuals in Paper Trail
Source: Newfangled Games

For me, I ended up feeling the trial and error point of frustration a lot. It’s not easy to pinpoint the hows and whys, especially when you’re encountering what feels like a fairly innovative system of mechanics for the first time without a community to fall back on. But I’m leaning towards it being due to how much information you don’t have at a given moment. Because there’s so much to what’s on the other side of the page, you have to constantly flip back and forth, then figure out exactly how turning the paper on each available side or corner actually impacts the front. It’s hard to picture, and hard to retain when you’re also juggling the different components on the board.

One screen in particular had four separate mini-pages in addition to the big central page, two boulders, a key, a locked door, a collectable, and a bunch of dead-ends and thin pathways. It was simply overwhelming to keep track of. It really felt like I was constantly retreading the same ground, turning little corners over and over while things I had already looked at and tried spilled over like a bucket under running water. I solved the room, but I felt a distinct lack of control over the entire situation, which felt stressful and unsatisfying. The exact opposite of cozy, you feel me?

Pushing a boulder in Paper Trail
Source: Newfangled Games

The hint system isn’t super helpful either, when it comes to a player struggling with overwhelming detail volume. It’s an admittedly adorable animation of a sheet of paper, which you can use to scroll through an animation of the folds you need to make to solve the puzzle. It’s bare minimum information, meaning it doesn’t include all the little things you have to do between each fold. There’s moving Paige around, grabbing or collecting objects, basically any interactions besides the folding. Perhaps the answer here is Paper Trail isn’t a destresser by any means, especially if you contend with something like ADHD and your brain is less of an information sponge and more of a creaky wooden boat full of cracks and holes. Whoopsie!

When you think about it, that’s kind of the inherent pro and con to puzzles, though. Paper Trail benefits a lot from its distinct mechanics, because they help it stand out among a sea of similar games with similar gameplay hooks. But distinct doesn’t always mean approachable, and Paper Trail ends up being quite complex in a lot of ways that could be awesome for one player and super obstructive to another. And that’s fine! The style, which includes the colorful visuals, silly sound direction, genuine writing, and emotive music, all elevate the experience and aid in that sense of approachability. It’s a little too much for me, but I’m mostly a Tetris guy at the end of the day.


Paper Trail is available on May 21, 2024 for the Nintendo Switch, Xbox One and Series X|S, PlayStation 4 and 5, PC, and mobile platforms via Netflix. A PC code was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.

Contributing Editor

Lucas plays a lot of videogames. Sometimes he enjoys one. His favorites include Dragon Quest, SaGa, and Mystery Dungeon. He's far too rattled with ADHD to care about world-building lore but will get lost for days in essays about themes and characters. Holds a journalism degree, which makes conversations about Oxford Commas awkward to say the least. Not a trophy hunter but platinumed Sifu out of sheer spite and got 100 percent in Rondo of Blood because it rules. You can find him on Twitter @HokutoNoLucas being curmudgeonly about Square Enix discourse and occasionally saying positive things about Konami.

Review for
Paper Trail
7
Pros
  • Colorful visuals and vibe-setting music
  • Novel mechanics that commit to the paper theme
Cons
  • Puzzles have a high degree of intensity, can be overwhelming for certain types of players
  • Hint system doesn't help a ton
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