Duke Nukem Forever. Kingdom Hearts 3. Street Fighter 4. Trace 2 ($2.99). Some sequels take their time. Of course, one of the unique aspects of the game industry compared to other forms of entertainment is how rapidly the technology moves. Sequels that are a long time coming run a serious risk of falling behind the curve. Comparing the selection of games for offer today on the App Store to five years ago, when the first Trace (Free) hit, it’s stunning how far things have come.
This is the problem Trace 2 faces. As a sequel, it’s everything a fan of the first game could hope for. It looks better, sounds better, has a ton of new gameplay ideas, and is packed full of well-designed levels with buckets of solutions at the player’s disposal. If you have been sitting around on your hands waiting for a sequel to Trace, you are going to be a very happy puppy indeed. Unfortunately, I suspect if you were sitting on your hands waiting for a sequel, your heart probably moved on long ago. Moreover, I suspect many came into iOS gaming too late to even know of the existence of the first game.
Whether you moved on or never knew it at all, Trace 2 may not, in some ways, be up to the standards you’ve become accustomed to in 2013, but I think it would be a mistake to write it off. That’s not to say there are no strings attached if you decide to give it a shot, but the idea behind the game is still as sound as ever, and there are quite a few good ideas packed in here. It’s going to test your reflexes, your brain, but most of all, your patience, and it’s going to do it by throwing new things at you around every corner.
In Trace 2, you play as a crudely animated little red stick man, who you’ll remember from the first game if you got it after its first update. Each stage takes place on a single screen, and your goal is to get around the obstacles you’ll find and reach an exit portal. You have a few abilities in your arsenal. You can walk left or right, you can jump, and, most importantly, you can draw on the screen with your finger. With the exception of one particular world, this will draw a line that acts as solid ground for your stick man. As this line is solid, it can block your passage if you’re not careful, occasionally preventing you from just laying out all your lines at the start of the stage. Usefully, you can erase the lines this time, though the gesture doesn’t work as well as you might need it to at times, often clearing a far larger area than you’d like it to.
The lines you draw are solid for you, but most enemies and obstacles will harmlessly pass through them, with again one exception. As just one hit will send you back to the beginning of the level, it’s absolutely vital to observe the patterns of the enemies before you plan your route. The game starts off a bit lightly, throwing pretty simple obstacles at you, forgiving a lack of strategy, but it turns up the heat pretty quickly. Every world ditches most of the obstacles from the one before, introducing new challenges that offer you an ever-smaller safe passage to the goal. Generally, there’s also a new gimmick for each world, some of them familiar, some of them novel, but all of them changing the way you need to proceed through each stage. I’d rather leave them as a surprise for the player, so I’m not going to go into detail here, except to say the gimmick design does speak to paying attention to platform game successes in the intervening years.
This constant change-up combined with exceptional level design is what makes Trace 2 a trip worth taking. There are 160 levels in all, a hefty tally, yet when you reach the end, you’ll still be thirsty for more. That’s a rare trick for a game like this that relies on a single main mechanic. On top of that, the game will keep track of your clear time for each stage, awarding you with up to three (of course!) stars, which provides incentive to replay and try new ideas. The only downside to this is that there is no Game Center support, which makes it quite a bit harder to compete with your friends. It’s an odd omission for this type of game nowadays.
That’s just the start of the issues, however. One of the problems in the first game was that the virtual buttons were a bit too small, leading to mistakes at critical moments. Well, five years worth of development and feedback later, and the buttons are still too small, and the results are the same. It’s too easy to miss the buttons when your attention is focused elsewhere, leading to death, frustration, and hands-on testing of the new AirDrop feature of iOS 7. Also, while the game looks a lot better than the first game, courtesy of gorgeous new backgrounds, the sprites still look a bit cheap. I think it’s great that the train has left Uglytown Station, but it’s really just moved on to Averageville.
One aspect that doesn’t feel cheap is the music, though. It’s gorgeous stuff, with new tunes for each world, even sometimes synchronizing with the action to lend a bit of a rhythm-game feel to the proceedings. In the seventh world, the backgrounds and music come together and the game almost becomes a bit of beautiful pop art, if only temporarily. The last thing I should mention with regards to the aesthetics is the UI design, which again shows solid improvement over the first game, button issues aside. There were a lot of unintuitive UI choices in the original Trace, so it’s nice to see things cleaned up a bit.
So, yes, in some ways, Trace 2 doesn’t quite make the splash in the here and now that the original made five years ago. Does it matter, though? It is a very good sequel and a lot of obvious care has been put into the meat of the game, the gameplay mechanics and level design. I’m not very happy with the virtual control problems and the curious absence of Game Center leaderboards, but if you’ve got the patience to put up with a missed input here and there, I think you’ll enjoy what’s on offer here. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another five years for the next one.