If there was ever a game that was tailor made for the pick up and play mentality of Xbox Live Arcade, Trials HD is it. On the surface, the game is deceptively simple. You control a faceless motorcycle stuntman on a 2 dimensional plane, and your goal is usually to guide him through a lethal obstacle course. Metal beams, wooden planks, vertical ramps, huge jumps and huge explosions stand between you and the finish line.
Initially, Trials HD recalled memories of the Super NES classic, Uniracers. In Trials though, you're not racing against any opponents, just the clock. Being stuck in 2 dimensions and adjusting lean and speed along the way certainly makes Trials a successor to the aforementioned Uniracers. Still, Trials is far less a racing game, and more of a puzzle game dealing with physics.
While the first few levels will lull you into a false sense of security, get ready to take some lumps. Getting to the finish line is rarely easy outside of the first two difficulty levels. Physics play a huge role in the game, and the moment you forget which direction to lean off of a jump, take a jump too fast, or don't take into account the bounce of your landing, is the moment that you fall off a cliff into a fiery pit of death, or onto a landmine that sends your rider shuffling off this mortal coil. In fact, the level of abuse that this poor sap takes in this game made me feel bad for him. Let's just say that I hope he gets some hazard pay for this stuff.
The harder levels will truly test your skills in some incredibly difficult challenges that had this reviewer tearing his hair out. This game caused me a level of anxiety that I haven't felt since my Grade 12 chemistry exam that I forgot to study for. Each level gives you a limit of 500 (!) retries, and I went through all of them more than once when trying to beat a level on extreme difficulty. Yes, dying 500 times in the span of 20 minutes is par for the course around these parts. Still, flawlessly executing a run that originally seemed impossible is incredibly satisfying, and even when the game is at its most sadistic, it doesn't feel cheap and remains fun.
The game at least doesn't take itself seriously, as seen by the goofy and unrealistic level designs, especially during the skill games mode. Ever seen a motorcycle shooting fire and flying through rings of fire? You will here. The skill games are a great diversion from the very challenging main game, and are no slouch in the difficulty department. These games will have you riding on the inside of a metal ball, riding on the outside of the same ball, and in my favourite game, pulling along a wagon with two giant bombs. Hit a bump too hard or let the bombs fall off, and its kaboom for your poor rider. This mode is goofy yet challenging fun.
There is also a level editor to play with that gives you a lot of options to create some truly sadistic levels. You can place all sorts of different platforms, scaffoldings, obstacles, explosives, fires, and ramps to navigate. The editor would greatly benefit from a mouse and keyboard, but it's not bad considering it's done with a controller. It's a powerful addition. With enough expertise, you could theoretically recreate any of the levels that the designers themselves have put together. It's just a shame that levels can only be shared by friends and not with all of Xbox Live. If LittleBigPlanet on the PlayStation 3 can do it, why couldn't Trials HD?
As far as an Arcade title goes, Trials HD packs in a fair amount of content, but 1200 Microsoft points does feel a little steep, despite how addictive the game is. Getting through the single player mode only takes two or three hours (forget about extreme difficulty, it's as close to impossible as video games get), and unless you and your friends get passionate about making new tracks, you'll like see everything Trials HD has to offer in just a few hours, and the lack of a multiplayer mode is an unfortunate oversight too. At least the game features leaderboards to compete with your friends, and a helpful meter while playing will show you where you are compared to your friend's times.
The graphics are very solid, especially for a downloadable game. The animation on your rider is superb, especially when he introduces his face to the edge of a ramp or his rib cage to a wall. His leaning animations are smooth and well defined. The environments are also surprisingly varied and packed with loads of details. Explosions and collapsing backgrounds and foregrounds also add a sense of urgency to the levels. Trials HD is a very solid visual experience.
The sound is passable but nothing really to write home about. The game features a decent but ultimately disposable hard rock soundtrack, and it won't be long until you load up your own custom soundtracks. The cries and cheers from your rider grate rather quickly too. The explosions sound pretty nice and feature some nice bass.
Fun and frustration have rarely come together in such a cohesive package as they do with Trials HD. Those looking for a physics puzzler that will push your gaming skills as far as they've ever been stretched have certainly found their new obsession. For the rest of us, Trials is still worth a look, but the recommendation is not quite as enthusiastic. Still, where else will you be able to pilot a rocket bike through rings of fire?