I’ve always found myself attracted to the racing game genre by the entries that attempt something different than the popular simulation racer, games like Bizarre Creations’ Blur, Black Rock Studio’s Split/Second, and Criterion Software’s Burnout series of games. These games took new approaches to their design and made efforts to rethink how players could enjoy being behind the wheel of a vehicle. Of course, some of these games didn’t find massive audiences or success. Reinventing the wheel has its risks. Developer Supergonk’s racer, Trailblazers, is a game that is attempting something new as well.
The elevator pitch for Trailblazers is that it’s a cooperative racing game with a cartoon aesthetic that has shades of Nintendo’s F-Zero and Splatoon. As flashy and maybe reductive as that may sound, I’d be lying if I said that comparison wasn’t immediately made when I first saw it.
Players choose a racer with an assigned vehicle and a unique set of stats to race down tracks at high speeds, but not often is victory decided by just crossing the finish line in first place. By painting the track with a colored ink different to each racer or team, you create your own express lane that gives you a boost of speed on top of adding a splash of color to the track. You can’t boost while you’re painting, so you’re really making a path for yourself for when the next lap comes. Painting the track as well as boosting on that paint will contribute to your individual and team point total. These points are more than just a high score, often they determine winners. At the end of each race, your score points based on where you place in the race and the points you gained by boosting, drifting, and painting are added together. The team with most points, wins.
On paper, this makes Trailblazers not just stand out because of its colorful art, its fun soundtrack, and its mixing of concepts from other games, but because it adds a team and strategic focus to a racing game. Every vehicle and character has their strengths and weaknesses that should be considered when going into competition. One racer might be able to paint more, another might have solid handling, and another might be all about speed. In online and local multiplayer, players can then choose what works best for team composition and their play style preference. If racing isn’t actually your strong suit, you can hang back and just focus on covering ground for your team by painting the track, setting them up for success. The racing itself can really evoke a rush of stylish speed when you start to get into a rhythm. At the end of each race, the game then highlights what each player was best at, as well as showing everyone’s individual point score.
Again, in theory, this is an exciting and fresh approach to a racer. It certainly has an identity of its own that sounds and appears special, but Trailblazers suffers from really disappointing technical issues, some frustrating design choices, and a lack of content to have you coming back.
These aforementioned technical issues, on PlayStation 4, have somewhat been fixed since I began my time with the game, and it’s worth noting that the state of the game could be different after this review is published. At launch, Trailblazers operated with an uncapped frame rate that attempted to hit a smooth 60 frames-per-second, but the game frequently jumped between 30 and 60 FPS, creating an experience that was anything but smooth. With the game being so fast and frantic, at times it was difficult to play the game. Not long after launch, the game then received another patch that locked the game at 30 FPS, but even then the game still buckled. Not as much, but it still dips. It’s certainly a more stable experience now, but I couldn’t help but feel as if this was a compromise, even though in reality it may not actually be, since you get a glimpse of what the game could be when it does hit that elusive 60 frames-per-second. Also worth noting that I played the game on a PlayStation 4 Pro with boost mode enabled on a 1080p display. An unstable frame rate also exasperated a frustration I had with one of the game’s design choices that at first appears small, but it really affects the core of the game.
Earning points in races is essential in Trailblazers, but whenever you are getting points for boosting or anything that will get you that higher score there’s a short period, just a few seconds, where those points aren’t banked into your grand total and can be lost if you collide with anything on the track. It sounds reasonable at first, but it feels very unfair to lose a great combo and the points with it just because you slightly nudged the side of a track. All vehicles have a loose feel to them, and it isn’t that big of an issue in most cases, but there are vehicles that feel so loose that at times you might think you’re playing bumper cars. In those situations, not only will you find yourself crashing more, but you will also be bleeding out points making it very difficult to maintain a momentum or to have a shot at winning a competition. It’s so upsetting because these losses of points can pile up. I became so worried about losing points that at times I just made a full stop to wait for those points to be secured, creating races that go from full on top speed to a complete stop in-between laps.
Apart from tournaments and multiplayer, Trailblazers also has a 20-chapter campaign mode that fleshes out the game’s characters and world. It’s not very big, but the fun writing here does positively add to the game. Unfortunately, after racing on the same 10 tracks – forwards, backwards, and mirrored – it gets very repetitive. It’s also more focused on individual goals like, “score X amount of paint points”, instead of the team competition that makes the rest of the game so strong.
There’s so much potential and great ideas within Trailblazers. Some of those ideas are executed well. I’m particularly impressed with how Supergonk, which is a team of about three people, were able to make a world around a racing game that I walked away saying, “I would like to see more of this.” Granted, that second time around I would also like it to be less rough around the edges. Regardless, I think Trailblazers is an admirable effort to shake up what a racing game can be, but the end game leaves a bit to be desired.
Trailblazers was reviewed on a retail PlayStation 4 Pro with the game provided by the publisher.
Trailblazers is available as well on PC, Xbox One, and soon on Nintendo Switch.