Trails and Traces: The Tomb of Thomas Tew review
Trails and Traces is an easy, modestly designed but enjoyable little comedy about pirates, detectives and megaphones, but it ends before it’s able to fully find its footing.
The length of a game is not an inherently good or bad thing, as there are upsides and downsides to both short and long experiences. The short ones generally retain their sense of novelty without ever wearing out their welcome, but often leave you wanting more because they’re just too brief for their own good. This is most certainly the case with Matt Barker’s Trails and Traces: The Tomb of Thomas Tew, a classic-styled point-and-click adventure that is a genuinely fun experience but at three hours of play time just isn’t given enough time to fully spread its wings.
The story concerns the exploits of British private detective James Labbett, who, shortly after helping a homeless man get off the roof of a building, is hired to find an archeologist named Wayan, who recently discovered the lost diary of famous pirate Thomas Tew. After a romp around town involving smelling salts and megaphones, James manages to track down Wayan, who explains that local crime boss Frank Loretto is after him because of his findings. And so begins James’s trek to America to find out more about Tew’s hidden treasure, which lands him in the middle of a supernatural mystery that is way above his paygrade.
The overall tone definitely comes across as a comedy, much of the cleverness coming from weird situations James comes across in his adventure, but it’s never over-the-top – more akin to a sitcom than a cartoon. You won’t be laughing out loud very often, but there are certainly jokes and set-ups that are amusing enough to warrant a chuckle or grin sprinkled generously throughout the journey. Using a very loud jukebox to trick some mobsters and knocking out an innocent museum tour guide dressed like a garish pirate are just a couple examples of the peculiar things you’ll be doing. They’re bizarre enough to be funny without having to resort to slapstick or completely unrealistic scenarios, and it’s all done well enough to keep you entertained throughout.
This world is also filled with quirky individuals that help keep the writing fresh, including an art gallery owner who has displayed a bunch of toilet paper rolls as the gallery’s centerpiece (fittingly called “The Rolls of Life”), a disgruntled corner store customer who refuses to leave without buying a cat brush even though he’s told multiple times they aren’t sold there, and even an American who speaks with an English accent and owns a European-decorated manor…in Manchester, Rhode Island. Everyone you meet is distinct and memorable enough on their own, but the story doesn’t last long enough to use the cast to its fullest extent, which is a shame because there’s a lot of potential with the characters present.
James himself is a very down-to-earth protagonist, though he’s not without his moments of sarcasm or off-beat commentary related to the current unruly situation he’s found himself in. He isn’t stupid or naïve but he’s willing to do some crazy things for the sake of his case. He doesn’t have too much of an attitude, though some snark shines through on occasion. (He especially doesn’t like the art gallery and thinks it’s all junk, declaring in front of the proud owner that the “Rolls of Life” would look better in his bathroom.) We don’t get too much insight into his background, but a couple of developments later in the game help shine some light on why he’s searching for Thomas Tew, though the reason somewhat comes out of left field and acts as a minor tonal whiplash moment.
The interface is simple to grasp, as everything is done with the mouse. The left button controls where James goes, and holding it down over a hotspot brings up a simplified action wheel with “look” and “interact” options, while the right mouse button brings up the inventory and menu in order to use items in the environment or save your progress. There are four major locations with several scenes each, though the last one only has two moments where player input is needed, the rest of it being conveyed through cutscenes. James has a moderate walking speed, with no option to run. Thankfully the areas themselves are small, so backtracking doesn’t feel like much of a chore, though a quick travel map probably wouldn’t have hurt.
Puzzle solving rarely strays far from finding the right item for the right contextual action (occasionally combining them together first), interacting with the environment in some way, or exhausting dialogue trees with NPCs. There are a few times when you’ll need to have James examine an object in inventory, but it happens very rarely so try not to forget the option exists. One of the most complex obstacles in the game involves having to load an old-timey cannon. It isn’t very hard, but it’s worth paying attention to your surroundings for the proper hint needed and it’s interesting how many steps are involved to prep the cannon, like in real life.
Another nice detail that entertained me was the megaphone James gets in the first chapter. It’s only needed for one actual puzzle, but every NPC in the area is given a specific dialogue exchange when James uses it on them. It’s not a revolutionary idea, but it’s one I’m glad was available because I wanted to see what the characters would say to something so weird, and I got a few laughs out of their reactions.
The gameplay isn’t anything that could be considered brain-taxing, but there is an interesting dialogue puzzle early on in which you’re forced to question the accuracy of the clue you’re provided, relying instead on common sense to succeed. This felt like a genuine lightbulb moment and made good use of James’s detective background. Unfortunately it’s one of only three times that a puzzle made me think outside of the box, and the game could’ve benefited from more challenges like this.
There is no hint system, though it would probably be unnecessary as at no point did I feel lost or confused without one, and supporting characters can be revisited any time to repeat the clue they’ve given you. Moreover, there is no way to fail a puzzle or be booted back to your last save, so you can take your time and relax. The easy difficulty and short length may not give experienced adventure gamers much to chew on, but it does make for an excellent starting point for those new to the genre.
As for the presentation, Trails and Traces is not particularly appealing artistically, with its bright colours and noticeably jagged pixels, but the backgrounds are more than detailed enough to easily distinguish the bar from the music shop. Each scene also has subtle animations to make it feel alive, like birds perched on rooftops and non-interactive characters walking down the sidewalk. The somewhat cartoony visuals help set the lighthearted tone for your exploits that take you from an unnamed city in the United Kingdom, to green Rhode Island and sunny Florida in the US, and finally back to the UK and overcast West Yorkshire. They all have a suitably distinct look and feel, and once you leave one main location you’ll never return.
Character models are reasonably diverse, some being taller or wider than others with differently shaped faces and haircuts, and all are dressed appropriately for their roles, so you’ll never mistake the town drunk for the part-time convenience store worker. They don’t emote often and aren’t very animated, however, as they’re usually restricted to idle gesture loops most of the time. James has extra poses and animations for different scene-specific actions and emotions, but even these are just a step above everyone else. Near the very end there are a few animated cutscenes that seem amateurish compared to more polished productions, but they’re a worthwhile inclusion to help push the story along.
There isn’t any music playing most of the time except in Florida, which has some for the first two rooms but none for its last one, oddly enough. The other areas are brought to life by ambient sounds like birds chirping, wind blowing and cars driving by. The soundtrack chimes in at a few points during cutscenes, and you can play a selection of pieces on the aforementioned jukebox, though it stops playing once you leave the store. It’s a shame the score isn’t more extensive, as what’s here is decent and a few more tracks could’ve benefited the atmosphere of certain locations further. A short piano tune will sometimes play when you solve a puzzle, usually signalling it’s time to move on. Otherwise the sound effects are largely realistic, opting to be more mundane than madcap.
Unlike many small indie productions, Trails and Traces is fully voiced, though the acting can be hit or miss. More than half the characters are performed by the game’s creator, and it doesn’t work for a good chunk of them, which all end up sounding raspy and lacking any kind of real emotion. Fortunately his two most important roles – James and Frank – are much more distinct. Wayan, the British-sounding American, and a couple other NPCs have their own actors, which leads to generally better delivery though some can still feel a bit stilted in certain lines. Not horrible, but not as refined as other games with professional voice actors. If you prefer to simply read the subtitles, there is an option that can be brought up any time to turn off voices.
There’s a separate launcher in the installation folder that allows for tweaking in-depth graphical, sound and mouse settings, and a text document that recommends keeping the scaling option to “Linear Interpolation,” but I kept everything at the recommended settings and didn’t experience any graphical or gameplay glitches during my entire playtime.
Available for download on itch.io, the budget-priced Trails and Traces: The Tomb of Thomas Tew is an enjoyable little point-and-click adventure with likable characters, decent writing, and simple enough gameplay even for genre newcomers, though it’s held back by a decidedly low-budget presentation with a few missteps and a very short runtime. Seasoned adventure veterans looking for something more substantial won’t find that here, but it’s an enjoyable enough game to while away a lazy afternoon, and therefore comes cautiously recommended.