Review: Retrace – I Have to Go Back

Retrace from Spider Lily Studios follows a group of four friends who set out on a ghost tour and wake up trapped in a world of horrors. You play as Freya, who at the start would much rather enjoy the comforts of her room. She’s lured to join the excursion when she hears Mia, who she just might have a little crush on, will be there. She meets up with Mia and her friends Owen and Lucas at a bus stop when the ground suddenly begins to shake. There’s just enough time to grab someone’s hand before Freya wakes up trapped in an unfamiliar room. It’s up to Freya (and you) to find her friends and get everyone out alive.

Piecing Things Together

Retrace plays like a classic puzzle adventure game with an important twist. You spend your time walking around gathering information by inspecting objects and talking to other characters. Some rooms have puzzles you’ll need to solve before you can proceed, and if you get it wrong, well you know how that goes. The twist is that each time Freya fails, she can retrace her steps and try again, retaining what she learned from her previous attempts. Even when things seem hopeless, there’s always the prospect of taking different path.

Unfortunately, the puzzles themselves are underwhelming. The best is a classic adventure game scavenger hunt complete with cryptic instructions. The worst is one of the most famous riddles in existence simply used verbatim. I expect most players will already be familiar with it. Fortunately, once you’ve solved a puzzle you can often gloss over it on subsequent retraces. You can also save the state of the world in any room by interacting with a diary, so in some cases you can skip sections entirely if you don’t need to change the outcome. But it’s disappointing that the puzzles aren’t particularly interesting even on the first attempt.

Luckily, these puzzles play a smaller role in Retrace than you might expect. Looming over the experience is something of a meta-puzzle. Each of Freya’s friends has tasks only they can do, and to complete everything, Freya needs to figure out how to get them in the right place at the right time. To do this, you’ll have to explore the different ENDs Freya can reach. Even if not everyone makes it and there’s ultimately no escape, Freya can go back. And with the information gained from failure, new paths will reveal themselves. Unlike the smaller puzzles, navigating the maze of ENDs by borrowing information across timelines is engaging.

The other piece of Retrace is the narrative. As you follow the characters, you learn more about who they are and their relationships to each other. I find these multi-route mystery games often struggle to balance the mystery/puzzles with the narrative/characters, and Retrace does have some issues in that regard. Early on, there’s inconsistency in how the characters behave. Someone might go to being horrified by a body one minute to happily joking with a friend the next. Freya’s dialogue is particularly problematic. Sometimes she reacts to things she’s already seen in retraces as if seeing them again for the first time. Other times she acts and behaves like she has new knowledge. There’s also simply not that much character development in the first part of the game. Even when you talk to your companions, they mostly comment on the puzzles or your immediate surroundings.

Toward the end, the story focuses in more and the character moments I had been waiting for arrived. The group faces challenges that force them to come to grips with themselves and those they care about. Freya has a crush on Mia, and it seems like there might be something between Owen and Lucas as well. But whether or not these might become full-blown romances, the characters obviously care deeply about each other. And as they spend more time trapped together, they start to become more open with their feelings and vulnerabilities. Seeing this helped me better understand and get invested in Freya and her friends.

The last leg of Retrace is narratively quite strong. The central mystery winds its way toward satisfying answers, and the choices Freya faces are compelling. I found the conclusion powerful as well. It highlighted the growth the characters underwent in their desperate situation. While the ending might have been even stronger with more character development in the first part of the game, I did feel the payoff largely made up for my earlier complaints.

This Place Gives Me the Creeps

Retrace’s aesthetic works really well. The pixel sprites have great character. Mia’s eyes sparkle, reflecting her bright personality, while Freya looks even-keeled and introverted. During dialogue, the characters are represented by more detailed portraits. The portraits change expression to match the text and, along with hauntingly lovely CGs to mark the ENDs, do a lot to make the characters feel more human. I found putting a face to the sprite helped me care about the characters more. The environments are suitably eerie, but some rooms have shapes that feel a little weird in the top-down view. Sometimes there’s a lot of empty black space.

The soundtrack is another highlight. With the exception of one track that I found a tad flippant, every piece sets exactly the right mood. Usually that’s sinister or despairing, but when Freya finds the will to move forward, the music is there to push her on. I especially enjoyed the main theme. It’s used in several variations and reprises throughout, with shifting moods and ideas. And when you finally reach the conclusion, you’re treated to a soaring version complete with vocals to mark the achievement.

There are a few small technical annoyances worth noting. For one, the skip function is slow, which is unfortunate given you’ll be repeating sections of the game by design. You also can’t walk diagonally. This wasn’t a big deal until near the end when diagonal paths suddenly started appearing. Zig-zagging along like a drunken ant looked kind of wrong. It doesn’t help that the walking animation is already awkward and makes the characters look like they’re gliding across the ground.

Final Thoughts

Despite some complaints, I ultimately enjoyed Retrace. It took just over 3 hours to finish, but that felt like the right amount of time for the story it sets out to tell. If a bite-sized narrative with an eerie atmosphere and some light puzzling sounds appealing, I’d recommend Retrace. It starts a little slow, but the characters come into their own, and it finishes strong. However, if you primarily want complex puzzles, you should look elsewhere.

Find Retrace on: Steam, itch.io

Thanks to Spider Lily Studios for providing a review copy of Retrace.

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