We've all had our secret victories in the war against wobble: freely standing in the shower on one foot while washing the other, or rejecting the easy-mode handrails of a jostling train. Trials Fusion is about those quick, instinctual corrections you make – or fail to make – when there's a bump in the road.
Balance is divine in Trials Fusion, and mastering it makes you a god on a motorcycle. But that's jumping ahead to the conclusion of the journey; this story of a tenacious man driving with abandon over hills and valleys, trying not to fall his little face off.
There's a lot to think about as you constantly fiddle with your speed and your driver's posture in a world of steep angles and dangerous pits, and yet it feels thoughtless in the moment. You just know it in your gut: You need to lean forward to keep the bike on this incline. Almost there, almost - oh that's too much acceleration, you're lifting up front. You can get out of this, you can bring it back, just wiggle a bit and – nope. You've gone and done the banana peel again. Now your bike is upside down and crushing your bones. Trials Fusion retains the respectful design ethos that has given developer RedLynx such a long-running winner. A strong alloy made of Motocross Madness and Super Meat Boy, the game lays out insane courses that offer a racing thrill for the practiced, and a challenging crawl uphill for those slow to tune their center of gravity. There are checkpoints aplenty, instant restarts at the press of a button, and most tracks are brisk and self-contained. If you want to get going on the next climb, you can pick a bike before the 3D garage even pops into view.
The obsession over balance carries through to the nature of this new Trials, which puts a far-flung futuristic spin on tracks and riders, formerly rooted in industrial warehouses and Baja sun. The settings are incoherent without apology, constantly throwing in fresh materials and letting the vibrant backdrops bleed into the track design. Fusion's glossy future looks like Dubai architects dreaming of Tron, sending you across solar panels, turbine stems, enormous blimps and through a factory assembling a neon-lit track right in front of you. And don't forget your old nemesis, the lumpy rock.
Also under things that are new: You can now assault courses with the TKO-Panda, a heavy-set four-wheeler that's easier to settle but drops like a rock over ramps. It feels easier to maneuver, but disaster feels harder to recover from. Of course, reversals are tricky in every case. Sometimes I think they're just a delusion that comes from playing Trials too long and too angrily.
A crucial twist in Fusion is FMX mode, which pushes you to string together bold tricks mid-air and then nail the landing. RedLynx keeps it simple, though, with physics-based poses acted out on the right analog stick – essentially pushing your legs in a certain direction. If you're still flying like a handlebar-gripping Superman by the time you land, you've screwed up. FMX mode is an infuriating new challenge, but the button-free process suits the game's usual tests of intuition. It's also cordoned off from the other modes, so there's no cluttering up your timed runs otherwise.
There is a turn in every Trials game, and Fusion is no different. In later stages, after a well-plotted escalation of toughness, it becomes a vindictive platformer of sorts, easing off the throttle and stumping you with steep inclines, spheres and other shapes that have no business being traversed by a motorcycle. You also get a blast of Inferno IV, the latest evolution of the franchise's most horrifying gauntlet, alongside a set of challenges and secret zones spread throughout the whole campaign. The peak lies at a virtual-reality themed track that goes on and on forever – until you run out of lives. Punitive challenges like these are pitch perfect for the most part, riling without demoralizing, and yet another reminder that sometimes good designers are bad, bad people.
The notorious turn can be too harsh at times, though, polluting the game's spirit. The trajectory of difficulty makes sense, but there's little reward for perseverance itself. If you break your back getting bronze on a tough track, it chips away at the satisfaction when - NO - you need a silver on that one to unlock more content. Themed batches of tracks are unlocked as you earn medals on stages that come before, but it feels like old thinking in light of competitive leaderboards. Seeing a friend pulverizing your time offers a much better incentive to get better, certainly more than sealing off content. (And before we depart from old thinking entirely, why are there still no female riders available?)
As before, Trials Fusion opens the same track creation tool that RedLynx uses, and that others will surely use to make things that aren't even in the same genre. If you were thinking of pitting the rider against a penguin in a game of tennis, I have to warn you that it's already been done.
Player-made content is easy to download from the prominent hub in the main menu, and to organize. Beyond looking at new arrivals and curated lists from both Ubisoft and RedLynx, you can easily keep track of incoming creations by assembling feeds based on your search criteria. Four-player parallel multiplayer also returns (albeit halfheartedly, without online play), and rounds out the promise of Trials transforming into something more resembling service.
With a few smart and unobtrusive tweaks to its thorny heart, Trials Fusion nails its balance between purity and cruelty. The new tricks system doesn't betray the game's simple roots, and instead makes a perfect landing seem even less attainable at times – and more rewarding. The primal pleasures of Trials live on and into the future, leaning forward just a tad.
This review is based on an early review build and final retail code of the PlayStation 4 version of Trials Fusion, provided by Ubisoft. The PlayStation 4 version performed well, running at 1080p native resolution and a consistent 60 frames per second. Images: Ubisoft.
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