An ambitious title, Trajectory shoots for the stars but is knocked off course by some frustrating design issues.
Player choice is not a new idea; these days it seems to have become something of a requirement for any game with a focus on narrative. As a result it can often feel forced and unwarranted, rather than being a truly important part of the game. Few games base an entire game’s premise around how a player chooses to play, with only titles such as The Stanley Parable and Undertale coming to mind. Trajectory and its developer, Sky Trail Ltd., share similar ambitions and show great potential but, due to some glaring issues, fall short of realising them.
Trajectory places players in the shoes of an inmate serving his or her time aboard a prison station orbiting the Earth, run by a ‘benevolent’ organisation known as Orbitek. You awaken to a voice informing you over the intercom that your sentence will have been served in just a few days. Said sentence consists of completing missions assigned at a terminal, ranging from completing VR simulations to repairing around your corridor to undertaking special tasks that see you journey to other parts of the station. Once you’ve completed your tasks for the day you can go to sleep or use your free time to either guess your way through a set of text adventures or explore the so-called VR showroom, a virtual world in which players can get a close-up look at Orbitek technology as well as stray off the intended path and uncover secrets.
It’s a neat little system that gets players into a routine and offers a glimpse into the daily life of a prisoner on board the station, interspersed with events that break from this and, of course, plenty of chances to deviate and take matters into your own hands. While the game perhaps gives you less choice than it makes you think you have, the fact that the game can go any number of places at different times helps keep things interesting.
The station itself seems rather small, at least initially (more on that later), consisting of several rooms (including your own quarters),all of which are all roughly the same size and connected by a drab, grey corridor. More or less what you’d expect from a prison, particularly one in space. The overall design of the station is heavily reminiscent of the Nostromo, with game wearing its Alien inspirations on its sleeve through its inclusion of anachronistic technology in favour of something like Mass Effect’s Citadel. The game’s visuals get the job done and can, at times, make for some interesting vistas, particularly when looking out beyond the station itself.
There are some parts of the game, however, where these stumble, taking on a rough, rushed look. These areas are few and far between, thankfully, though they contrast so much with the rest of the game that it can be disconcerting. The greatest offender in terms of visuals, however, is the game’s over-reliance on lens flare. It’s rather fortunate that I’m able to write this review at all, given that I was nearly blinded every time I looked out a window. It’s a shame that this feature isn’t used in a more refined manner, as it turns what could have been (and, at times, still is) a nice visual effect into an annoyance.
Trajectory’s rather simple structure of accepting and completing missions handed out at a terminal may sound limiting, but the sheer variety of tasks it gives players to complete ensures that there’s always something new to do. One minute you might be repairing some faulty electrical equipment, while the next you might be drifting across to a whole other part of the space station or putting out a fire using a remote-controlled drone. This level of variety also extends to the ways in which the game can end. Do you serve your sentence? Turn against Orbitek? And will you survive in either of those scenarios? The most interesting part about these choices is that, rather than an arbitrary button command at the end of the game, they come up naturally. Perhaps you want to have a wander about somewhere you know you’re not supposed to, or accidentally stumble upon some access codes. These scenarios can all lead to different outcomes and entirely different paths to be taken throughout the game, resulting in a great deal of player freedom in spite of the confined spaces of the station.
The downside to this variety, however, is that it seems the game may have spread itself too thin. A great many of the prisoner’s day to day activities feel very lacklustre (even in the context of serving a prison sentence), such as putting out a small patch of fire on the outside of the station (which seems to always be in the same place) or searching through two massive rooms full of floating objects in order to find a much smaller object to install at a panel. Directions can be obtuse at times, and some tasks (such as manoeuvring a drone outside the station to collect parts) seem impossible to complete and required a restart of the game to avoid them. Whether this is the fault of the vague instructions or an actual bug is difficult to discern, however, yet both scenarios provide an equal amount of frustration.
On-station tasks are made all the more tedious by the fact that in some cases, the player will be able to jump in a low gravity environment. While this may sound fun on paper, the slow, uninterruptible falling time means that any slight miscalculation before a jump results in around ten seconds of waiting for your character to reach the ground, only to try once again. These frustrating design choices extend to other areas of the game too, such as the optional text adventures. I was glad to see their inclusion, but was unable to reach anywhere near the end of any of them, having tried all logical (to me, at least) answers I could. Perhaps some will have greater luck and reveal it to have been something obvious that was staring me in the face, but from my experience it seemed to be more a game of ‘Guess What I’m Thinking’ rather than a full-fledged text adventure.
Trajectory is a game that I would love to be able to call a flawed masterpiece but, sadly, its flaws appear to heavily outweigh its moments of brilliance. The real frustration with the game stems from the fact that a fresh, original idea that should make for an interesting experience is hampered by a slew of faults in its design, which shines a spotlight on the game’s poorer elements and tarnishes its stronger ones. A sequel that manages to iron out these issues would certainly be welcome, as despite being unable to fully realise it, Trajectory is full to the brim with potential.