Paper Trail review: An inventive and delightful puzzle game

Creasing (in a good way)
Newfangled Games

When I was a young kid in school, almost everyone at one point made a fortune teller. It sounds impressive, but it was just a little paper toy you’d stick your hands in, move back and forward a set number of times based on what input your answer-seeking client gave – their favorite food, for example, or a number – and then unfurl to reveal The Truth. These edicts from the great beyond were usually just something funny or daft or a bit cruel, depending on what the person who made it wrote.

Newfangled Games took that idea and asked what would happen if it were a game, a game about folding paper and finding secrets. In place of something funny or daft or cruel, there’s thoughtful storytelling, inspired puzzles, and improvement through iteration, and the little nugget folded away inside all this is Paper Trail, one of the most enchanting puzzle games I’ve played. 

Paige from Paper Trail climbing a ladder
The path to university has never been this challenging / Newfangled Games

Paper Trail starts with Paige, a bright young girl fresh out of school and primed for university, with just one thing blocking the path forward: her parents. They’d rather keep her at home where it’s safe, but Paige wants to blaze a trail and be the first in her family to attend university. So, she runs away from home, through caves, across swamps and snowy villages, and eventually finds something much bigger than what she set out for.

Puzzle games don't need deep stories, but Paige's tale is a thoughtful twist on the usual coming-of-age tale made more intimate by how you interact with it all.

Paper Trail builds and improves on one simple idea – folding paper. A series of interconnected origami paper sheets comprise the world of Paper Trail, each with a flipside, foldable edges, and corners. Puzzles consist of figuring out which part of the other side might help Paige overcome an obstacle or find a hidden item, and then realizing how to literally make the ends meet so it all works.

Paige’s tale takes her across several locations beautifully realized in a painterly style with a general aesthetic that’s somewhere between a picture book and a piece of illustrated folklore.

Segments akin to storybooks begin each major narrative moment and kick off Paige’s arrival in a new region, and these are some of my favorite parts of Paper Trail. Paige narrates an event or lays out her thoughts in illustrated form, and you fold and tuck the pages to act out some key part of that moment – closing a packed suitcase or shutting and re-opening a door to show the passage of time. 

Paige from Paper Trail walking across snow-covered rooftops
A simple idea refined and perfected / Newfangled Games

Figuring out what’s actually required is sometimes a bit obtuse, but a little icon in the UI’s upper left corner shows when you’re getting close to the right answer. It’s a smart, unobtrusive way to guide you along without completely ruining the mood.

More of those moments and extra introspection from Paige would’ve helped make Paper Trail’s narrative stronger, as they’re easily the story’s best parts. The characters you meet in each stage are a bit more mixed. Most of them are written a little awkwardly, and even though I enjoyed some of their silly comments – the man trapped in a cave who finds a way forward by falling off the edge of a page is a particular highlight – they seem to exist as vehicles for jokes or quests before anything else. They just don’t add as much to the experience as Paige’s own story, and their presentation is sometimes at odds with Paper Trail’s quiet, introspective tone and emphasis on personal growth and exploration.

Even in its first world, Paper Trail doesn’t hesitate to start innovating on that single idea. Puzzles with simple creases give way to challenges that involve multiple folds, unfolds, and refolds as you piece together a path. Objects Paige needs to interact with create another dimension of thought, and eventually, you’ll end up on sheets that demand smart planning and managing several pieces to get where you need to go. It means every world, even every puzzle, is fresh, and despite the number of puzzles in Paper Trail, none of the ideas felt repetitive or gimmicky.

Paper Trail also strikes an impressive balance between approachability and challenge. A hint feature exists that you can use any time if you get stuck, though the downside is that it shows you the full solution – not ideal, if you just want to know the next step. Each world has several heftier challenges in the form of collectible origami figures that hide behind clever stage manipulation, requiring visualizing in 3D. Think Celeste’s strawberries, but on paper and without platforming.  

Paige from Paper Trail solving a puzzle involving electrical conduits
Good luck / Newfangled Games

I played the mobile version – a Netflix exclusive landing on the platform later in May – and was a bit nonplussed with the tactile interface. Using my fingers on the touchscreen felt clunky and imprecise, especially in some of the later puzzles that require frequent smaller folds. My hand often blocked most of the screen while I made a fold as well, which was a pretty effective way of ruining the moment. Using a stylus felt much more natural, so it’s maybe something worth bearing in mind if you pick Paper Trail up on iOS or Android.

Paper Trail quickly became my go-to puzzler after a stressful day, a charming and inventive way to stimulate my little mushy brain without ever being too taxing. Newfangled Games deserves praise for turning such a basic idea into something so clever and enjoyable, and I hope it’s not the last puzzle game we see from the studio.

Paper Trail review score: 9/10

Platform tested: Android

Josh Broadwell