We don’t often talk about Pipe Mania as an important and much-copied puzzle game. It’s not mentioned in the same breath as Tetris or Lemmings, for example. But when it comes to indie puzzle games on the Xbox, Pipe Mania may be the most influential of them all. Barely a week goes by without a game that riffs on the path-planning classic.
The Traveler’s Path is typical of this kind of game. It delivers a grid of squares, and many of those squares have paths on them. There are straight pieces, bends, junctions and crossroads. At first, they won’t form any kind of useful or viable path. But through the power of rotating and moving those pieces, you will be able to construct an unbroken path to the exit within the level, at which point the puzzle is solved.
In terms of theme, The Traveler’s Path is less about pipes and more about weary adventurers who want you to put in all the work. Your little dude sits in a corner of the game screen, and a corresponding flag rests on an opposing side of the grid. In between are some paths, and you have two abilities – the ability to swap tiles and the ability to rotate them – which should be enough to create a path.
The Traveler’s Path makes this more difficult by making some of the squares immovable. Some can’t be moved or rotated, while others can be moved but not rotated, and vice versa. These are the limitations you have to work with, and the fun comes from adapting. If there’s a sodding great rock in the way, perhaps you will have to work around it. If one path round the rock is shorter than the other, then you may want to try the quick route first.
To The Traveler’s Path’s credit, it doesn’t stop there. On occasion it throws in variations on a theme. A second traveler will appear on the grid, and you might have to get both to differently coloured exits – challenging when you’ve got a limited deck of paths. You’d best be using those crossroads squares wisely. And some levels have coins on. You have to find this out yourself, but you need to collect the bronze, silver and gold coins in that order, which is more difficult than it sounds. We found ourselves deliberately creating dead-ends so that we could bounce our traveler backwards to the next coin.
All of this is done with the A button to select a piece and X button to rotate it. Somehow, The Traveler’s Path fumbles these simple rules. When you start a level, you automatically have the first piece highlighted. Why, we don’t know, but it means that you’ll be selecting a piece to bring it into focus, only to accidentally swap it with the first piece on the board.
Otherwise, puzzles are easy to get to grips with. Moving pieces is simple and obvious. The cursor moves fast enough that you’re not trudging across the puzzle to get from one piece to another. There’s a chunky tactility to the pieces that make them satisfying to toss around the board.
We’re big fans of the different level variants, too. We’re surprised that The Traveler’s Path didn’t use them more, in fact: they force you to think slightly differently, and that’s refreshing. The coins in particular get you thinking beyond ‘what’s the quickest path to the exit?’. You’re thinking about the pieces you might use. It’s the most ‘out of the box’ thinking that you will do in The Traveler’s Path.
Which is a clue to The Traveler’s Path’s biggest gripe, actually. Far too often, the solution is very much ‘in the box’ rather than out of it. What we’re getting at is The Traveler’s Path is not a difficult game. It’s too timid to really push you to your limits, too worried that you might get stuck.
In almost all instances, there are multiple ways of completing a given level. There’s no singular solution. You might be just as successful going left around a rock as you are going right. That makes sense in the ‘Level Ranking’ sense; you get a medal depending on whether you succeeded in the minimum number of moves. For that to work you need multiple feasible solutions. But multiple feasible solutions does some damage to the sense of difficulty of The Traveler’s Path.
With so many solutions, the satisfaction of finding one becomes lessened. We didn’t feel special. Sure, we could have kept playing the same level to find the minimum number of moves, but the minimum number of moves isn’t actually presented anywhere (making it difficult to ‘beat’ it) and we had precious little motivation to do so. There’s nothing to earn, no achievements to gain for perfect playthroughs. When there are multiple ways to skin a cat, finding just one of them is trivial.
We zoomed to the end of The Traveler’s Path in one sitting. That’s a positive in the sense that there’s barely a branch to snag yourself on. We don’t recall getting stuck particularly: we just moved to a Plan B and invariably succeeded at it.
But there’s a negative side to that coin. The Traveler’s Path doesn’t have the gumption to let you fail. You’re served up puzzle after puzzle that have multiple solutions and none of them are difficult to find. We waited, hoping for a puzzle that would truly confound us, but it never came. So, while we sprinted to the end, holding our 2000G aloft like a Triforce, we had that nagging feeling that we hadn’t earned it.