Molyneux’s new game doesn’t always seem to know what it’s good at

At the top of a hill I stopped amongst the narrow pines and falling snow to sit through an advert for a Clash of Clans knock-off. When it had ended, and I’d taken my reward, I spent a moment or two watching as the sky changed colour. I couldn’t see much of the sky from where I was stood, but I saw it all play out on the ground regardless. A cloud shifted away from the sun, perhaps. A shadow receded and the sandy path before me started to glow with light. I’ve seen these things in the real world – the sudden, eerie, appearance or disappearance of the sun and the stage-management effect it has on the world lying all about – and I’ve seen it in films, very occasionally, and only when Terrence Malick, who cares about such things, is at the helm. I’ve never seen it in a game, though.

At heart, I think The Trail wants to be a game about returning to nature, and witnessing all the strange, quiet tricks that nature can sometimes play. It’s a beautiful game, and at times it’s also the strange, difficult, game that I often suspect it truly wants to be. But it doesn’t always work out that way. I moved on from that hill, and nature receded, buried under dull quests, dull collecting, dull crafting, dull invitations to watch dull adverts for dull games. It’s not that The Trail is not what I hoped for, because I could always just adjust my expectations accordingly, and I believe in meeting games on their own terms anyway. It’s that, weird and presumptuous as this is, I really don’t think The Trail is what its creators thought it could become: it doesn’t feel like they have finalised its terms. Not yet, anyway. You have to hunt for what’s great about it, and while it’s definitely there, it’s often buried.

God, it sounds so lovely. You’re off on foot across the wilderness, taking in the sights that are rendered in lovely flat-colours and fidgety natural shapes, bathed with Golden Age railway poster lighting. The sights are worthy of this treatment, too: creamy cliffs, snow-edged mountains of grey slate, lustrous valleys swaying with dandelions while stone arches ease over the path. You’re fixed on a track, and your only control of your character for the most part is how fast they move, but that’s no problem when you can spin the camera around you and take it all in, all of it so pretty, all of it already receding, beauty on a plodding conveyor belt with the added poignancy that you can’t seem to turn around and immediately reclaim anything that’s passed you by.

When it comes to Spain, I kind of wish Civ 6 had chosen a different Philip

Sid Meier’s Civilization games are brilliant for learning about historical figures. Historical figures such as Pedro II of Brazil, say, who had passed me by before Civ 5’s Brave New World expansion introduced us, and who turned out to be a man who was seriously missing from my life. Gentle and rather sad, Pedro II never really wanted to be ruler, but he still aced it if you ask me: he abolished slavery and – this is a recent discovery of mine – he was close friends with Jean-Martin Charcot, the father of modern neurology. How close were they? Let’s just put it this way: he gave Charcot a pet monkey called Rosalie. They were at the monkey-exchanging level of friendship. I would know none of this if it wasn’t for Civ 5’s prompting.

Pedro II is still there for Civ 6 – thank God – but there are changes elsewhere in the roster. Take Spain, for example. Isabella is out and Philip II is back. This makes total sense. Philip II ruled Spain during the height of its Golden Age. The empire was vast and intimidating, with territories, Wikipedia informs me, on every continent then known to the Europeans. More Wiki goodness: “The expression, “the empire on which the sun never sets,” was coined during Philip’s time to reflect the extent of his dominion.”

There are plenty of other good reasons for choosing Philip II. He was the guy behind the Spanish Armada, so he’s good value from a greatest historical hits perspective. He was also a religious force to be reckoned with, an absolute zealot for Catholicism. This is where he seems to fit into Civ 6, I gather. Under Philip II, Spain is a religious powerhouse. It has a Treasure Fleet ability that allows it to get a boost from trade routes, but elsewhere it’s God all the way: a combat bonus when fighting against players of other religions, a Conquistador unit that, amongst other things, forces captured cities to automatically convert to Spain’s religion if he’s in an adjacent hex. Then there’s the Mission building, a unique improvement that produces faith, and produces faith even more aggressively if it’s built on a different continent. Religion and conquest come together rather neatly under Philip II: a devout expansionist. Perfect for Civ.