Media Molecule might be taking a step back from Dreams in the near future, but it's going out on a high note. One of the team's last major contributions to its community-driven platform is Tren, a game about a wooden train set that packs the same warmth, whimsy, and charm as any of its previous works. Spearheaded by newly-appointed Creative Director John Beech, we recently went hands-on at the developer's Guildford studio, and have come away with our collective heart filled.
Tren has you controlling the titular toy train as it navigates increasingly complex wooden track networks, with the goal of most stages being to simply reach the finish. Each level has target times to beat, but not all of them are simple races to the end. In fact, most of them have some sort of navigation puzzle element. You'll need to explore each course, hitting switches to open gates, finding carriages and cargo, and overcoming see-saws, loops, ramps, and many other obstacles.
The majority of the levels we played were like this, each lasting us a couple of minutes or so as we poked around and aimed to improve our times. Another element of the game is that it runs on physics, meaning if you go too fast around a corner — or don't go fast enough through a loop-de-loop — you'll fly off the tracks. Managing your little train's speed and momentum, which increases if you're pulling carriages, is part of the challenge. It's certainly not a simulation, but you still need to be a little careful if you want those gold medals. There's a very pleasing tactility to the gameplay, which is backed up by brilliant sound design — it really sells the effect that you're playing with blocky, physical toys.
Outside the stages themselves is a hub world connecting them all up, taking us to a dusty loft. A big theme of Tren seems to be nostalgia, with countless references to the 80s and 90s visible in this space, as well as toys and books from the era. This retro set dressing is also scattered throughout each level, tying everything together with 20-sided dice, board games, figurines, batteries, and much more.
As well as the main campaign, we were also shown some later, more advanced challenges that expand on the core gameplay. A survival mode has you being chased while a procedurally generated track stretches out in front of you, tasking you with lasting as long as you can. You'll also be able to pilot a Popter, a toy helicopter that can grab objects on a winch for more tricky puzzles. Similarly, the Cren is a controllable crane that'll appear in later levels. Finally, another set of stages is all about performing flips, and these are much more difficult platforming challenges to really test your Tren driving skills.
Whether it's these tougher missions, the regular levels, or the peaceful hub world, what binds it all together is its wonderful presentation. Unsurprisingly from John Beech, who went viral for this uncannily authentic-looking breakfast, there's a sense of realism to the visual style. There's a softness to the art but it's very convincingly rendered, with some incredible detail to materials in particular. Backing it up is a truly delightful soundtrack that veers from pleasant acoustic guitar to heavier, more intense, though no less cheerful tracks in tougher levels.
It's just so playful. You can explore levels without the time pressure, and this gives you the chance to take in your surroundings. Dioramas with miniature people, playing card houses, and so much other paraphernalia adorns each level, arranged to make you smile and, subtly, telling a story of growing up as you progress through the campaign. We couldn't help but grin while we played — it's so earnest, cohesive, and fun.
What we didn't get to experience is Tren's build mode, which allows you to construct your very own tracks. We're told you'll be able to make pretty much whatever courses you like using the pieces available to you — the same ones used to make the campaign levels — and then share them with the Dreams community. It's a great idea that rounds out what will be easily the most robust and polished game Media Molecule has released within its creation suite.
And that's one last thing we want to say: Dreams melted away while we were playing Tren. More than anything we've played in the studio's magnificent create-'em-up, this little game about wooden trains feels very much like its own thing. In many ways, it can and should be considered Media Molecule's next game, more so than Art's Dream, Ancient Dangers: A Bat's Tale, or A Long Climb Ago. Those of you awaiting Media Molecule's next "real" game? Tren is it, and it'll be well worth booting up Dreams to play along when it launches on 1st August.
A big thanks to Sony and Media Molecule for inviting us to play Tren early. The game will be available in Dreams on 1st August, 2023, free to all players. On the same day, Dreams is being made available on PS Plus Essential to all subscribers, so you can check out Tren (and much more besides) at no extra cost. Are you excited to play this adorable title? Alight in the comments section below.