Monday, 21 January 2013

REVIEW - Organ Trail : Director's Cut (PC Indie)

With both zombie games eternally beloved by gamers, and parody games finding popularity recently, Organ Trail, here in Director's Cut form, is a fine example of how to blend humour and blood letting. It's a zombie spoof of a classic educational title (yes, really) that was developed way back in the 1970's called The Oregon Trail. In this (supposed) learning aid players were tasked with guiding a group of pioneers across the real life Oregon Trail, a 2000 mile expanse across the United States that settlers navigated in the first half of the 19th century. The game hit widespread popularity in the mid 1980's when it was ported to the Apple 2, the computer found in most schools in North America at the time. Kids must have been thrilled. Here was a legitimate way to play video games in school. It was hardly the blast-a-thon they probably craved, but given the lack of other options they made do, and began to enjoy the deep gameplay on offer. The game went on to be a cult classic, and received many updates, including a recent version on the 3DS. Now, I am assuming that a large amount of the appeal of Organ Trail lies with the nostalgia and amusement factor of playing a zombie spoof of a game you experienced at school. As I have never played the game before I feel like I may not be the target audience for this re-imagining. But on the plus side, I can review the game with no rose tinted spectacles clouding my judgement!

The aim of Organ Trail, much like the educational Oregon Trail game, is to get your group of people from A to B, from the East to the West, from shit creek to assumed safety. You and four friends jump in a newly acquired station wagon, stock up on the essentials (food, fuel, cash, ammo, medkits, and other bits and pieces) and hit the road.

The first thing to strike you are the visuals. They are wonderfully retro and emulate the look of 80's home computers perfectly, even down to the static cut-scene screens that look as though they were drawn by a 5 year old in crayon. Though incredibly primitive in places, the graphics still manage to convey a sense of grim desperation and horror. The music also deserves half of the praise for setting the mood, with some great dingy, indie rock tracks that fit the game to a tee. These could have been taken from any modern zombie flick (they remind me of 28 days / weeks later), and create an 'authentic' zombie atmosphere. The sound effects mainly consist of bleeps and bloops that seem more fitting to Pong on the Atari 2600 than anything else, but in combination with the retro parody nature of the game it works well. I especially liked the authentic clicks and taps of an 80's keyboard and mouse used in-game.

The journey is shown from a side scrolling 2D perspective, your car trundling its way along the road taking up the top half of the screen, the bottom half showing your stats (food and fuel remaining, distance to next checkpoint, health of comrades etc). As you drive, food and fuel are automatically consumed and need to be topped up regularly, and you are at the mercy of the many random encounters you will face along the way. Like someone rolling a dice in the background to determine your fate, every few seconds (it seems) a box appears informing you of some important, usually bad, news. A team member may inexplicably now have a broken leg or arm, or maybe a hideous, life sapping disease. Maybe one of the clumsier members of the team decided to sit on some ammo, breaking it, or drop some fuel out of the window. There are absolutely loads of different things that can happen, but all of them point to the alarming conclusion that you are travelling with idiots. Sometimes Mother Nature steps in to have a go, chucking snowstorms, fog and other bullshit your way to make life even more difficult. The undead also like to get involved, standing around in the road, blocking your path, or attacking you outright. Fortunately, good things can happen too. Random food, fuel and money stashes can be found at the side of the road but, more often than not, these random encounters are usually not of the helpful variety. 

It is always a huge relief to reach the next settlement or safe house in order to regroup and sort out your affairs before moving on. Here you can purchase and sell items, fix up your wheels, take on jobs (usually of the shooty variety), tend to your injured allies, or scavenge for more shit that you need. The scavenging and job parts take the form of more arcade style sections. You guide your character around the area, collecting spawning items while avoiding the undead. Shooting is a slow paced affair, and is certainly not a Robotron style blast-fest. To fire you must hold down the mouse button, drag the mouse backwards (away from the target), before releasing the button to fire a slow moving bullet. It takes some getting used to, and is quite clunky in practice, but it does give the game an added air of tension as you struggle to fend off the approaching zombies. Luckily for you, some towns have combat experts who can teach you new tricks, such as faster bullets or movement, for a price of course.

The simple mechanic of being able to name your party means you genuinely become attached to them and don't want them to die. The majority of other humans you face on the road are out for your blood, including hoards of angry bikers that you must run down with your car, and bandits hiding in buildings that you must shoot from cover. These action segments fit perfectly alongside the more strategic side of the gameplay and are often tense and challenging. There are also some additional game modes exclusive to this Director's Cut edition including a silly, physics based driving mini-game, and 'Endless' mode in which you can find collectable items granting you new abilities and items.

Organ Trail is a deep and immersive experience that defies its initial appearance as merely an amusing parody game, and you will soon be hooked. Each time you play you will manage to progress that little bit further towards your final destination, through learning how to better manage your resources, and practice in the arcade sections. Even being constantly fucked over by illness, zombies, snowstorms, and many other occurrences adds to the rich variety of Organ Trail, and it keeps you coming back again and again, even after you have been unfairly killed off by elements outside of your control for the umpteenth time. It's fair to say that Lady Luck plays a large part in proceedings, much more so than any other game I can think of (bar Russian Roulette, perhaps). But this element of surprise, although often frustrating, is what makes each new game feel fresh and full of possibility. It is an immersive and strategic game that possesses a real sense of urgency and fear. Far, far better than your initial impression would lead you to believe, and I highly recommend you take the trip. If you grew up playing Oregon Trail at school then you will probably want to add another point to the overall score.

The Good

  • Authentic 1980's graphics and sound effects
  • Atmospheric soundtrack sets the mood perfectly
  • Strategic gameplay is gripping and enjoyable
  • Element of chance keeps you coming back
  • Wonderful spoof of the original Oregon Trail
  • Online scores and bonus mini-games

The Bad

  • Constant random factors could irritate some players

Developer : The Men Who Wear Many Hats
System Reviewed : PC
Also available on : Mac, iOS, Android
Price : £2.99