If there's one thing that's more overplayed than zombies, it's reviews for zombie videogames talking about how overplayed zombies are. Truly, nobody can win anymore. We're worn out on the zombie thing, and worn out by our own weariness of said zombie thing.
Even so, the undead menace has been kept "alive" by a seemingly endless horde of developers able to find interesting new takes on the scenario. All too often, I've personally sworn off zombie media, only to be dragged back by something that was just too clever to resist.
The Organ Trail is one such dose of cleverness. As its name implies, it's an altogether more grisly take on the classic educational game The Oregon Trail. With zombies.
Cue the yawns, right? Except for the fact that, as many of you should know by now, it's kind of brilliant.
The Organ Trail: Director's Cut (PC)
Developer: The Men Who Wear Many Hats
Publisher: The Men Who Wear Many Hats
Released: March 19, 2013
Rig: Intel i7-2600k @3.40 GHz, with 8GB of RAM, GeForce GTX 580 GPU (SLI)
The Organ Trail sounds like a one-note joke, and newcomers would be forgiven for assuming such a joke wears thin long before the closing credits. However, the game is remarkable in just how much staying power it has. Yes, it's basically just Oregon Trail with zombies, but the Director's Cut adds smart twists and constantly keeps the pressure on players to the point where it easily stands out on its own, more than a simple parody.
Players assume the leader of a band of survivors, and must travel from one coast of the United States to the other in a beat up station wagon. Structured very much like its namesake, gameplay consists of driving from landmark to landmark, dealing with supply shortages and random setbacks along the way. Maintaining health, acquiring stores of food, repairing the car and ensuring there's enough fuel to reach the next stopping point are all crucial factors to consider, and things can happen along the way to further jeopardize the journey.
Travel between locations is automatic, and random events can occur along the way. A character may get sick, something in the car might break, or a bump in the road could cause fuel cans to fly off the roof and get lost. More hands-on hindrances involve hordes of zombies, which you can choose to sneak or fight through, or encounters with fellow survivors, offering dialog choices that could lead you into trouble or reward your decision making. More often than not, however, trouble will be the result.
A general rule of Organ Trail, once again like its namesake, is that if anything can go wrong, it will. The game is almost demoralizing in just how willing it is to assault your survivors with problems. When ammunition is low, expect one of your survivors to accidentally drop some out of the window. If you have no spare tires, a bandit is more than willing to shoot one of yours out, stranding the party between destinations and forcing the player to wait for passing traders with the right gear. Food can go rotten, mufflers can fall apart, and party members can get bitten by the undead.
Should a character get bitten, they can generally survive without turning into a zombie. If their health gets too low, however, the risk of turning becomes more likely, and players will have to decide whether or not to kill them. Putting down a party member requires pulling the trigger yourself, and losing any survivor means having one less chance to make it through the game's finale alive.
At landmarks and rest stops, players can shop or trade with fellow survivors, use scrap metal to repair the vehicle, and purchase upgrades for both the car and player character. Here, the party may also rest to regain health (at the cost of food), or use medkits for the treatment of more serious injuries. Jobs can also be taken on, as can scavenging missions to gain supplies and cash. These options require the successful completion of a range of action-based shooter modes.
Shooting sections retain the retro feel of the rest of the game, and the rudimentary controls make for a distinctly nerve-wracking experience. In scavenge mode, zombies swarm in from the edges of the screen while the player picks up randomly spawning supplies. There are also defense challenges, which fixes the player behind a wall and requires all encroaching zombies be killed, and shootouts with bandits, a somewhat frustrating mode in which players must keep cover and shoot at human opponents -- who are also shooting and covering in an excessively annoying game of cat-and-mouse.
The player moves slowly using the WASD keys, and has to shoot by first holding down the left mouse button, pulling back to aim, and letting go. It's a deliberately awkward system that results in regular misses and forces the player to stop and aim carefully. Such design runs the risk of becoming infuriating, but Trail's focus on survival, ammo conservation, and general fear of failure means it works excellently in compounding one's terror. Despite the game's prehistoric graphics, it's remarkable just how much of a survival horror atmosphere is maintained.
It's a good idea to pay attention to the zombie activity before heading out to scavenge. Ranging from low to deadly, activity determines how hard it'll be to avoid zombie contact. To successfully scavenge, you just have to collect items until the time runs out, but if a zombie touches you once, you'll fail, lose some of what you collected, and take a hit to the health bar -- which player characters can only replenish with expensive medkits. Even in areas with low zombie activity, there's enough competition to keep one challenged -- and that activity can change between missions, so one always needs to keep an eye on it. To make things even harsher, the Director's Cut version adds random boss zombies, such as mutant bears and dogs, which take a ton of damage to put down and are generally hard to avoid.
On the road, some other action-based challenges may occur. Bike gangs can assault the station wagon, or a herd of zombie deer may give chase. In these events, the car is moved up and down a section of road with the W and S keys, and must be used to either smash bikes off the road or avoid undead animals, respectively.
Though the main mode is short, the constant fear of failure and sense of urgency provides more than enough anxiety for one sitting. There's also an endless mode with a set of extra challenges that unlock skulls. Skulls, in turn, unlock new endless scenarios and gameplay conditions, providing potentially tons and tons of gameplay on top of the campaign.
Though one could potentially spend hours with the game, the gameplay is simplistic enough to not quite provide that kind of compulsion. Once the campaign's beaten, endless mode is, essentially, more of the same, even with extra conditions. You're still trundling from place to place, trading gear, scavenging items, and shooting white squares and bright green zombies. It's fun while it lasts, but the amusement factor and the jokes only have so much mileage.
One thing that Organ Trail deserves immense amounts of praise for is its brilliant soundtrack. Merging DOS-style bleeps and bloops with deeper percussion, the game's infectious music imbues nostalgic sounds with the kind of dread-inspiring sound made famous in such films as 28 Days Later. It's a fantastic score, and one of the most game-appropriate I've encountered in a while.
Organ Trail: Director's Cut has a few things going against it. It's a parody game, which is always a risk, and it involves zombies; an increasingly tiresome creative crutch.
But through wit, ingenuity, and good old fashioned sadism, it manages to succeed against the odds and provide a truly rewarding spin on a number of classic ideas. For the price, you really couldn't ask for more.
The Organ Trail: Director's Cut reviewed by Jim Sterling
Impressive effort with a few noticeable problems holding it back. Won't astound everyone, but is worth most people's time and cash.
How we score: The Destructoid Reviews Guide