Journey across a zombie-ravaged USA.
PC Release: March 19, 2013
By Ian Coppock
Sometimes I just want to pack up my shit and disappear into the wilderness, so I train for that day whenever possible. Unfortunately, I don’t know the first thing about wilderness survival, and I’m usually too lazy to stray more than three feet from my house, so I’ve been hoping that I can use video games to prepare myself for this eventual exodus. After much searching, I think I’ve found that prep in Organ Trail, a game that combines the legendary difficulty of the old Oregon Trail game with the most extreme of survival situations: a zombie apocalypse. Having finished the game, I now feel prepared to tackle whatever terrain or challenge awaits me.
If the title and retro graphics weren’t enough of a clue, this game is a homage to Oregon Trail, a text adventure about a pioneer family venturing out west. The game is infamously difficult; you have to traverse an entire continent, and all sorts of crap can befall your intrepid settlers with a ferocity that made me rage at age five. Disease, predators, bandits, you name it, that game has it.
Organ Trail expands upon the premise of its forebear with a modern-day story set at the onset of a zombie apocalypse. Players have to assemble a crack team of survivors and set off from Washington, D.C. in an old station wagon to a safe haven in Oregon. Some of the dangers from Oregon Trail return in all their diseased glory, just like the hordes of green freaks tailing your car. The Director’s Cut edition of the game includes a few extra goodies and optimizations.
As with Oregon Trail, you’re given some time to gather supplies and must choose a wise assortment of ammo, food, car parts, etc. Once you set off, it’s any man’s game. The road to safety is hazardous and Organ Trail‘s disposition toward your survivors is borderline psychotic.
The plot of the game largely depends upon your aptitude for survival. The screen details your car as it travels across America, with text boxes popping up to inform you of hazards, items, and your characters’ well-being. You don’t actually get to see these events happen; Organ Trail is true to its text adventure roots. The game will flash you a message and encourage your imagination to do the rest.
Organ Trail isn’t much for character development or intricate storytelling, but the game’s atmosphere is an effective blend of humor and stress; fitting, since I first played it in college. The first element that makes this game’s feel is the hazards I’ve been mentioning. Your car will journey forward in hour-long increments, after which the game will basically play roulette with a variety of possible outcomes. Sometimes, nothing will happen. Most of the time, something bad will happen.
When I say most of the time, I mean 95%. Characters will suffer dysentery and broken limbs, supplies will go bad, and zombies will attack the car. You can only remedy these problems with supplies, which you can only acquire by scavenging in the zombie-infested wilderness, or trading an arm and a leg. The game is brutal with bad luck; don’t be surprised if a character breaks her leg shortly before those two gas cans you traded your last ammo for are found to be full of water. Oh, and a zombie horde is coming.
The aforementioned foraging missions are a far cry from Oregon Trail‘s hunting simulation. Rather than stomp out into the prairie to gun down bison and bears, you have to quickly scavenge shopping carts and other supplies while eluding an increasing number of zombies. You can kill them with a headshot, but this measure is a stopgap at best. The game world’s zombie activity will vary, working a rigorous window-of-opportunity setup into the game.
Your journey is marked out by various cities and towns along the way to Oregon. Towns are safe havens but their supplies come dear. You can work jobs and fix up your car, but neither of these are cheap nor easy. Sometimes, you’ll be attacked by bandits and other human enemies. Ergo; the world is out to stone-cold murder you.
Despite limiting interactivity to your imagination and a few WASD maps, Organ Trail is quite fun. The game is cruel, but not so cruel as to dissuade you from wanting to play. Few games dealing in this kind of subject matter can hit that magic number. It needs fixing, though. For one thing, as of this writing, the iOS version is buggy. I’ve had to quit at least four journeys mid-way because the game simply froze, and would not respond in any way save giving me the option to start over (slow clap).
Additionally, the game’s algorithm for dispersing bad luck needs some work. All six or so times I’ve played this game, the misfortunes of the group eventually congeal onto one individual, one person who breaks all the limbs, loses all the supplies, damages all of the car parts. I finally lost my patience with this party member and decided to drag him out back and shoot him. Harsh, I know, but my fortunes improved drastically after that. It’s like the game targets one person as a portal for your bad luck, and shutting it down lets you walk. A laughable, game-breaking way to elude this programming flaw.
Organ Trail had a few poor design issues outside of programming and iOS bugs. There’s a teeth-gnashingly frustrating minigame in Organ Trail, in which one of your party members is being held at gunpoint by a bandit. You get one chance to shoot someone, and having your aim off by so much as a hair’s width spooks the bandit into killing your guy, or worse, you’re the one who shot him.
It’s a stupid and frustrating game, and yes, I’m unleashing petty vengeance upon it, but that doesn’t change it. It should be at least modified, if not removed.
Organ Trail‘s artwork is faithful to the original Oregon Trail. The game world is detailed via blocky, brightly colored pixels that give it life and originality. The game’s replication of its source material makes it a fascinating piece of art for several reasons: it hearkens back to an earlier age, yet provides a video game that can still be just as fun as modern puzzlers, proving correct my lifelong belief that graphical power has no bearing on a game that’s truly outstanding. Visual quality in a piece of artwork is dependent entirely on what the artist is trying to tell us. Organ Trail wouldn’t be Organ Trail with snazzy modern graphics, because then the connection to that infamous Oregon Trail has been damaged. This is an instance where old-fashioned graphics don’t just work; they work where modern visuals cannot.
En route to Oregon, your party is accompanied by a soundtrack of mournful synthesizers and splashy drums. These are effective at shouting out to the original but their composition evokes loneliness, despair and the hardships of the journey to come. Game composer Ben Crossbones added colorful Super Smash Bros.-style pieces for boss fights (yes, there are boss fights) and minigames. Most of the time, though, it’s just a slow, painful series of vaguely horn-like synths and “well, this is it” drums. The game has no voice acting.
Organ Trail isn’t getting out of here without a recommendation, but Android and iOS gamers should beware of this game’s bugs. I recommend the Director’s Cut edition available on Steam for five bucks. As far as I can tell, it’s bug-free, though not free of that infernal mini-game. It does, however, feature more gameplay, and a bigger bag of misfortunes and blessings for the road. Obviously, you’ll have a lot more fun playing this game on a PC if you’re also trying to awaken the nostalgia of Oregon Trail.
You can buy Organ Trail: Director’s Cut here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.