With the recent release of The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct, it’s hard to find a decent zombie-survival based game to play these days. Sure, you’ve got Valve’s Left 4 Dead, Telltale’s own take on The Walking Dead, and the ARMA II mod DayZ, but I need more. Amongst the indie titles are a few examples that stand out to me, one being a well-adapted strategy game called Atom Zombie Smasher, and another, the subject of this review, called Organ Trail.
Not to be mistaken with the classic Oregon Trail, which debuted in 1990, this game features a similar play style in which you lead a small group of survivors across the wasteland along a pre-determined route from Washington DC to a safe haven in Oregon. The game is presented in an 8-bit color scheme, similar to the limited color monitors of PC gaming’s past, applying the same effect in the animation and sound departments as well. The only difference is that when I first played Oregon Trail on that ancient Apple computer, back in the 3rd grade, we didn’t have two-button mice or a basic OS. Elderly badgering aside, that old PC gaming feel is there. The only thing to break the illusion is the soundtrack, which mixes clear, high-quality instrumentals with 8-bit synthesized music.
For those of you who aren’t twenty-five, the gameplay is pretty simple. The introduction pits you in a defensive gun fight against a horde of the undead slowly creeping your way. Once the ammo runs dry, you’re left standing there, waiting to die, only to be saved by an old, grizzled preacher. Afterward, you’re given the option to name yourself and four friends who will accompany you across the wasteland. Sadly, the preacher requests you put him down shortly afterwards, as an infected player who becomes incapacitated has the chance to turn into a zombie.
The game is very casual as you watch your car traverse the barren United States, coming upon small outposts, towns, and ruined cities throughout. Occasionally, you’ll pause while the game rolls up a random event or encounter on your drive, such as getting diseased, having your beat-up station wagon break down, someone getting bitten and possibly infected, or engaging in random text-adventure events. Certain events will force you to make choices about how to proceed; others will put you in a situation where you’ll have only one shot to kill a bandit holding a friend hostage. There are plenty of do-or-die situations, and you can expect to go through a lot of food and med-kits to keep everyone alive.
Whenever you hit a settlement, stop to camp out, or have your vehicle break down, you’ll be given several new screens to explore where you can view your party’s status, chat with strangers, or head out to scavenge, among a bountiful list of tasks. Towns and cities offer auto shops which let you buy spare parts and upgrades for your car, so be prepared to spend a lot of cash here. Speaking of cash, you’ll be expected to keep some around for buying necessary supplies. Apparently the dollar bill still has a use in the zombie apocalypse.
Jobs, another aspect of the towns, can vary between 3 categories: Defense, Recovery, and Bandit Attacks. Defense is a pretty typical mode where you sit at the bottom of the screen and aim for anything that’s undead and shuffling at you. Recovery puts you in a zone where you must travel right to reach a crate of supplies left behind by a band of survivors. Bandit Attack is pretty much Defense, except instead of fending off a zone from incoming opponents, you’re hunkered down some cover taking pop-shots at bandits hiding in a two-story ruin, making sure not to be bit by their gunfire.
The game sports the Campaign mode which lets you traverse the continent, an Endless mode that places you on a road of the same description to see how far and how long you and your friends can survive, and a strange side-scrolling mini-game where you also drive the station wagon cross-country, but with four separate health bars to manage while in route with your passengers suffering various physical detriments should you roll your car over.
The Endless mode in particular allows you some nice options to modify the game experience with loadouts that include supplies and combat skills as well as what effects you’re dealing with while trying to survive. Maybe your party rests really well, but are all infected. Maybe you’re the lone survivor. These factors modify your final score.
If I had a complaint about this game, the traveling companions seem completely useless until the end, where you’ll need them to survive a final mission before the end credits roll. You can’t have them go out and scavenge, nor do they have anything more than a health bar. It would have been nice to see them have their own various or unique skills to allow for some depth to the survivability of your team. Maybe someone is a doctor and can mend wounds without the need for extra med-kits or maybe another is a car mechanic and can fix your vehicle with fewer spare parts. It’s a small issue, but it makes you wonder if it couldn’t have added to the experience. Also, it doesn’t seem like you can pick up new friends when yours die, nor can you continue to play as one of them if you die during the campaign itself, further putting to question the necessity of managing the health of four other people throughout the journey.
Given that, I still fully recommend this game; it’s cheap and a fun experience. I got it for sale at four bucks, but even at six, it’s a nice, casual experience to jump into at random and play, just to name everyone after you and your IRL friends and see who gets put down first for eating all the Twinkies.