The Oregon Trail was a wheel wagon route that went from the Missouri River to the valleys in Oregon, mainly used in the early 1800s by settlers. Sadly, because of poor ration management, attacks from Native Americans, dangerous environmental hazards, and fierce diseases, many travellers died on their way to this promised land. I have for the longest time wanted to give the video game series with the same name a thorough look, but since I am a Scandinavian man who has no idea on on how to do this properly and chronologically, I decided to look at a parody of the original title instead.
Developed by The Men Who Wear Many Hats, Organ Trail started out as a browser game, before it became a popular Facebook app. After a successful Kickstarter campaign and getting support through Steam Greenlight, the team made a fleshed out version that would eventually get multiple expansions and updates, ending in its Complete Edition. I am always up for a good survival title and since I am no stranger to long journeys, I am excited to see what this one holds.
Road trip to Oregon, zombie style!
It finally happened. A zombie outbreak has occurred, forcing you and four companions to get to the safe heaven. Unfortunately, it is on the west side of the U.S.A., with you being stuck on the east coast. At the very least, you have a car that can make this ride easier, but barely so. The game starts out by letting you take a limited amount of various resources with you. These range between food, med kits, ammunition, fuel, scraps, and three different car parts: mufflers, batteries, and tires. While their functions might be clear, it is important to be thorough with their descriptions. After all, you are gonna need all the support you can get in an apocalyptic world.
Your vehicle comes with a life bar, five slots for equipping upgrades in, and one of each mentioned car parts that need to be replaced whenever broken. Obviously, the health meter will drain whenever your ride is damaged from fiends or environmental hazards, but you can use scraps in order to fix it. The more of these trinkets you utilise, the more it is likely for your car to be healed. When you have selected the amount you want to use, you will be put in a QTE segment where you have to hammer in screws into their holes at the right time. Afterwards, you get graded for each attempt and your vehicle regains health accordingly to how well you did it.
This is a novel and entertaining concept that does not last for too long, making it a nice risk versus reward setup that tests your accuracy. Unfortunately, broken mufflers, batteries, and tires cannot be saved by scraps and you will need spares in order to automatically replace them. Lack any of these, and your ride will not move. As for the upgrades, they are quite creative and come with unique uses. You can acquire a GPS that will make sure you never become lost, chains for keeping your car steady on slippery roads or even a solar panel that lets you slowly drive without fuel. These do not come cheap and are rare, but truly worth your time.
As the time passes on your road trip, your party will consume food by each hour. You can ration how much they eat, which will affect how much health they gain back. However, going without food means slowly killing them and things can happen out of nowhere, such as knife fights or someone accidentally breaking their ribs, costing a significant portion of their life bar. Sickness will also drain their health quickly, forcing you to be careful if you want your team to survive. You can stop and rest at any time, which will make them heal if food is available and it might even remove their illness if you keep them alive for long enough, which also goes for being bitten by a walking dead.
Although, your companions are not useful until the end of this journey, making them feel like an extra form of resource. This sadly lessens the tense atmosphere this title is going for and your party members only have personal values at best, depending on what names you give them. I also never saw the need to put a mate down, as the game is generous with their chances for surviving sickness and hunger. Speaking of, whenever you decide to rest in order to regain health, you can choose to go fishing. This is a fun activity, as you will have to aim your throw and reel in to lure the fishes, with a QTE being played out if you get something on your hook. While this might not replace a lot of the food that is being consumed by each hour, it is definitely helpful.
Strangely enough; you yourself do not require food or sleep. It is unclear as to why, but you then have med kits for healing if you get hurt, which anyone in your team can use for a quick recovery. Should you go low on rations, money for purchasing stuff or other items, there is always the option to wait for someone to trade with. If you get restless, scavenging for supplies can yield some strong rewards at the risk of coming across undead creatures. How dangerous it is to go alone depends on the time of day, with the nights being suicidal and the mornings being a breeze. When you are out hunting, you are set in an overhead view where you simply touch where you wish to walk towards (or use WASD on PC), drag the finger or mouse back in order to aim with your firearm, and let go to shoot.
This setup is quite enjoyable with zombies running towards you the moment they enter the screen, and despite that ammo is something to be mindful of, this is only an issue if you do not prepare ahead. There is a varied selection of guns you can choose to bring along, but only one for each time you go scavenging. At disposal, you have a shotgun with spread shots, a pistol being able to fire four quick shots at the cost of long reload times, and a rifle that has short reloads after each shot being fired. While they have clear differences, they revolve around you making a preference rather than being useful for specific events.
However, what makes Organ Trail so entertaining is actually not so much the planning and rationing. In fact, you should be in for a comfortable ride unless you play on a harder difficulty, which will provide a better challenge. The parts that are the most engaging ones, are the random events you can encounter on the road and inside the towns themselves. You might find some food hidden under a branch, discover tombstones of lost souls, be asked to join someone for dinner or other happenings that I will not spoil.
Many of these text sequences require you to make choices on what to do, with some putting you right into the action, like having you drive your car on a multilayered side-scrolling segment while hitting bikers or take cover and aim against a gang shooting at you from their hideout. These events are exciting and do make you aware that you might be in for a surprise around every corner, despite your best efforts. If that was not enough, you have the option to take on more dangerous routes for better rewards on your map, forcing you to decide if the risk is worth it or not.
Whenever you get to a town, you will be able to purchase items, talk to the locals, and take on more missions. These tasks can be about defending an outpost or get to the end of an area while a horde of zombies chases you, for example. Tragically, all of these activities can be very similar to each other in concepts, with many revolving around you shooting from a standstill, but they are still decent diversions. A nice addition for some more depth to these action parts, is that your avatar can gain upwards to three upgrades if you can find teachers, such as faster walking speed or better chances for finding food. Perhaps a minimal extra, but one that is easy to appreciate.
The main problem with Organ Trail, is that despite wanting to be simple in its approach, many of its activities can make this journey repetitive. A good showcase for this, are the four different types of zombies that you will encounter outside of the bosses, with one being the regular version, another requiring two shots, the third type running towards you if you do not look at it, and the final take being able to crawl underneath anything. However, they are recycled and easily exploitable due to their poor AI, making them only a threat in numbers.
With the missions also being too similar and normal difficulty not providing a huge challenge, there are some unfortunate setbacks to this project. Luckily, there are enough intriguing events to keep you coming back for more and it is genuinely fun to see how you and your companions help or hinder each other on this trip to safety. Even if the variety in the action segments could have been better, they are solid enough to keep you engaged. With how much it focuses on giving you an adventure with entertaining moments and being easy to pick up and play, this is an approachable survival horror. It is also neat to be able to tweet about your losses and accomplishments.
Gameplay Score: 6/10
Based on the first The Oregon Trail that used the MS-DOS’s capabilities, Organ Trail is a lovely tribute that mimics its source material impressively well. The pixelated portraits, black backgrounds, and minimalistic map, all combine to give this game a charming retro look, to the point where even the screen fades away by using old effects. Thankfully, the developers still implemented tons of creativity within this title, despite its focus on technical limitations and text sequences.
Visual elements like seeing cities from far away, the pictures giving each settlement their own tone, and the small nods to other horror media, are imaginative and sweet details. I just wish there were more diverse looks for the shootouts and the towns themselves, as this project tends to reuse set pieces. Although, it is hard to say if this was a choice made to mimic technical limitations or not. Luckily, driving across the USA does provide varied environments to witness, such as canyons, forests, and destroyed buildings to name a few.
The sound effects are simply wonderful with them being in different pitches to represent shots being fired, your car getting damaged, and people screaming in agony. All strongly add to an uncomfortable atmosphere, while still keeping to this title’s retro feel. I did find odd at first that there is music constantly throughout this adventure though, as old DOS games struggled doing this simultaneously with other audio and had to rely on sound effects to create immersion instead.
However, the soundtrack here is beautiful, providing low tunes to always make you uneasy whenever you are trying to catch your breath, with the intense melodies only occurring in bigger fights or dire situations. They are all varied, memorable, and adds to the setting of a world fallen into chaos. Even the use of real instruments alongside the chip tunes is forgivable, as they are subtle in the background and rather a welcoming addition that do not hinder the experience of this old school horror project. Great work, Ben Crossbones!
Presentation Score: 8/10
More ways to survive
Due to the random events that can happen, being able to choose how you start out with items, one of the harder difficulties, and between the different roads to take, there are a ton of reasons for revisiting this journey again. It is also not too long of an adventure by lasting about two hours give or take, making this title clearly made with replay value in mind. What also extend the reasons for another run, are unlockables such as new cars, avatars, and even some fun in-game achievements that can significantly change up your playthrough. There is even a setting to give you visuals appropriate for Halloween, which is incredibly cute!
Should you wish to keep playing and not be stopped by the ending, endless mode is a neat way for seeing how far you can endure this zombie apocalypse. Even if repetition is still a factor and might be more apparent in this setup, it is still an entertaining concept in its own right. Co-op is also included for some of the combat scenarios and is a nice addition, if nothing spectacular. Really, the only mode that puzzles me, is Clement mode. In this side-scroller, you just try to get as far as possible to the left with your car, while balancing it for getting solid landings and driving through zombies. It is not bad, but has little to offer elsewhere and makes for an underwhelming extra with no strong level designs or mechanics.
Extra Score: 8/10
Organ Trail is simple in almost every way and due to this, it does lack enough variety and progressive difficulty to stay interesting. However, the random encounters, decent resource management, solid gameplay, and tons of reasons to come back for another ride, add to make this into an engaging horror title with a stellar presentation that is imaginative and old school. There are some bumps in the road that are noticeable, but should not hinder in your overall enjoyment on this trip. Happy surviving!