Trenched,a new game released on X-Box Live Arcade last Wednesday and retailing at $15, is great.
First of all, the writing is effective and funny in a manner games tend to ignore. It’s a lightweight game for certain, but it takes being lightweight seriously. There are jokes scattered about the mission briefing and in-game dialogue that pretty much always hit the mark. Not to mention Trenched has an amazing premise.
The story follows the adventures of the Mobile Trench Brigade in the 1920’s. They wage war on the evil Tubes, which are televisions. Like, actual living collections of television sets that form monstrous animal-like glowing abominations. See, in the world of Trenched, a mysterious Broadcast heard by two radio operators during the first World War allowed affected each of their minds. One, Dr. Farnsworth, was struck with the concept of Television, while the commander of the Mobile Trench Brigade was granted the idea for gigantic robot legs. But television has come too early! Humanity is unprepared for the information onslaught, particularly when it becomes an actual onslaught, with the now evil Dr. Farnsworth trying to bring people the “Wisdom of the Broadcast” by force.
Trenched is a “Mech” game. That is, it’s a game where you play as a gigantic walking robot, rather than a person. On the one hand, that’s kind of just a visual choice. After all, most protagonists in games have the constitution of a40 ton steel monstrosity anyway. But what makes mech games unique is the ability to customize your avatar of destruction in an engaging manner. Rather than deciding to be Marine #239948 with Assault Rifle and Sniper Rifle, you get to be one of dozens of possible combinations of Chassis, Legs, Emplacements, and Weapons. And with a possible 6 weapon slots and 4 Emplacement slots, you can wind up with a very unique build. Ultimately, that build is a man standing in a chunk of WW1 trench on giant robot legs, calling down Emplacements that are then fired from a battleship offshore and set up by drilling into the ground on giant bits.
It’s an intensely silly idea, and one that makes a clear case for setting in games. The thing is, almost every Mech game decides that it has to be set in the future. See, the future will for some reason have walking robot tanks because I guess they’ll lose the technology of “wheels” and “tank treads” and choose the least sensible alternative outside of skis. Trenched was created by people smart enough to realize that it’s silly to bother with a “realistic” depiction when you can have an awesome one. Double Fine has been a staunch supporter of the idea of using unusual settings for a while now, to excellent effect. The past three games before Trenched took place in a turn of the century world of stacking dolls, a suburban neighborhood on Halloween, and a heavy metal album cover. I wish more developers would try some new things with setting. I can understand being conservative with gameplay, it’s hard to QA and a big gamble. But I refuse to believe it’s that big a risk to set games someplace other than Fantasy War, Future War, or Modern War.
If all Trenched had going for it was an interesting setting, I wouldn’t be telling you to buy it. The gameplay is a solid mix of shooter and Tower Defense. Each level, you’re tasked with defending one or more static object, usually buildings. Every few minutes, a new wave of evil Tubes arrives and begins their advance on said structure via a set path. That’s where you come in! Using your Trench guns you can take on the Tubes yourself, or you can call down a variety of stationary defensive Emplacements. Usually, you choose between having the emphasis be on your Trench or on the Emplacements before going into a mission. Smaller, weaker Trenches have more Emplacement slots and require less “scrap” material (gained by killing Tubes) to place them. Larger trenches can carry unique gigantic guns. There’s something incredibly satisfying about putting together a Trench that can totally lock down a given level using whichever method you find coolest.
The multiplayer is where the game really shines, though. With up to 4 people playing a single level together, you get the opportunity to take on a unique role within the team. For instance, when I played through several missions with some people online, I chose to be an Engineering mech with some AA capacity and useful support Emplacements. It took me a while to get going compared to my more hefty friends who could wade in from the word go, but once my Emplacements were up and I’d upgraded the ones my allies placed, I wound up being able to keep some lanes completely locked down. The fun part about online is that you can specialize in ways that would be suicide in the single-player. One of you can have two gigantic artillery emplacements and legs that allow you to dig in and reload faster to pound the enemy from afar. One can have nothing but 6 machine guns, able to tear small targets to bits. It multiplies the entertainment value of creating a custom mech by allowing you to define your place within a team as well as your playstyle.
There’s also a quite fun progression scheme, with your kills occasionally dropping “loot boxes” with different parts inside of them, and each kill getting you closer to a level-up that allows you to use new and interesting parts that are either useful or silly cosmetic upgrades for your Trench Marine. In a brilliant idea, every single person you play online with is included in your “regiment”, and the more any of you play, the more rewards are unlocked for all of you.
The only complaints I have with the game are the best sort: I want more! The game suffers from the fact that once you’ve progressed to the top levels, many of your parts simply cease being useful. There’s no real reason to use a Standard Artillery Cannon once you’ve unlocked “The Prince”, for instance. Either a wider variety of weapons or a system that was less about linear upgrades and more about different effects for different weapons would be useful in preventing this. The game is also a bit too easy in my opinion. Levels are designed to be tackled by almost any Trench build, which makes sense. Unfortunately, it means that when you build a particularly effective Trench, you can sleepwalk through many of the stages, particularly the earlier ones. The increase in difficulty that comes with multiplayer does a bit to alleviate this, but I wouldn’t mind an option to choose higher difficulties to really test my… metal. It also has a scoring system that’s simply Bronze/Silver/Gold. A more nuanced system that took into account the Trench you fought with could make for a lot of longevity. This is a game that could become a very fun exercise in Score Attack if they changed just a few elements, and I feel like that would carry it further than simply creating new pre-determined levels. Finally, the game is a tad short. It’s not unsatisfying, and I’ve already gone back to have fun with different builds, but my goodness would I kill for an Endless mode, or simply more missions.
If you’re a smart person, you’ll buy Trenched on XBLA today! Seriously, buy it. Double Fine needs your money more than you do.