It’s Hard Out There For A Trench
Double Fine is a legendary developer. For one, they produced Psychonauts, the poster-child for truly great games that were completely ignored by the public. Of course, the company is also run by one of the greatest minds in the industry: Tim Schafer, a man who co-wrote Monkey Island 1 and 2, and designed Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle, Grim Fandango and more recently, Brütal Legend.
Since the aforementioned Brütal Legend, Double Fine has focused primarily on releasing smaller, downloadable titles with unique takes on gameplay. We had a stripped down RPG in Costume Quest, a new take on the adventure genre with Stacking, and now they have released a third-person mech shooter/tower defense game with Trenched. This seems, on its face, very much outside the wheelhouse of Double Fine. So, the obvious question is: how is it?
In short, Trenched is phenomenal. It may be the best $15 you will spend all year.
The Set Up
Keeping true to their trademark, Double Fine has once again created a game with a unique sensibility. The game is set in a ficticious post World War I era, where history has gone in a seriously different direction. In the Trenched universe, two disabled soldiers were exposed to a cosmic signal during WWI, and it gave them super-intelligence. One of these soldiers, Frank, developed mechanized walking trenches. The other, Vlad, developed evil televisions (called Monovisions) and began to conquer the world to spread the “signal.” Needless to say, the two are now on opposing sides in a war, while you play a Trench-piloting soldier working to defend the free world against Vlad’s monovision tyranny.
As you would expect from Double Fine, Trenched’s story is fantastic. That’s not to say there is a hell of a lot of it. This is primarily an action game, and as such the story is mostly told through in-mission cut scenes, briefings, and a few movies throughout the game. What the story lacks in quantity, it more than makes up for in quality. The voiceovers are spot on and hilarious, the humor never gets tiresome or forced, and the game succeeds at being both funny and compelling. It is no small feat to create a universe that players will both laugh at and care about, but Trenched does it.
Two Great Tastes That Go Great Together
As I mentioned before, Trenched is a combination of games. On the one hand, it is an arcadey third person mech shooter, complete with deep mech customization and loot. On the other hand, it is a fully featured tower defense game. Here’s the real kicker though: the game can really be played either way. For a few missions, the player will really need to use both mechanics, but for most, the player will be able to customize their gameplay experience to what suits them best personally. This is a crazy concept, but it works great.
You Got Your MechWarrior In My Tower Defense!
In terms of the mech shooting, the game feels very much like a less simmy MechWarrior. The camera is situated behind the player, who can equip weapons on various slots on either side of his Trench, and fire each side off independently with the L and R triggers. The game controls well in general, but I did have at least one minor complaint: there is no ability to jump, and as your Trench will often traverse multiple levels of terrain, it makes getting around more difficult than it needs to be. Aiming and shooting work great, and each weapon feels vastly different, and each will lend itself to a different kind of play style.
It really is the weapons and Trench customization that make this element great, however. Do not be fooled by the $15 price tag, or the fact that Trenched is downloadable and not retail: this is a very deep, loot-based game. The player will collect dozens of Trench bodies, legs, and weapons. There is an in-game shop located in your mechanized battleship home base, as well as unique loot to be found on the battlefield. Customization is not only good for keeping the player engaged, but it is also absolutely necessary, as certain levels will require specific types of guns or towers in order to succeed.
The trench bodies can be general use, assault or engineering. Assault bodies have fewer slots for towers, which I will discuss further on, but have more armor and more slots for weapons, allowing players to either equip more guns, or bigger guns, or both. Engineering bodies are the exact opposite: having very few slots for guns, but many for towers, and are generally faster. The epic tradeoff here is that only the Assault bodies can use the best guns, while only the Engineering bodies can use the best towers. General use bodies are the middle ground, and can generally use some good guns, and some good towers, but never all of everything. Initially I could not decide if I found this feature ingenious or irritating, as it effectively cripples most single player missions, but once I found my footing I found switching my play style up between missions kept things fresh and interesting.
No, You Got Your Tower Defense In My MechWarrior!
Trenched is also one of the most commercial tower defense games I have ever seen. It is a genre usually reserved for browser-based flash games, played on a surreptitious work-computer during lunch breaks or when your boss is not looking. However, while the player is running around blasting away evil sentient television monsters on the battlefiend, he can, and will need to, call in towers to be placed in order to help hold off the monovision hordes. These can vary from shotgun, flak and machinegun towers, to sniper, mine laying, repair, and mortar towers, with a few extras in there as well. Each is good for a different thing, and by and large they can be placed pretty much anywhere on the battlefield.
Like most tower defense games, this means that the enemies come from one of a number of different spawn points, and will generally travel upon a predictable path, allowing you to strategically place your towers to pick them off. The enemies’ main goal will mostly be to destroy a target that you are guarding, and you lose the level if enough damage is inflicted on that target. However, the game will mix things up, with enemies that can destroy some of your towers, enemies that can shield others, enemies that will ignore the target entirely and just go after your trenchy ass, and even a few boss fights.
In short, this is one of the best applications of the relatively recent tower defense genre I have ever seen, and certainly the best I have seen in a game of this commercial quality.
Short, But Fierce
One thing I should mention is that the game is relatively short. In total, there are 15 levels, including several boss fights. The game is divided into three sets of five levels each, each set in a different part of the world. That being said, the game is constantly challenging you to improve your performance on previous levels, allowing you to replay them at any time with a more upgraded trench. Also, the game gets pretty tough by the end, providing what should be a decent challenge to most players. Finally, the game has a very robust multiplayer mode, which allows you to play any mission with up to four players total, and rewards you additional cash and experience points for playing with friends.
So yes, the game is fairly short. It is also $15 and downloadable, so I feel it makes for a great investment. Particularly because Double Fine has supported both of its previous downloadable games with DLC, and Trenched very much lends itself to the concept of additional content in the future.
Double Fine’s Best Downloadable Effort Yet
Double Fine’s previous downloadable games had some great ideas, but I constantly found myself wanting to like them more than I actually did. Costume Quest felt shallow and repetitive, and Stacking just did not feel compelling, despite its great style and sense of humor. Even the retail release, Brütal Legend, was a game with fantastic goals but flawed execution. Finally, Trenched represents the best of both worlds: a great concept coupled with great gameplay. It is an engaging, endearing, and eminently enjoyable experience.