Review: Organ Trail: Director’s Cut

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It’s interesting that there was never really an explosion of Oregon Trail-like games (unless you count The Learning Company’s own efforts to expand the brand), though there has been a steady stream of indie games that have aped the style. Those of us that recall the days of monochrome computers remember the horrors of dysentery and dead oxen well, whiling away the hours on our school computer lab PCs trying to get our hapless party to the promised land of the Pacific northwest wilderness. Organ Trail takes me right back to those halcyon days, but with an apocalyptic twist, and weirdly enough ends up being a more manageable and inviting game than the pioneer murdering simulator of the past.

So, this really is Oregon Trail with zombies. Instead of being a one-note joke though, Organ Trail fleshes out (heh) the original formula in significant ways. If you somehow never encountered an Apple IIe in school, the basic idea of the old Trail games is that you have a party of 4 or so travelers on their way to a distant destination. Along the way, all manner of random events will torment your party, and you’re offered an assortment of strategic options and minigames to recover from the damage and disease that fate has afflicted you with. Organ Trail works the same way, with you and four friends packed into a decaying station wagon on a cross-country trip to escape the undead U.S. of A. As your car trundles along, random terrible things happen, and you do what you can to stem the tide at the settlements you stop at.

Now, unlike Oregon Trail of old, your options to recover from disaster are robust and powerful. At settlements, you can scavenge for supplies, barter using items or money, take on odd jobs, upgrade your car and cohorts, and most importantly, rest. Anything active you do, like travelling or working on the car, passively drains the health of your party. Resting can completely restore it, assuming you have food to spare while you wait. Many of these options are also available while on the road, but it’s only in settlements where you’re completely safe while resting or waiting. There’s also no limit in towns on how much scavenging you can do, so you’re free to hang around and load up on food and scrap, or trade essentially infinite resources for the limited supplies of fuel and medkits the stores might have.

Not every settlement has a full stock of goods, though, and random events can be very hard on your survivors or your car. The minigames you play to scavenge or perform odd jobs are also very dependent on the difficulty you’re playing on. In Easy or Normal, you’ll have the leeway to do pretty much whatever you want, but on higher levels, you may have to think twice before wading into deadly zombie hordes. This extends to the special challenges that get sprinkled throughout the game, where you have to contend with rampaging biker gangs, escape from zombified wildlife, or plug a kidnapper before they can execute one of your friends. There’s a lot to do in Organ Trail besides just watch your folks come down with fevers, and it’s a good thing because this cross-country trip is not a short one.

You may have noticed that I’ve only mentioned zombies like once or twice. The undead are, of course, the main antagonistic force in the game, and the reason behind your whole blighted pilgrimage. But honestly, the zombie angle doesn’t intrude on the gameplay all that much, at least compared to the game this horror spoof is based on. Zombies are your foes in most minigames, and if one of your crew is bitten, they’ll lose health faster than others and turn on you if they die while infected. Outside of that, though, Organ Trail is surprisingly devoid of the doom and hopelessness of most zombie media. The incredibly low-res foes and scenery make the undead seem almost cute, and there are basically no hard choices to make in terms of infected individuals. Aside from the intro sequence that has you put down an infected person, as long as you keep bitten characters healthy, you’ll never have to worry about them turning.

The only real knock I have against this one is the length of a single run, which can take up to two hours to make it to safety if you’re not zooming through all the menus. Settlements don’t differ except in what supplies and services they offer, so once you get the hang of the scavenging economy and have the supplies to survive the worst random events, you’re pretty much in the clear. And that’s not a bad thing, considering how gloomy a lot of zombie games can be, but it can make playthroughs a little monotonous by the end. Still, with the charming, chunky graphics and throwback sound effects, Organ Trail makes for a great little coffee break game whether you’re still a fan of zombies or not. It’s not dramatic, it’s not stressful, it’s not gross, it’s just a comfortable adventure to work your way through once you get a grip on the systems.

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