There’s something intriguing about a developer like Double Fine fully committing to the downloadable space. Part of it is that their concepts are too fresh – too unique for retail-level marketing. Whatever the format, the Tim Schaefer-led studio has always excelled at being highly original and have a penchant for filling out highly colorful worlds with similarly delightful characters. So something like Trenched – a God’s honest tower defense game set in the aftermath of World War I – comes as a bit of a departure for them.
Trenched signifies that Double Fine is still fully capable of making a solid genre game without twisting the conventions or going too far outside the box. The formula here is simply a refined version of Brutal Legends’ real-time strategy segments – one of the few specks on their clean track record – proving that they can deliver that type of game pretty well, also.
As the story goes, two soldiers from the war overhear a radio broadcast and are somehow brainwashed into fighting one another. One soldier creates an evil empire of robots, while the other creates a legion of robots called trenches (piloted by Marines), serving to protect key strategic locations across several theatres of war.
These dehumanized avatars come across as empty. It’s neither a good nor a bad thing necessarily, but fits the industrialized aesthetic, as well as the lack of real character exhibited in the game world. All told, it’s sufficiently grim. Aside from holding on dearly to hardline tower defense mechanics and the clichéd premise, Trenched is so self-aware of its own conformity that it in turn becomes amusing.
There’s a good tank-like feel to the trenches. Sometimes they’ll get caught up on the map’s terrain, but otherwise they control well and the shooting mechanics are sound. The trenches serve as additional firepower on the battlefield, backing up the turrets and ultimately preventing each wave of enemies from encroaching on their target. Whereas this combination of strategy and third-person shooting may feel superfluous in other tower defense titles, it becomes an essential component in Trenched.
Part of what makes this work is the number of customization options. In-between each map, you’ll return to a naval vessel acting as a multifunctional hub for co-op, a trench customization deck, and a level-select area. The customization system’s functional, if not a little convoluted. It takes a good amount of time to properly outfit your trench, and as combinations often play out differently in each level, it can be frustrating trying to sort it all out quickly. Everything from the chassis to the stocked weapon types can be employed, with multiple upgrades for each and a good spread of challenges for leveling up each aspect of your trench. As new areas are completed, more advanced weaponry also continues to unlock, providing some incentive to return to earlier levels and best your prior score and change up load-outs to find the one that best complements your co-op partners. It’s a good, if not slightly overlong process, sorting through all those menus and it would’ve been nice to have quick visual comparisons to your companions’ trenches without having to leave your dock.
The hub also provides a brief reprieve from the trenches for the Marines, as they can walk about independently, and most notably, players can salute one another (the salute based on whichever hat they’ve equipped.) It’s one of those fun, dumb features that make online gaming that much more bearable. Although co-op accentuates some harsh frame rate hitches and chokes up with lag more often than it should, this is a fun, light multi-player experience. There’s also a neat feature where challenges are racked up with the group currently in your lobby and carry over from mission-to-mission, keeping people in games and forming side competitions between matches. As an extension of that, Trenched also rewards players for their friend’s online performances – a neat way of keeping the community connected without being overbearing or utilizing social networking sites.
Trenched follows a well-worn formula with dustings of humor and a self-aware annoyance at its own conformity. That gives it an edge. What it loses out on is the creative soul of past projects, the manic energy of something like Psychonauts.