Apocalyptic Path: ToF

AP coverThe Oregon Trail is old. It’s also quintessentially American and, as such, never crossed my path when I was child. I only heard of it relatively recently, mainly in the context of the newer and more universal Organ Trail, which is about zombies. It doesn’t get much more universal than that, as ten thousand indie games remind us daily with a cynical salesman’s sneer. The essence of both games is to trek across the United States in your wagon/car, having more or less randomly chosen encounters ranging from dangerous creatures to bouts of disease. Along the way you can buy and sell supplies, scavenge, hunt for food and take on odd jobs.

Apocalyptic Path: Trail of Fears stuffs itself firmly into this mould and emerges as an appetising hybrid of The Oregon Trail and Fallout, offering that familiar cross-US trek but now with added irradiated wasteland antics. That’s the dream, anyway. Like most dreams it bears as much resemblance to reality as my beard bears to a colony of stoats – that’s to say a little, but not enough to fool someone free from severe cataracts.

Since I sat down here to put pen to paper (finger to key, whatever) my inner tabloid headline writer has been begging me to pun the game’s title into a different form. Perhaps ‘Fail of Drears’ or ‘Stale of Tears’. I know, I know, I couldn’t work for The Sun with that sort of pun skill. I’d be a senior editorial candidate at least. The fact, if I may so boldly claim knowledge of the fundaments of reality, is that Apocalyptic Path: ToF feels like it’s a small child in a park being reluctantly dragged into a game of football with kids it doesn’t like from school. It punts the ball in the general direction of the goal, then shrugs and wanders off.

Only people with anime hair can lead wasteland gangs.

Only people with anime hair can lead wasteland gangs.

The familiar format from The Oregon Trail and Organ Trail is very much in place, with all the accustomed trappings. Your car is now pulled by giant cockroaches and everyone dresses like they’re just killing time before the Mad Max 4 casting call, but it’s mostly the same stuff in broad strokes. Set your rate of food and water consumption to conserve resources while looking for more, but beware of hunger and dehydration. Try to keep everyone’s morale up so they don’t mutiny or decide to end it all. Watch out for sneaky traps placed by bandits, cannibals who eat your arms, and assorted other randomly-arising hazards. Occasionally bump into someone who wants to trade with you rather than gnaw on your elbow. This is as far as the resemblance goes, though. I’ve never played the original Oregon Trail but I have played Organ Trail and it was flawed but fun. Apocalyptic Path is flawed but flawed. I’m the sort who can look past flaws to see the fun beneath, but when I look past these flaws all I see is more flaws.

This would be excusable to an extent if the effort was there. I’ve played plenty of games that made so many mistakes they just weren’t fun, but that scored some points for effort. I’m not saying that no effort went into Apocalyptic Path but it was distributed very unevenly and it’s this pervasive sloppiness that really rubs me the wrong way.

The most competent part of the game, besides the overall structure which was intentionally borrowed from earlier games, is the presentation. Well, the visuals anyway. The less said about the monotone dirge of the audio, the better. Actually, the more said the better, since the ranting might drown out that ghastly noise.) The visual presentation is generally solid enough, if a bit gruesome. Not gruesome in the gory sense, but gruesome in the hideously disfigured, NES Pirates! sense. I enjoyed the general aesthetic but the player’s party of characters consists entirely of radiation-warped semi-human mutants that look ten times worse for being mashed through an 8-bit blender. The world itself doesn’t fare as badly, being minimalist but true to the visual style of the game’s inspiration. Battle scenes bizarrely take the form of a Pokémon-style duel, with your cast of characters taking turns. More on that in a moment, but for now I’ll say the resemblance is more than mechanical. The visual style is accurate to the original Pokémon right down to being in shades of grey, and although it’s a startling shift the first time, it’s actually a pleasant change from the main game screen after a while.

This is where I run out of compliments.

Strangely apt.

Strangely apt.

The very first thing that struck me as soon as I reached the game’s title screen was the interface. It uses a mouse pointer. I know the idea is to tweak and re-skin the Oregon/Organ games but spare a little thought for the fact that this one is actually on a console. On-screen points seldom work well with a controller, and the only cases where it’s really justifiable are the likes of strategy or management games where there isn’t really a better way to indicate what you want to do. Here, the actions you’re required to perform come down to choosing an option from a list and pressing A. Why not just use the stick to scroll up and down the list? Why laboriously drag a pointer across the screen? It makes no sense to anyone who’s put even a moment’s thought into making the game console-friendly, and this slapdash lack of interest in the development runs like a noxious radioactive seam throughout the finished product.

Next was the character naming screen. Your party of five have default names but, as players of XCOM: Enemy Unknown can tell you, personalising your team encourages you to care if they survive. The actual naming process was fine, as was choosing my starting set of perks, but when I immediately went into the inventory to equip my weapons I noticed that the default names were still displayed! On the main game screen, Carys and Kieren were alive and well, but in the inventory screen their seedy double lives were revealed, Carys shamefacedly admitting to being a Molly and Kieren getting stuck with the unwieldy Cig. No one should be named after an abbreviated tobacco product. It’s a purely cosmetic difference, but after an already thoughtless start the game was starting to stray out of ‘we made slightly questionable decisions’ territory and into the murky lands of ‘we didn’t give a shit’.

Whoever gets ill, we see this guy. Attention to detail is the name of the (different) game.

Whoever gets ill, we see this guy. Attention to detail is the name of the (different) game.

Add to this growing heap of rancid gristle the fact that four of your party all have a coloured health indicator but the fifth one doesn’t, and things cease to be superficial and start to become serious gameplay concerns. At the opposite end of the spectrum we have features that should affect gameplay but don’t. Much like in Organ Trail you can adjust the speed of your car. There it was a question of balancing speed and fuel concerns. Here, it’s just speed. Having varying rates of progress is just irrelevant as there’s no reason to go any slower than the highest speed (which, incidentally, wins this month’s prize for Most Brazen Misnomer – a setting called ‘breakneck’ that moves like a glacier sleepwalking through neck-deep quicksand). Again, sloppy. Start to finish, everything I saw in this game was sloppy, slapdash and poorly thought out.

Possibly the most crushing blow to the game’s fun value, though, is the difficulty. I left this to last because I can already hear shrieks of ‘it’s meant to be difficult!’ Yes, I know it is. Its spiritual precursor, Organ Trail, was difficult too. The unpredictability of encounters combined with the very limited resources meant that some runs through the game could be breathtakingly unforgiving. There were two important differences there, though. Firstly, occasional good events; and secondly, a sense of player agency.

I’ve spent some time with Apocalyptic Path now and the random events are brutally unfair. I’ve had maybe two positive encounters in my entire time with the game so far. Everything that ever happens is damaging, whether it’s disease or battles or mechanical damage to the car, and almost all of it is completely beyond your control. Don’t go into anywhere that has enemies because you probably can’t kill them, unless you chose the Sheriff class at the outset, giving you a couple of ‘rat sticks’ for weapons as one of your starting perks. No other choice of class can survive even the easiest early-game fight, in my experience. Nor can you pick up weapons as you go along, at least with any degree of reliability. I have yet to ever find a weapon in a random encounter, only in shops, and even then the only ones I’ve seen are those basic ‘rat sticks’ which by the time you reach the very first shop are already becoming pretty useless. Not to mention that the distance between the starting point and the first town/shop is such an epic slog that it makes the extended Lord of the Rings look like crossing the room.

Ralem used Apocalypse Path. It's not very effective...

Ralem used Apocalypse Path. It’s not very effective…

The game is ferociously stacked against you with a relentless deluge of setback after setback, afflicting you with deaths and crippling resources losses entirely at random and, crucially, with nothing you can do to prevent it or even try to mitigate the damage. There’s no way to prepare for the worst because you have to go so damn far before you can find any supplies at all, and the only modification you can make to your party is to adjust their food and water intake, and equip weapons. Did I mention that you can’t unequip them? Yep, there’s just no option for that. Sloppy.

That’s Apocalyptic Path: Trail of Fears in a nutshell. I’ve abused the word here but it’s the most apt: this game is sloppy. From the clumsy choice of interface, to the name and equipment oversights, to the hideous imbalance in gameplay, the entire thing feels like it was thrown together by someone who was distracted. It feels like the game never had the developer’s full attention, and as such it hangs together in an unsightly congealed clump that I can’t possibly recommend you try to swallow. I have granted some forgiveness to bad games that were made with good intentions and lots of effort. I can’t speak for the intentions of Apocalyptic Path’s developer, but I can say turn off the TV and pay attention to the game next time. If there’s any effort here, I can’t see it.

My Cat vs Zombies Ep I

When I saw My Cat vs Zombies Ep I listed in the new releases a few weeks ago, I pointed and laughed. I did, literally – I turned to the other person in the room, flung out my accusatory finger and made a “haw haw, what’s this rubbish?” kind of noise. I may also have rhetorically exclaimed something like “who would think that’s a good idea?!” or “what’s wrong with these people?!”

The title and cover are absolutely despicable. On Xbox Live Indie Games, the word ‘zombies’ immediately gives me indigestion. 90% of the time it’s like a rickety old flickering neon sign advertising bargain bandwagon rides (boarding hourly from outside the Creative Bankruptcy Motel). Expanding it to anything ‘versus zombies’ is an improvement in the same way that falling into a sewage processing facility is an improvement over faceplanting in a urinal. It’s more ambitious, but that’s not necessarily a welcome quality.

‘Cats versus zombies’ would be like falling into a sewage processing facility with the greatest hits of ABBA playing in the background. On their own, cats/ABBA are fine, but their sickly sweet presence is almost insulting when it’s tacked on to a horrible experience in a cynical attempt to dilute your misery. The final touch, making it ‘my cat versus zombies’ and having a LOLcat-style cover that was thrown together while waiting for a bus just adds a smear of self-indulgence, like a man in a huge foam Stetson singing along to ‘Dancing Queen’ off-key while the mingled excretions of a major city close over your despairing head.

So yes, I felt thoroughly justified in my pointing and laughing, secure in the knowledge that my obnoxious behaviour was positively genteel by comparison to this game’s many crimes.

Well the developer can point and laugh right back at me, because My Cat vs Zombies Ep I is pretty good.

The London Underground pre-apocalypse

The world has been overrun by zombies, as you might expect. What you probably wouldn’t expect is the immunity of cats to the zombie-propagating virus, and the consequent rise of cat colonies in the abandoned subway tunnels beneath the world’s cities. There’s a definite touch of Fallout 3 to the setting. You’ll journey entirely through tunnels, crossing disused stretches of track and stumbling across little isolated enclaves of survivors. There are also rumours of a larger, secure cat city known as Whiskertown, which put me in mind of the awed curiosity I felt whenever someone in Fallout 3’s wilderness mentioned Rivet City.

I also felt touches of the old SNES RPG Shadowrun in places, particularly when I was asked early on to deliver a shipment of hallucinogenic catnip to a junkie. The bleak ad hoc communities remind me of Fallout, but the slide into despairing depravity has Shadowrun’s fingerprints on it, intentionally or not.

In gameplay, My Cat vs Zombies Ep I is essentially a twin-stick shooter. Move with one stick, aim with the other, shoot with the right trigger. The emphasis on taking missions from NPCs, exploring the maze of tunnels for loot and making the most of relatively sparse supplies of ammunition give the game a more action-RPG feel than the control scheme would suggest. Fallout 3 rears its head again here in the form of perks that you can choose from each time you gain a level, mostly giving you either a damage boost or extra health.

In spite of all this, the game is far from serious. In conversation, characters are represented by amusing or cute photos of real cats, and the names of the perks make liberal use of the internet’s various cat memes. I never laughed aloud, but the tongue in cheek tone works fairly well and gives the game some personality.

I should shoot you right now for wearing those glasses

Aside from the largely uninspiring visual design (par for the course among Xbox indies), my only real complaint is the length. I wasn’t watching the clock, but I estimate that I finished My Cat vs Zombies Ep I in about an hour, maybe an hour and a half, and that included quite a lot of leisurely exploration. That still isn’t bad for 80 Microsoft points, and this game is clearly intended as the first in a series of episodes, but I’m no fan of the episodic release format. It irritates me when I have to stop playing just as a game is hitting its stride.

Still, if wanting more of the same is my biggest gripe, I’d have to say My Cat vs Zombies Ep I is a winner. Not a big winner – maybe a local raffle winner rather than a lottery millionaire – but certainly worth a play for its charming post-apocalyptic RPG adventure. It’s just a shame that everyone with any taste will be sent screaming in the opposite direction by the gut-churningly awful title and cover art.