Between the real-time strategy of Brutal Legend
and the classic turn-based role-playing mechanics of Costume Quest
, Double Fine has made a name for themselves by turning classic genres on their head. Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, these games offer a great sense of humor, memorable characters and a whole lot of other things completely missing from most modern games. The result is games that become cult classics; the type of experience that sticks with you long after the game has ended.
Double Fine's newest twist on a popular genre is Trenched, an intoxicating mix of mech and tower defense games. As somebody who generally shies away from both genres, I worried that this would be the first game in their repertoire I had no interest in. Thankfully that's not the case, because Trenched works as a solid action game that offers just enough strategic planning to feel fresh.
Trenched takes place in a bizarro alternate history where two World War I veterans, Frank Woodruff and Vladamir Farnsworth, gain super-human intelligence and knowledge of advanced technology. The two put their newfound know-how to work in very different ways. After losing his legs in the war, Frank decided to create a series of mech-like machines known as "mobile trenches." On the flip side, Farnsworth created Monovision, allowing people to experience the world around them without even getting up from the couch. Sadly, Farnsworth is driven insane by this invention and creates an army of Monovision-based monsters. It's up to Woodruff's walking trenches (and a few brave soldiers) to make sure Farnsworth doesn't take over the world.
Those looking for real world parallels will get a kick out of the over-the-top story. The Monovision monsters (known from here on out as Tubes) are made out of televisions and Farnsworth's goal certainly feels like a metaphor for evils of the media. It's also worth noting that there's a fun little nod to Philo Farnsworth, who is one of the men credited for creating the television set. Double Fine is nothing if not topical.
Trenched is a lot more than your typical mech-style action game. Each of the fifteen levels plays out in roughly the same way, where our brave soldiers are asked to protect one (or more) base from wave after wave of Tubes. Thankfully the Tubes only come from a few directions, which is where the tower defense angle comes in. Each fallen Tube drops scraps which can be used to buy and upgrade "emplacements," which include gun turrets, health recharging stations and other helpful amenities.
Placing these emplacements is a breeze; you simply hold the left bumper button and release it on the surface you want turret to drop. This can be done before rounds, after rounds and even in the middle of a huge firefight. As long as you have collected enough scraps, you're free to do just about anything you want with these battlefield power-ups. But be careful, because Farnsworth has many different types of Tubes, including a few that can easily take out your emplacements.
Although the gameplay largely stays the same, Trenched finds a way to offer fifteen varied levels. In some stages you'll have to protect two bases at once, while in another you will have to defeat a wave and then rush to the other side of the map to locate another base (with its own waves of enemies). Sometimes all of the Tubes will be in front of you, other times they'll come from all sides. Even the Tubes themselves change over the course of the game, so you'll constantly be forced to change your strategy.
The reason this works is because of the massive amount of machine guns, grenade launchers, shotguns and more. Between the stuff you buy and the equipment you pick up on the battlefield, there's plenty of items to use on your mech. This may not be as deep as MechAssault or other hardcore mech simulators, but it doesn't have to be. You have your choice from dozens of legs, chassis, guns, emplacements and more. Heck, you can even customize what your brave soldier wears (though it has no actual impact on the gameplay).
Although you only have two attack buttons (the left and right triggers), you can assign a bunch of different weapons to each button. Instead of switching between the weapons, players simply shoot ALL of the weapons assigned to that trigger at once. At first this seems a little strange, but it ends up making sense by the end of the game. This means that you can assign a rocket launcher and a machine gun to the same button and both will fire simultaneously. The trick is to understand how each weapon acts and use it to its full advantage.
One thing I wasn't expecting was how frequently I needed change my mech's weapon layout. Each mission offers a few suggestions as what you should bring along, so I was constantly swapping between fast legs, strong chassis, slow powerful rockets and fast machine guns. I quickly learned that ignoring these suggestions left me woefully unprepared.
Although your mobile trench has a life bar, you'll rarely need to worry about it. Even when the levels become challenging (and they will), I rarely lost all my health. And even when the life bar drains completely, you still have the option to fix the mech (by mashing on buttons) and regain half your life back. The only downside to this is that you lose valuable time protecting the base. If you let the enemies damage too much of your base it's back to the USS McKinley to figure out what went wrong.
Even though the game can be played by yourself, Trenched makes a lot more sense with a few friends on your side. The game supports up to four people, which just might give you enough firepower to tackle all three theaters. Suddenly you're not the only one tossing down emplacements and shooting at the waves of Tubes, you finally have somebody watching your back.
When you're winning Trenched is one of the most fun games of the year, but it also has a tendency of being head-bursting frustrating. There were more than a few times when I made it all the way to the final wave only to concede victory to the Tubes. I'm normally fine with losing, but there's nothing worse than spending twenty minutes on a level to find out it was all for naught. The rage that comes with this (especially when it happens a couple times) is enough to make me never play another video game again. Of course, after the anger subsides, I'm back and ready for action. If you're the person that gets frustrated easily, then you won't want to play Trenched by yourself.
From a visual standpoint, Trenched is the best looking game Double Fine has released since Brutal Legend. Although you'll see a lot of similar landscapes and enemies, there are enough huge explosions to impress even Michael Bay. The bosses also look great, often taking up huge chunks of the levels. The style may not be as distinct as Stacking or Costume Quest, but I was blown away by what Double Fine was able to pull off.
Don't be fooled by the mechs and tower defense gameplay, this game is much more than the sum of its parts. The storytelling is top-notch, the control is smooth and it's a phenomenal co-op game for you and your friends. It could have been a little longer, but at $15 it's hard to complain too much. Leave it to Double Fine to develop the only tower defense game I actually cared about.