As alternate universes become more popular in quasi-historical narratives, the shaky premises of many video games find some degree of comfort in the perpetual madness of historical fantasy. Even the latest string of comic-to-film adaptations play upon the harsh realities of history, and since video games aren’t typically regarded as seriously as cinema, perhaps they can be more easily forgiven.
Planting itself squarely in the outlandish field of satire, Trenched offers a fiction set in the ever-popular WWII era. Revolutionary technologies have birthed bizarre villains, as well as mechanically-enhanced heroes. Soldiers operate bipedal weapons platforms that give them an edge against the newest generation of foes. Trenched is essentially a mech warfare game set around the 1940s. The concept is silly and a little offbeat, but fortunately, the game knows better than to take itself too seriously.
The standards of an Xbox Live Arcade game are not the same as standard titles. The limitations of storage space and production values undoubtedly encourage the player to remain casual and lenient as to the presentation. I found the pilot’s animations distracting, as he switches rather jarringly between walking and running cycles. It is entirely possible that the silky-smooth animation of games like Mass Effect have spoiled me. Despite looking like something from the previous generation of Xbox, Trenched does offer a slick accompaniment of artwork and appropriately cheesy dialogue to enhance the faux-WWII feel of the game.
The accessibility of the gameplay will be a nice draw for audiences familiar with basic shooter mechanics. Your mech (or “Trench”) is tough, powerful, and surprisingly responsive given the supposedly early stages of this technology. Enemies spawn in waves, as we’ve all seen before--in fact, the game makes a point of notifying the player when these waves are coming. Your task is to defend key objectives from these enemies, which all appear to be inspired by organic creatures. Some resemble wasps, others look like angry kittens, and so on. You are also treated to a number of special bosses at the final moments of each mission.
Paradoxically, the mechanical mobility of your Trench is contrasted by these foes (called “Tubes”), which seek to dominate through “Monovision." There’s some not-so-subtle allusion here to the battle between television mind-control and freedom of physical action, built upon mind-boggling layers of technological quirkiness. Either I have yet to crack the depth of these metaphors, or the game is intentionally trying to mess with people's heads.
In any case, the combat is simplistic and familiar right down to the weapons. Machine guns allow peppering of a wide field of fire, while sniper canons emphasize long-range precision. What really sets Trenched apart from standard shooters is the inclusion of emplacements. These are essentially automated toys that can be deployed on the battlefield at the cost of scrap metal and include anything from destabilizing traps to sentry guns. Think of the Engineer class in Team Fortress 2, and you’ll get the picture. Scraps are collected as a reward for defeating enemies, though they must be collected with the use of a magnet before they vanish magically from the battlefield. Arranging your trinkets across the landscape and upgrading them with more parts keeps you busy in between battles, but the process is quick and easy. You’re miraculously free of frustration for the duration of the fight, and the emphasis is all on the fun.
The thoughtful design is actually visible in the user interface. It’s funny to think how many triple-A titles today rely on simple menus, despite efforts to doll them up with fancy animations and complex backdrops. With Trenched, your actions outside the combat zone still have you controlling your pilot on foot as he scrambles around the carrier deck to various points of interest. You can speak to your cigar-chomping CO to get briefed on an upcoming mission, linger in the communications center to “radio” for new teammates in multiplayer, or wander to your Trench to install various upgrades. Integrating all the basic components of the game in this home base location boosts the immersion. The conventional menus themselves are still present, of course, but they are clean and easy to work with--even the upgrade menus make sense after a few quick clicks. Full voiceovers with subtitles also enhance the tutorial without breaching the fourth wall. The combat dialogue gets a bit repetitive, but you can switch between several different pilots to mix things up.
In an era when plenty of games are struggling to do too many things at once, Trenched focuses on doing just a few, and doing them fantastically well. The balance of strategic RTS-like unit deployment, upgrade reward systems, and fast-paced action makes Trenched approachable yet unique enough to hold one’s interest. I could easily see future versions buffed up in full high-res graphics and selling like hotcakes. For the time being, Trenched is one of the coolest games ever to hit the Xbox Live Arcade.