America - Front
America - Back
By Lee Mehr 17th Feb 2023 | 3,542 views
A title like Trenches for a WWI-era game tacitly promises a visually-austere and repetitive experience. Steelkrill Studios essentially being run by one man reinforces that expectation. Given the setting, such limitations could beneficially reinforce its horror design intentions. Beginning in this fog-shrouded world staring at a family photo, a hastily-dug trench guides you in one direction. You’ll eventually happen upon a cozy little bunker, but the backdoor is locked. After traversing a bit more, happening upon a key, and seeing semi-translucent photos flicker in your eyes, you enter a greater series of intertwined trenches and a baby's screams are heard nearby.
It's cut from the same cloth as Slender: The Eight Pages’ collect-a-thon template, and the surrealist quality and rapid-fire body horror displays of Bloober Team’s Layers of Fear series. It’s an approach that congeals with the abstract narrative. Inspired by a real-life story, you step into the mud-covered boots of James R., a soldier sent behind enemy lines. With seemingly everyone else in his squad dead, you have to find a way out of the labyrinth with your sanity intact – or as intact as one could hope.
Its Slender inspiration comes from having to collect dolls scattered within narrow pathways. Recall the screaming baby mentioned earlier; even though the dense fog within the trenches prevents seeing anything more than five feet ahead, you’ll quickly happen upon the origin of the sobbing sound next to a trail of intestines and blood-tipped directions against a trench wall. Having found the first of nine baby dolls (because eight would be too obvious), you now have to rely on your senses and air whistle to track down the rest. But you have to be careful, since a patrolling flesh monster is drawn towards loud noises like said whistle or sprinting across wooden platforms.
Had Trenches followed through on that conceptually, said repulsive beast could’ve captured similar magic to Resident Evil 2’s Mr. X; one of the best audio designs here is its noisy stride, heightening its dubious proximity to you. Instead, the execution is just this vacillating difficulty between non-threatening and unfair. Aside from a decently-tense moment or two, I casually eluded its patrol and eventually knew it’d never come to the eastern half of the map; it’s like this thing wasn’t designed to go over there. On the rare chance it was alerted, the pre-designated “hiding spots” didn’t really help, since he just waited until I came back out and snatched me. And since a Game Over screen resulted in the punitive punishment of losing everything, the monstrosity just felt like a noisy nuisance.
Nuisance is the rule rather than exception with everything else. It’s especially annoying when you consider the setting too. Initially, there’s a decent attempt at atmosphere-building with its winding network and dense fog, yet it always falls back to being a rote conveyor belt of jump-scares. Steelkrill treats them like an impatient child desperate for attention. Its vacuous excesses eventually spurn such a mild reaction to the point of boredom or comedy. One of my favorite examples is a boy magically appearing on the other side of a trench’s peep-hole for a brief second and… seemingly burping before vanishing again. Hell, so much of the audio – especially screams – seems like it was recorded from a choppy USB mic at the bottom of a well.
I stress that I’m mentally categorizing this as ostensibly a one-man show, which I think earns some respect. So, it’s not fun to bring up such stumbles like poor audio (sometimes to comedic effect), but when the default experience hinges on scripted jolts it becomes impossible to ignore. It’s true there is a separate mode removing jumpscares, but that just devolves into stumbling upon basic “spooky” asset-flips and a monster typically out to lunch. The annoying papercuts also pile up with its general playability too. I never found a satisfying horizontal/vertical sensitivity setting, key binding backpack items to the d-pad never worked, the Sun's egregious lens flair, and other annoyances quickly pile up, even for its ephemeral 0.5-1 hour runtime.
Within the murky and claustrophobic maze are elements that infrequently tease genuine horror – both from experience and implication. Outside of that one photo of the playable soldier at the beginning, the only other defining feature is his armless skeletal form when seeing his shadow. The horrors of war, hopelessness, loss, and suicide are thrown into this macabre vat, alongside the inspired story of a WW1 officer, which is juicy first-draft material. It brushes up against potent themes, but treats them more like a grab-bag of stuff to throw at the wall and see what sticks. Like the jumpscare assembly line, the way it briefly toys with these topics feels artistically irresponsible.
While I try to give due obeisance to any solo developer juggling so many disparate tasks, I still have to consider the inherent value of the work itself. That’s where I find Trenches incredibly lacking. From presentation to design, any neat little feature feels buried by everything else. Eventually, the rapid-fire approach to scares suggests it's a means of keeping you awake instead of building quality tension. I can appreciate strapping popular indie horror game templates to The Great War, but when my overriding thoughts vary from boredom to unintentional laughter then appreciation can only go so far.
Contractor by trade and writer by hobby, Lee's obnoxious criticisms have found a way to be featured across several gaming sites: N4G, VGChartz, Gaming Nexus, DarkStation, and TechRaptor! He started gaming in the mid-90s and has had the privilege in playing many games across a plethora of platforms. Reader warning: each click given to his articles only helps to inflate his Texas-sized ego. Proceed with caution.