Trenched: an in-depth review

Trenched is a third-person shooter crossed with tower defense brought to us by the brilliant developers of Double Fine (the studio behind Stacking, Brütal Legend, and the cult-classic Psychonauts) and released over the Xbox Live Arcade. I don’t entirely know why I’m telling you this, because you should have at least downloaded and completed the trial by now. Seriously, download the trial; you should have plenty of time to read before it finishes downloading.

Set in a stylized WWI environment, Trenched puts players in command of a dieselpunk monstrosity called a “Mobile Trench,” a walking combat platform. These Treches are used to combat the game’s enemy, the “Tubes,” electronic monsters created from what are essentially televisions. There is some plot in there, but it’s mainly to slip in some jokes here and there and, I can’t believe I’m saying this, isn’t that necessary to enjoying the game.

Gameplay

The meat of the actual gameplay consists of using your Mobile Trench to protect one or more objectives per stage from several waves of various kinds of Tubes. To do this, you have two basic sets of tools: Trench mounted weaponry, and deployable “Emplacements” which can be anything from a shotgun turret to a resource collecting magnet. If any of the pesky Tubes make it past you and your Turrets, they will deal damage to whatever structure you’re assigned to protect until you stop them. Some stages have multiple objectives, and if any one of them is destroyed, the level is lost. Your Trench also has a health bar, but it’s largely unnecessary as you get back into the action with just a quick, easy button press sequence. The exceptions to this are the boss levels; you have nothing to protect (your goal is to destroy the boss), so the fail condition is losing all of your health.

Customization

While the gameplay boils down to what is essentially third-person tower defense, the full depth of the game comes from the extreme amount of customization available. At the heart of any Trench is the chassis. There are three basic types to choose from: assault, engineering, and standard. Assault chassis have the most weapon slots and armor available at the cost of a slow speed with few emplacement options. The engineering chassis is at the opposite end of the spectrum; quick, low armor, favors emplacements over Trench-mounted weapons. The assault chassis is The Mario, offering a good middle ground. After picking your chassis, you still get to pick a set of legs (with abilities such as sprint, quickload, and slam), up to six weapons (from categories like machine guns, grenade launchers, and sniper rifles), and up to four emplacements (light, heavy, and support turret categories). Even after picking all those options you still have the cosmetic options of a hat and outfit for your marine and a paint job for your Trench.

There are more than 22 chassis, 10 legs, 40 weapons, 34 emplacements, as well as many hats, outfits, and paint jobs. This all means that you can have your Trench exactly the way you want it: extra Trench weaponry if you feel like taking the Tubes on third-person shooter style, or additional emplacements if you want to play the game more like true tower defense. If you’re not sure what the best options may be for a particular stage, don’t worry; the game makes suggestions for you before you deploy. You can either take the game’s advice, or go with a configuration that you’re more comfortable with. Or, if you’re feeling extra tactical, you can coordinate your load-out with your friends, which brings me to my next point…

Multiplayer

Trenched offers up to four-player cooperative gameplay over Xbox Live, both with friends and using a matchmaking system. The game can be quite challenging going it alone, and this ability to jump into any of the levels with a group really makes things more enjoyable. As with any multiplayer game (and especially games that attempt to be purely cooperative), there can be problems. One big one is the simple act of picking a stage. There’s no voting process; one player picks, and any other player can re-pick at any time. This can make for some major frustration when you’re trying to play with anyone that you don’t know. Another problem is the “ready” system; after a stage is selected, as soon as one player finishes making changes to their Trench, all other players have 60 seconds to finish customizing their own, and (as far as I have been able to tell) there is no way to stop this timer once it has started. If they don’t finish in time, the game starts automatically, even if your Trench hasn’t been fully outfitted. Finally, if you find yourself in a group of players that you don’t like, leaving is not a simple task, either. You can’t just back out to a single player game, you have to exit all the way to the title screen. These issues are mainly artifacts of the game’s hub-world system which normally works well and fits the feel of the game, but I think a more standard 2D menu could have been implemented for online play which could have allowed for map voting, a better ready system, and an easier way to find new players.

Even with all the bad things I have to say about multiplayer, it is also one of the best parts of the game. When you get a good group that knows their strengths and commits to specific roles, it can make you feel invincible; there’s nothing more satisfying then facing down a boss with three friends and watching its health meter just disappear. And if you’re thinking of avoiding matchmaker sessions, don’t! It may not always work out, but whenever you team up with another player online, they become part of your regiment. Once there, the game will track their stats, even after you’ve stopped playing with them, and use their progress to help you unlock extra weapons, chassis, etc.

Conclusions

I really enjoyed Trenched. It’s a wonderfully polished little game that offers a challenging single player experience (at times, exceptionally so) and rollicking good fun with friends. It’s packed with excellent humor (the Saxton Hale-esque “Über Manly” magazine cover cutscenes stand out as an example), interesting weapons, well designed maps, and on top of all that, it’s just a pretty game. I try not to talk about looks in a game too much, but just, well, take a look for yourself:

Yeah! I know! Astounding, right? Here, take a look at another one:

So basically what I’m saying is that it looks good, and it plays well. In my opinion, its only real shortfall is its length. I beat the game solo in less than four hours, and finished off all 20 achievements in another few. I’m not saying this is bad for a $15 game; to the contrary, that’s more than I’ve come to expect from many other XBLA titles. It does, however feel like they could have done more with what they have. Once you’ve beaten a level a couple times, you’ll learn the best load-outs and turret placements for each level. I think the game could have benefited from an endless hoard mode like most online tower defense games that I’ve played have. This would have given it that little extra bit of replay value to make me feel like I really got my money’s worth.

My final recommendation: if you like tower defense games and want a good, difficult game to play by yourself or with friends, Trenched may just be what you’re looking for.

Trenched is currently available on the Xbox Marketplace for 1200 MSP.

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About minrice

I'm a 22-year-old kid from Wisconsin and the webmaster/"tech ninja" here at Nerd Vice. My earliest gaming memories are of the Atari and games like Pitfall, Sea Wolf, and Breakout. Nowadays, I've expanded my repertoire to include pen and paper RPGs (think D&D), science fiction movies and television (Doctor Who is a favorite), and all things technological.