There are few school-day games as iconic as the Oregon Trail game. We all know the story: you put together your team, members of whom are generally named after your friends and family (this makes the experience more personal, devastating, and honestly hilarious). You select how much food and clothing you wish to take with you and how many animals will pull your wagon. Finally, you set off to fjord rivers and get dysentery. Your decisions will almost inevitably lead to the death of your loved ones. After the first few playthroughs, however, the game becomes trite, no longer about the stories and situations, but a cold, calculated numbers game in which you’re trying to make it to the end no matter what.
Orion Trail is a game that gives you this experience but on asteroids–ahem, I mean steroids–also, it was never meant to be educational. Orion Trail is a hilariously nonsensical space-age version of Oregon Trail and it wants you to know that and never forget it.
Choosing your Crew
You start the game with goofy pixel-art faces and silly names as you are invited to choose the officers of your crew. Would you like Alex “Soup” Campbell as your captain? Perhaps Shel’Don should be your Chief Engineer? Personally, I enjoy Percival Squiddlevoss and his goofy portrait and cool goggles. The characters are the first chuckle but will not be the last. However, you are also given the option to rename your characters at will. Perhaps that cool bear with purple hair is better suited to be called Your Bearness instead, or you should name her after your spouse, making her failures more visceral. What you cannot change, however, is the stats. No one character before you is any better or worse than the others, just different. That’s what makes choosing who to take with you all the more interesting.
While setting up your crew, you get the most control you will ever have in this game: choosing what kind of stats you want. There are five stats: Attack, Tactics, Diplomacy, Science, and Bravado. Each character will come with 2-3 points in different stats, and between all four officers you will have your crew’s combined skills. This poses a strategic question: Do you want to focus on a couple of skills? Or spread it evenly out across all of them?
With your officers in tow, you then have to equip your ship. You get 8 credits to spend on crew, food, fuel, and hull. Every leg of the journey costs food and fuel. Crew is literally the number of humans (think of them as Red Shirts from Star Trek–the game certainly does) on your ship. And hull is the strength of your ship. The way the game treats it (and is therefore how I imagine it) like it’s the layers of metal on the outside of the ship. You get to spend your credits to equip your expedition, and then you are off on your journey.
Here comes the meat of the gameplay. Every round consists of choosing where you want to go and accomplishing what is at the destination. It plays out sort of like a board game, but in this board game there’s always someone dying in a hilariously tragic way. The destinations usually have a task to complete or a challenge to be met. You get a little story and a few goofy cartoon-logic options–each with a skill you can utilize to carry out the action. At this point, the game turns into a prayer to the RNG gods. You make your choice, the base chance of success goes up by the number of points you have in the chosen skill, and you see a visual random number generator chart. It’s cute, funny, and suspenseful in the beginning, no doubt about it. I held my breath and cheered or booed the outcome for the several episodes we recorded this game over on Youtube.
The biggest thing this game has going for it is the humor aspect. At face-value you’re looking at cheesy grins, punny names, and a chiptune theme. The game plays sort of like a choose-your-own science fiction adventure, which, what more could you want? It’s very sarcastic tongue-in-cheek type humor which makes me think the developers are probably Douglas Adams fans. I loved the scenarios and the choices to be made, and I occasionally would choose something I wasn’t technically prepared for (no skill points for that option!) simply for the roleplay aspects. There is a bit of replay value, assuming you can get past the first level, simply to see the different adventures you can go on, team members you can recruit, and disasters you can find yourself in.
Of course, probably my favorite parts of this game are irony and endings. It feels like fate is always playing with you as you play this game. If you think you’re going to win, you’re likely to not, and vice versa. As I write this article, complaining bitterly in the next paragraph how difficult and luck-based the game is, preparing screenshots to display just how ludicrous the game is, I beat Mission 2 by the skin of my teeth. In the last few legs of the journey I epically failed a challenge, ran out of fuel, ran out of food (because I was found guilty of war crimes and slavery) while waiting for an SOS shipment of fuel, and lost half my crew to starvation. I have no idea how I managed to beat the mission. But the saving grace of this game is that somehow it will occasionally, against all odds, save your butt. Lastly, when you finish a mission it will show you a marquise of all of the deaths of your crew members and a summary of your decisions throughout your journey.
Unfortunately, I feel after a couple of hours this game quickly begins to grind. We managed to beat the first mission without problem–I did the same on my own later–but the second has stumped us. Therefore, I know what to expect. I know the challenge I’ll meet in the middle of the mission. I know that I will often happen upon floating memorials with Darwin’s Award level tombstones and either get boons or bad stuff. I know I will likely run low on one resource or another and strand myself… or blow my ship up. Or kill off my entire crew. But there are only so many scenarios in which people can horribly die. Only so many goofs and gaffs in the first couple of missions. Are there more later? Perhaps. Probably. Almost certainly. And maybe that’s the problem. There seems to be no real way I can get better at the game to progress. It’s all up to luck and chance, and they don’t shy away from telling you that. Sure, you can try to balance your resources better. Maybe you can gamble, and focus just on food and fuel. But I’ve never been much of a gambler. When a game has me glazing over reading the story for the sake of making better choices quicker, I know I’m probably done.
So my point is, the game is hilariously fun for the first few hours. And then it’s just… mostly fun. I definitely enjoy trying to get through, and I play a round or two on occasion when I don’t want to dive into something deeper. This is a very superficial experience, and that’s fine for what it is. It’s an Oregon Trail clone, but gruesome, goofy, and takes place in space. For $7.99 I don’t know if I would go charging headlong, but for half off I could definitely see it making a sale. It’s worth a couple hours of your time. Perhaps give it to a kid, or share it with someone who doesn’t expect much more than a roll of dice from a game.
You can find our gameplay of this on the Bingie Gingies YouTube page here.