With its colourful pixel art and obvious ties to Star Trek, Orion Trail by Schell Games stood out to me on the Steam Greenlit list. The game has been touted as a “science fiction space adventure” done in the style of a Oregon Trail game. Instead of a covered wagon crossing rivers you’re a ship hurtling across the galaxy, attempting to avoid destruction and chaos, or causing it.
In a rare move by the developers, they’ve actually released a demo that you can download and play. This is great, because images and marketing spiel can only tell you so much about a game. Demos used to be commonplace, but now people hide behind the guise of “Early Access“, which we all know just means “Paid Demo“. Note: I’m over-generalising of course, please don’t crucify me. Some Early Access game devs actually listen to their audience.
I fired up the short demo and flew some of the missions they had to offer. Every new game gives you the choice of 1 of 3 random captains, 1 of 3 random ships, and 3 of 9 random officers. It would appear that the missions you choose at the start are also generated, each of the 3 to choose from with an end-goal usually consisting of “have as much of #RESOURCE# as possible at the end of the game”, with the resources being food, fuel, crew, and hull. Fuel and food tick down continuously, while crew and hull are lost and gained through events.
The game’s core mechanic appears to be similar to games like Dungeons & Dragons, where you roll a dice and apply a modifier depending on skill level. The skills in Orion Trail are broken up into Offense, Tactics, Diplomacy, Science, and Bravado. Each captain, ship and crew come with a set of skills that pool together to result in your collective skill level. The dice roll in Orion Trail is also a d20, which strengthens the D&D influence.
As your ship traverses the galaxy from point START to point END (in Star Trek ‘continuing mission’ style, they’re always mid-journey), you’ll hit a series of random events. Judging strictly from the demo all random events use the same structure. An event is presented to you with an accompanying piece of gorgeous pixel art (or placeholder), and you’re given three choices, each corresponding to a skill level. The choices also give you a small idea of what resource risk/reward is at stake. Sometimes it’s a choice where you lose food but gain crew, a choice where you gain fuel but lose nothing, or sometimes a “lose random / win random” option. You make a choice, the dice rolls (in the form of a ship’s panel), the skill is added, and you win or lose the challenge depending on an unknown target number you may or may not have hit. The entire system is a little too random for my liking and I found myself not really caring what option I chose unless I really needed a resource. Your collective stats are also affected by more extreme dice rolls. Royally mess up a challenge and you’ll find yourself losing stat points, making future rolls harder. The flipside also applies, with a strong roll resulting in a stat increase. The Kickstarter campaign also promises Away Missions, to change it up a bit. I look forward to seeing that progress.
The challenges themselves are great. I love the writing and the art, and everything has this tongue-in-cheek style about it. You can tell Schell Games are old sci-fi fans, because every trope you can think of is pandered to in a delightfully cheesy homage. The ship’s computer may become self-aware, or a cosmic being of an indescribable nature desired to be appeased like a living god.
As stated before, the game seems a little too random in its current state. Which means you can either have a really fun run, or a terribly frustrating one. A game I played ended after I succeeded every event, but not a single result gave me food, which I desperately needed, and my crew starved. Another mission had a similar result when I needed fuel but there was no option to increase it, only lose it. I’d like to see smarter events coupled with the random happenings. If you’re low on a resource hit me up with a challenge to either gain a lot of it, or die. It would make me feel a little more in control of my ship as opposed to watching the burger icon tick down to zero. I want to fail on my terms when a resource hits zero, even if the odds are against my crew, like a pinball machine second chance ball.
The art is pixel art, because every indie game is pixel art. But I freaking love pixel art, if my website name wasn’t a give-away. The quality is solid too. Animations of the crew and the ship are fluid and funny, and the game brings its own unique style.The music is also top notch, and has been purposefully downgraded to give it that retro feel. I do enjoy selecting a captain and hearing a muffled semi-robotic catch phrase. Feels like an old DOS game from the early 90s.
I’m not sure if the developers have looked into it, but because of the quick nature of the game where a full run usually lasts under a few minutes, this game would do extremely well on mobile. The perfect game to play while waiting for the train, or on a short break from work. It’s a coffee-break game, and that isn’t a bad thing. Some of my favourite games I’ve spent hours on are considered short coffee-break games.
Orion Trail is fun and fast, with a massive chunk of replayability value and plenty of room for expansion into the little universe Schell Games have created. The art is brilliant and the music brings forth a swell of nostalgia for both 8-bit games and classic sci-fi. If they can just turn the ‘random’ dial just a little bit back that’d be great.