Scene from a horror film: some poor schmuck approaches what they think is their friend, standing in front of them, turned away. “Ignatius, is that you? What’s the matter?” Closer… closer… closer still… they grab their their once-bestie by the shoulder and spin ‘em around only to reveal their pal’s now possessed/zombified/an obvious doppelganger with a goatee. Cue death.
Trial by Survival is this face-revealing turn inverted. What is, admittedly, a top-down, twin-stick zombie shoot em’ up (ugh), with an Ebaum’s-worthy arena mode (ugh) and freemium flim-flammery up the wazoo (ugh), is also… a confident, simple take on survival gaming. So I guess… uh, I guess I can put the ellipses away… (For now…)
As one of three functionally identical, visually similar post-apocalypse survivor-dudes (‘sup with no lady avatars?), Trial by Survival challenges you to last 14 in-game days in a world laid low by zombies. Or I guess they call them walkers here, too. You know, like in The Walking Dead. That TV show about zomb-
ANYWAY. Seems you pissed off the local post-apocalyptic survivor community and they have a surprisingly sophisticated criminal justice system. Now you’re out and about, traversing the woods, suburbs, and towns in your twin-stick fashion (left moves! right attacks! manna from Heaven!), just getting by. You’ve largely done this before, though there is a neat bit where you can hold still and aim your axe or gun for bonus damage. Feels nice, that.
If this sort of action is all you need to get your particular juices juicin’, then you’ll love Trial by Survival’s Arena Mode, where hordes of [AMBULATORY SEMI-DECEASEDS] will do their whole “run at you in a straight line” thing while you circle-strafe around. Then again, you’ll probably also enjoy, well, every other game that’s done that exact same thing.
Go figure, it’s Trial by Survival’s survival mode that stands out. Over your fourteen-day exile, you must choose where to travel, where to scavenge, what to build and when to fight. The immediate vicinity around your fellows’ enclave is all dark wood and long-abandoned low-density housing (plus one military bunker, all the way across the map, for champs). Each day is spent either traveling from one location to another, scavenging at your current locale or fighting off a horde you may have run into.
Trial by Survival captures the act of scavenging–particularly scavenging in a zombie apocalypse–so well that you may find yourself at a loss for what other titles, triple-As included, comes close to it in the supplies gathering department. It’s simple: gears are used to build up your armor (which doesn’t regenerate on its own, ever) and craft new, better weapons. You’ll need those weapons if you want to survive for two weeks. These lifesavers are gathered from semi-frequent supply crate drops, or more reliably by breaking down the abandoned buildings which dot the landscape. It’s not exactly searching cupboards and safes–an abstraction, really, but an effective one. You’re all alone, thwacking away at a shelf, collecting the gears, feeling pretty great about yourself, when suddenly a gaggle of zeds (who seem to be attracted by noise? or maybe I’m just paranoid? or both?) burst through the doors, the windows, the goddamn walls, and ignobly slaughter you in the corner before you can even draw your gun. Classic stuff.
Those are the elements that Trial by Survival trades in: scavenging, guns, permadeath and the accrual of XP, which lets you buy traits–stuff ranging from increased pickups to hollow-point ammo to certain types of damage immunity. The word that comes to mind quickly–and one that I’ve been holding off from using–is “roguelike,” and it’s in the particulars of that genre where we see Trial by Survival, much like the shamblers that populate it, start to pale.
It’s just not big enough. As much as I appreciate the challenge, permadeath alone does not a roguelike make. Honestly, the main game isn’t that hard. An afternoon or two’s worth of effort, at most.
Some variation could lengthen that playtime, but, again, Trial by Survival doesn’t have much. Roguelikes are tough games where the fun comes from having a wealth of choices and still being unsure if any choice is the right choice. Trial by Survival never feels like it has wrong moves, only good moves versus better (more expensive) ones. It’s simple in some regards (which is nice), but oversimple in others (which is sub-okay). There are only a handful of weapons, and many of the traits are similar. Further still, the price point for the higher tiers of gats rises so quickly that I’d be surprised if the average player will get past using the regular ol’ revolver, pistol, and rifle which sit at the low end of the death-dealing spectrum.
Of course, you could spend real cash money to buy a survival pack and start the game with a gun, but you don’t need to. For a freemium game which never lets you forget that it wants you to buy shit, Trial by Survival is real bad at pushing the sale. The most egregious violation is a “nights are getting longer” schtick; the time between one day’s end and the next morning gets longer as your run goes on, but can be shortened if you agree to watch commercials for a garish panoply of godawful looking apps. Dragon Tamer Diamond Quest, that kind of thing. But, there is a reasonably-priced in-app purchase that makes the game’s freemium-ness go away: no timers, no TV commercials, nothing.
Fact is, Trial by Survival is just a little too lean to sit in the roguelike camp. True, on my last day, fighting through a horde to get back home, I felt the exhilarating panic that only comes with playing a game where death really matters. That alone makes this title worth a pickup. But a second run-through? Well, after a few shocks, you start to see those face reveals coming.