Review: Trapped!

By Kelsey Rinella 11 Sep 2013 0
Luckily, the two aliens in my way have no interest in that last escape pod--they're just waiting for the Buck Rogers treatment. The escape pod: always in the last place you look. Unless you don't find it.

Lemonade GameLabs' Trapped! for iPad adapts much of the dice-rolling gameplay of Elder Sign (which is essentially Lovecraftian Yahtzee) to an imminently exploding alien spaceship setting and real-time play. There's a unique exploration element, and the devs have subbed out Cthulhu and subbed in the Grey aliens from Unsolved Mysteries.

You roll five dice, and use the results to move (you're trying to find a randomly-placed escape pod), place new rooms, shoot aliens, and pick up artifacts which help you launch the escape pod before time runs out and the ship explodes. That alone will be enough for many readers to rule it out as too random, or pique their interest enough to give it a whirl. A game modelled on Elder Sign will have a lot of interesting choices in it -- but how well does that design hold up when you're playing it in real time?

The short answer is: incompletely. One of the interesting dynamics in Elder Sign is the balance of preparation against progress. You can spend a lot of time on easy tasks which help you fill up your arsenal, or you can attempt more challenging ones which will move you closer to victory, but leave you depleted even if you succeed. In the limited time you have to accomplish your goal in Trapped, there isn't an opportunity to inspect cards and weigh options with many relevant traits, so this dynamic is mostly absent. Exploring is faster than picking up artifacts, but every artifact is equally difficult to acquire and has exactly the same effect, and the exploration options differ in relatively minimal ways. The rooms you explore don't have much of an identity; there are a number of doors and an artifact (or not), but they lack a distinct character. Knowing that the next room is going to be just another generic steel box saps most of the fun out of the exploration.

Part of what makes Elder Sign compelling is that it conveys an atmosphere of adventure. If the gameplay ever becomes shallow, you can enjoy the thought of Moneterey Jack (totally not Indiana Jones) dispatching a cultist with his trusty revolver, or resorting to half-understood ancient tomes to guide him. Trapped is both shallower and less effective at building a narrative or distinctive setting. Envisioning stabbing an eldritch horror on a bridge over a peaceful Koi Pond is far more satisfying than walking into yet another grey room on a nondescript spaceship. Trapped tries to make up for the generic flavor of its world with the frantic pace of play which conveys a little of the theme in itself: you're desperately seeking an escape while running short of oxygen, after all.

Exactly the sort of situation in which I start getting paranoid about probability. A good situation--I'll probably get off the ship before Cthulhu eats it.

Learning to play a real-time game feels more like developing a skill than learning a set of facts. Most of what I see as Trapped's sins are natural results of this real-time nature, which has some appeal even to me. I would particularly like to see the multiplayer take off; panicking with others is often highly amusing. There don't seem to be a lot of opponents available for random games yet, so you'll probably need to make a date with a friend to experience it.

Trapped has some simple push-your-luck elements and tile-placement choices, and some tactical decisions to make about how to manage your die rolls. Time is so valuable that you're better off not thinking too much, though; greater depth would detract from the frantic feel. All the frustrations of being entirely reliant on dice are present, and when you're trying to get that last die to come up with a ray-gun, it can be hard not to wonder how you offended the gods. But Trapped can speed your heart rate while satisfying your desire to roll some dice and do some quick thinking, which puts in quite a distinctive niche.

Review: Trapped!

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