Review: Orion Trail
It must have been an exciting moment for Schell Games when it first considered the idea of porting last year’s crowd-funded ‘choose your own adventure’ title, Orion Trail, to virtual reality. With work on the upcoming I Expect You to Die already under its belt, the team could brush aside the worries of the unknown and start to bounce around ideas about how this project – which in standard form pays tribute to 2D 8-bit art and specifically mimics the classic Oregon Trail – could be enhanced with the new technology. The results are surprisingly fitting, as Orion Trail is one of the Gear VR’s more unique and engaging titles.
If you haven’t caught the jist of it above, Orion Trail is a sci-fi experience in which players take on the role of a captain of a star ship, pick a crew of brave first-mates and others, then plunge into the depths of space, uncovering new planets and encountering a wide array of monsters and mayhem. If that sounds a bit like Star Trek to you, that’s because Orion Trail is paying just as much tribute to that beloved franchise as it is Oregon Trail, which shines through in every element of the project.
You might assume, having seen the original, text-heavy version of the title, that Schell Games would simply be placing players in a VR theatre to play it on a bigger screen. But that’s not strictly the case. Instead, the team has wisely chosen portions of the title to extract and bring to life in 3D, while animating the rest of the action in a far more engaging format. That virtual theatre, for example, resembles the bridge of your craft, and again deliberately resembles that of the U.S.S. Enterprise. You sit in the captain’s chair, which spins as you look around. There’s no question about who you’re meant to feel like here.
Just how much effort Schell Games has put into this port quickly becomes clear. At the start of every mission – in which players must journey from point-to-point on the way to a specific destination – you’ll pick your team. Brilliantly, these members will beam onto the bridge as they’re chosen, appearing as blocky, 3D interpretations of the characters you would have originally seen in 2D. It’s elements like this that really boost Orion Trail’s appeal, striking a note between parodying the early days of the franchise that inspired it along with a welcome sense of wish fulfilment.
There’s method to how you choose these characters, too. Each brings a certain amount of points to one of five different skills. These include Aggression, Tactics, Diplomacy, Science and Bravado. When you head into one of the many encounters that you’ll discover during a mission you’ll usually have to rely on at least one of these traits to get you out of a sticky situation. These encounters range from the traditional (alien invasions) to the ridiculous (dressing to impress a fashion-obsessed pirate) and each outcome will cost you one set of resources while giving you plenty more of another.
Success in encounters is determined by the ‘Probability Drive’, which offers a sort of ‘Wheel of Fortune’ take on your chances of victory. When you choose to act you’ll send off a marker that will travel around a set of tiles. When the marker stops, the title it lands on reflects the outcome of your choice. Landing on a tile with an image of a skull will mean the loss of many resources, but it’s possible to increase the number of winning titles depending on your ranking in the chosen category. Say there are ten titles and you choose to act using science with a ranking of three. You’ll have those three points added as additional tiles, increasing the chances of landing on a better space.
It’s an elaborate way of presenting a percentage-based success system, but it does instil a sense of tension as you eagerly watch for where the marker will land. There’s no sure way to guarantee success, and random encounters can add or subtract to your rankings at will. It can be frustrating not to have more control over some of the later missions, where it’s essentially a throw of the dice as to if you succeed or not, but it’s all part of capturing Orion Trail’s atmosphere, in which one bad encounter can leave you decimated.
Defeat comes with running out of resources. Food and fuel runs out as you travel, and crew and hull will deplete once you’ve run out. Maintaining a healthy balance is essential to survival, and you’re able to gaze down the branching paths of your mission in order to locate encounters that will supply the resources you’re most in need of. Again, the only real control a player has over this is ensuring that they have a balanced set of skills right from the start. From there, it’s simply a matter of luck as to how well you progress. It’s difficult to call Orion Trail a ‘strategic’ experience, then, and some will definitely be put off by this approach, especially in later levels where the odds are stacked against you.
But what depth the title lacks here is made up for in its charming personality. Orion Trail survives the spirit of sci-fi movie spoofs such as Galaxy Quest, never failing to entertain with its outlandish descriptions of events. Planetary visits include a trip to a Willy Wonka-inspired factory and a gladiator arena in which the final battle presents itself as a giant mound of ice cream. You won’t be killed by Klingons so much as giant turkeys, and you’ll lose skill points for not coming first in staff contests. All of this is to say that this is a wonderfully silly experience, which carries its limited mechanics and makes for something worth playing.
Orion Trail isn’t for everyone, then, but it stands as a distinct entry into Gear VR’s growing library that’s well worth checking out. It’s a great example of how a videogame you might not think would fit VR can be successfully ported to and even enhanced by the tech. It opens the door for plenty of other developer’s consideration and – hopefully – will serve as a catalyst for plenty more of these kinds of projects.