This first-person psychological horror sounds far more meaningful than its peers. Conceptually, at least. It’s intended to highlight the horrors of war, with a special focus on life within WWI trenches. Being trapped in No Man’s Land while in cramped and unsanitary conditions is definitely one of the more harrowing settings imaginable. And while the subject has been touched on in the past, such as in the excellent 11-11 Memories Retold, it isn’t something we’ve seen a whole game dedicated to.
The development team reportedly used the movie 1917 as their primary inspiration. You can imagine my surprise, then, to discover that the experience is largely Pac-Man in first person. The trench network with its copious identical corridors is the maze, the hapless protagonist is Pac-Man himself, collectible items replace the fruits, while the AI ghost that stalks your every move is…the ghost. All the while, jump scares lie around every corner. Quite literally.
The variety of shocks ‘n scares is impressive. Corpses fall from above, boxes and barrels topple over, insects crawl across the screen, sinister-looking children appear and vanish – there are a good twenty or so examples. At one point, I noticed that our hero’s shadow had become a skeleton, which genuinely took me by surprise. Some scares are a little contrived, though, such as those involving mannequins. All this effort is also undermined by the fact that there’s nothing in the way of tension – scares are so frequent that you can guarantee another will occur within the next thirty seconds.
The ultimate goal is to find and collect nine (uh…) fetuses while avoiding the grasp of a large gangly, and slightly phallic, ghoul. Not exactly ground-breaking gaming material, but there is some tact to the proceedings. The sound design is notable – the fetuses cry when you’re near, with their cries becoming louder as you approach. If you play while wearing headphones or a headset, I think you’ll have an advantage. The monster’s scream is genuinely horrifying too. A whistle amplifies the cries, but it’s at the risk of summoning the monster. Running on floorboards will also aggravate them.
After running from the fiend, it can take a good five minutes to backtrack where you originally were due to the trenches being so indistinguishable. It’s very easy to become lost, which I presume was deliberate. It’s also possible to hide, but the hidey-holes are so sporadically placed that you can’t guarantee one will be near. It doesn’t help here that the vast amount of fog can make the monster hard to see.
Adding to these woes, if the monster catches you, all progress is lost. That’s to say, you’re back to the beginning of your quest. Again, this seems to be a deliberate “feature” that only serves to extend the runtime to over an hour.
The use of diary entries and photographs shows that the developers did try to highlight the horrors of the trenches, but the insane amount of jumpscares and the fact that it can be likened to a first-person maze game definitely makes the experience feel too heavy-handed. I can see it appealing to streamers – especially those who like to greatly exaggerate every shock and scare – but I can’t see it amassing many fans outside of that group.
Steelkrill Studio’s Trenches is out 20th Jan on consoles. It first launched on PC in 2021.