In a crowded genre, the right setting can elevate a game above all the other noise. In the case of Trenches, Steelkrill Studio takes the trappings of first-person survival horror and adds in the terrors of trench-based warfare in World War I-era Germany. It’s a match made in hell that serves up plenty of scares without downplaying the atrocities of war. The blend no doubt will attract its share of history buffs and horror fans alike but looking beyond its unique setting to the rest of the package, you’ll find a short horror game that will leave you frustrated.
Behind enemy lines, you enter the trenches in hope of finding a moment of peace. After stumbling upon a gruesome scene, you quickly realize the German’s are the least of your worries. Navigating the maze-like trenches, you’ll search for clues to what is going on and collect multiple baby dolls to help get you back home (like the pages from the original Slender). While collecting the dolls, players are hunted by a creature, hell bent on bringing an end to you. If you’re caught, you’ll be forced to restart your adventure through the trenches from the beginning. The game’s playtime is on the short side, but that doesn’t make it any less disheartening when you’re one baby doll away from finishing and accidentally stumble into the creature. The creature pursuing you can be lured away by throwing items and distracting them with the sound. You can also hide from them in poorly covered closets and under beds. These options, while nice to have, didn’t feel completely necessary. The creature is easy to avoid, if you’re paying attention and constantly moving.
The titular trenches are terrifying. The dull gray mist and the brown walls create a claustrophobic feeling that never goes away. The game does an amazing job of feeling creepy and creating anxiety every time you turn a corner. There’s a heavy emphasis on sound. The deafening blast of mortars and distant footsteps on a wooden surface are hair-raising. Even tools used to help in your adventure add to the looming feeling of dread. For example, your trench whistle, which you use to help locate baby dolls, also telegraphs your location to the creature. Not everything works perfectly sound wise, though. On a few occasions, blowing my whistle resulted in no baby doll cries to super faint ones. This led to going in circles in the trenches and occasionally getting lost. This is made worse by the fact that the environments are randomized and change as you explore the trenches. Back on the sound side, the levels do feel a little off. I had to turn up the sound to hear some faint noises, and in return would get ear blasted moments later with a jump scare.
The game isn’t afraid to mess with you and will do it every chance it gets. The jump scares are everywhere in Trenches; from something moving out of the corner of your eyes to unidentified sounds directly behind you. The game does not take its foot off the pedal. I found myself having to stop numerous times, because it all got to be just too much. It’s a short game, but its length starts to pad out if you take a breather after every other screech-filled jump scare. There are some bells and whistles around the gameplay to add to the overall atmosphere. Your character blinks, which adds more opportunities for jump scares and can be annoying, but thankfully it can be turned off. Players also have the options to turn off jump scares. Which I am mixed on. The game goes back to the well on jump scares a few too many times, but I am glad others will be able to experience the game without feeling like something could pop out at any minute. On the other end, the jump scares are one of the more creative sides of the game and work in tangent with the theme of war and trauma.
Another layer of horror is added in the form of photos and letters you can find throughout the trenches. An early photo depicts two German soldiers on the battlefield in gas masks. It’s your average wartime photo, but the eeriness of your current situation juxtaposed to the atrocities implied in the photo really put you in between a rock and a hard place. The photos also dive deeper into the protagonist’s time in the war and his life after. I won’t go into spoilers, but the ending rings that all too familiar message of war is hell, and you really feel that in the trenches.
Trenches is a terrifying entry in the first-person horror survival genre. Its setting is prime for some good horror and its themes are well represented by the game’s relentless effort to scare the combat boots off you. There are some frustrating design choices and players familiar with the genre may not find much new here to satisfy them, but if you like to get scared this is your game.