Approaching Horde!

by CRAIG RUDDELL

2022

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A real-time, mechanic-heavy management game (with zombies), November 22, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2022

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp).

I played Approaching Horde right after One-Way Ticket, a game that wore its art-house pretentions proudly, so it was nice that the Comp randomizer gave me something far more populist as a change of pace – Approaching Horde Exclamation Point is an old-fashioned zombie B-movie, with desperate survivors of an undead uprising scrambling to survive a surprisingly math-heavy apocalypse. It took me a minute to get a bead on the game, I confess. There’s a linear introductory section that’s jokey, but wordy and repetitive (“As you relaxingly try to watch your favorite TV channel from the comfort of your couch, you notice more gunshots than normal ring out in the neighborhood this evening for some reason,” is one of the first sentences, followed quickly by “At first the gunshots don’t even bother you as it’s fairly normal for this neighborhood”) – it also glosses way, way too quickly over the fact that you start your undead-fighting career by punching your never-named spouse to a second death.

The dodgy writing quickly falls by the wayside, though, since once you’re in the meat of the game there’s very little of it. The intro concludes with you assuming command of a group of 10 people, and as the game proper begins, you’re confronted with a table interface allowing you to assign them to one of a half-dozen tasks, from farming to scavenging to researching, all of which work basically as you’d think – you need to balance feeding your survivors with recruiting new members of the group and building new fortifications. Complicating things, though, everything plays out in real time – there are sliders in the left sidebar that tick up to show your progress in each job, moving more rapidly as you assign more people to each task. The cherry on top is that this isn’t a sandbox, because there’s a giant undead horde approaching – er, spoiler warning for those who didn’t read the title – and in twenty minutes, they’ll steamroll your group no matter what preparations you’ve made, unless you’ve managed to dig an escape hole, or research a cure for the zombie plague, in time.

As a demonstration of how a tower defense slash idle game can work in Twine, I’d rate the game as pretty successful. As an overall experience, though, I’m more mixed. Partially this is because despite the cleverness of the gameplay hacking, for a game using an IF authoring system and entered into an IF competition, the writing is fairly minimal – once you’re in the game proper you mostly just get functional one-line updates as your survivors complete each piece of work, and it’s hard to get too excited about reading “your farmers just harvested 6 food from farms!” even once, let alone the thirtieth time (there are ending vignettes, of course, but they don’t meaningfully improve on the opening).

Partially, though, this is because I didn’t find the gameplay itself all that compelling. Ideally managing this paltry remnant of humanity would feel like a desperate exercise in plate-spinning, trying to balance short-term needs like food and the immediate threat of zombie patrols with the need to make long-term investments in research and infrastructure, with the horde serving as a final test of your decision-making prowess. In practice, though, the game was both too hard and too easy: too hard, because the twenty-minute deadline means that faffing about exploring your options will almost certainly mean you’ll run out of time with your victory conditions only half-completed, and too easy, because at least on normal, many of the tasks you can do, like attacking zombie patrols and finding new guns, seem mostly unnecessary and a simple strategy of booming your economy for the first ten minutes (getting to the survivor cap of 50 as quickly as possible, and researching farm tech to minimize the workers you need to maintain that population) then pivoting to cure research for the last ten (which also requires you to capture some zombies for study, admittedly) allowed me to win handily, barely touching the survivor assignment buttons for the last seven minutes, on my second try.

I don’t mean to be too harsh here – getting this system up and running was surely a challenging bit of programming, and the kind of difficulty-tuning it’d take to make the gameplay sing is typically the end result of repeated stages of testing and refinement, which is a lot to ask of a solo developer making a free game and facing a hard deadline. It’s mostly just a shame, because it seems like it’d be fun to explore some of the deeper mechanics here on offer, like searching for unique items, reactivating the radio tower, and training guards’ marksmanship, but the game as implemented seems to punish you for messing about with that stuff rather than mechanically zeroing in on a victory condition. Hopefully there’ll be a post-comp version that takes advantage of seeing how a bunch of players navigate the challenge to make some tweaks – and maybe revises the intro and ending vignettes to be punchier (er) and hit a more consistent tone.