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App of the Day: Organ Trail: Director's Cut

24 trades later.

Of all the skills I pretend to be learning while gaming, resource management feels like the most credible. Organ Trail's punning title riffs on The Oregon Trail, a '70s game all about surviving a journey across the States by carefully husbanding what you have - and this iOS title transplants a similar set of mechanics into a zombie apocalypse. Hey, we're learning here.

First of all, this isn't the usual kind of zombie game that's done the concept to death. Organ Trail crafts a desolate, scary and often funny universe from its minimalist retro aesthetic. Its zombies are slow, walking or crawling green sprites that do nothing but gradually inch closer and closer to your character whenever they're around. You fight them from time to time, but only as a last resort.

Organ Trail is about getting from one end of a zombie-filled America to the other in a beaten-up station wagon. Four friends are along for the ride, whom you name at the start of the game - a rather crude trick for creating narrative meaning, because of course you name them after real-life mates, but one that adds a little spice regardless.

The writing throughout is great, especially the little nuggets offered up by travellers at your campfire. Apparently, dead children are rarely infected, so their meat's good.

The game is divided between travelling on the road and trading in towns. When in the car you travel between places with random incidents flashing up - anything from finding some ammo in an abandoned vehicle to one of your group being bitten by a zombie. This element of chance, where Organ Trail is most like its gaming inspiration, is the secret sauce.

You quickly figure out the basics: fuel and medkits are super-valuable, whereas food and scrap can be salvaged pretty much anywhere. Your station wagon is ever-deteriorating, so it's essential to keep spare tires, batteries and mufflers handy. But these carefully-husbanded reserves are at the mercy of fate.

Lose a battery on the road and you might have one spare left. Then you need it. You get to the next town and the Auto Shop wants $80 for another. You go scavenging and get injured, wasting medikits and losing half the haul. You end up selling ammo just to make sure you have that spare. Sod's law hits, and your current battery seems everlasting while the ammo stockpile dwindles ever closer to zero. Suddenly you're surrounded by a horde.

Organ Trail is great because its random elements change the priorities every time. The mini-games are simple one-screen affairs that are much smarter than they initially seem. Scavenging, for example, initially seems like a shooter, but you quickly realise it's all about avoidance and using as few bullets as possible. You start hoarding not for the sake of it, but because you've been down this road before and you know something is likely to be around the bend.

Fuel can be your biggest problem, because it's expensive and always going missing - breaking down between locations leaves you at the mercy of traders.

If there's anything wrong, it's that Organ Trail is perhaps a bit too easy to game once you've worked out how. On Hard, I came across an area where scavenging was easy, and the trader was willing to pay $3 per unit of food. So I scavenged for what must have been half an hour and rode out of there with a fat $400 stack, enough to buy gallons of fuel and medkits. But I kind of love that, too, because it's like learned behaviour. I was preparing for the worst while I could, rather than focussing on miles travelled.

And it's one of those games that's a pleasure to become familiar with, because the audio and visuals bring its retro aesthetic to vibrant life. Every time you touch the screen, there's a clunking mouse click. The tiny flourish of a few pink pixels on the odd zombie's head indicates they'll take two shots to go down. Sometimes when scavenging, the sombre and spooky chiptunes will begin as normal, before a few seconds in they're jarred out of the way by the rocking boss monster music. As you lose party members, there's one less sprite around the campfire.

Organ Trail is a great idea, and its execution moves it far beyond a grisly tribute act. It's not that any one of its elements is exceptional so much as the world they create together, a low-fi apocalypse that's freaky precisely because so much of it is left to imagination. It only takes a few hours to reach Safe Haven, if you're up to it. But you'll remember the journey for a lot longer.

App of the Day highlights interesting games we're playing on the Android, iPad, iPhone and Windows Phone 7 mobile platforms, including post-release updates. If you want to see a particular app featured, drop us a line or suggest it in the comments. For daily app coverage, check out our sister site Modojo.

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