Monday, February 16, 2015

Greatest Thing of Anything: The Lost Tribe

Combine a group of bumbling caveman, a scheming backstabber, and leadership responsibilities. What do you get? An excellent and memorable video game, as it turns out.

The Lost Tribe, developed by Lawrence Productions, was released as a PC game in 1992. As a reviewer on Moby Games notes, it has a bit in common with The Oregon Trail. Like that classic game, The Lost Tribe makes the player responsible for safely leading a group of people on a long journey to a new home. Except in this game, you're in charge of two dozen cavemen instead of a smattering of Missourians.

The game opens with the cataclysmic eruption of a volcano. The disaster kills your tribe's chief and best hunters, leaving a group of unskilled survivors homeless. Your only hope is to make the trek to another volcanic paradise, the home of your ancestors. You have been selected as the new chief. It's up to you to plot a course to your new home, keep the tribe happy and fed, and deal with whatever crises might arise.

Looking out for the welfare of 24 people isn't exactly an easy task, and the game works to keep you on your toes. There are a lot of moving parts to keep track of as you oversee what the tribe will do each day.

First and foremost is food. Each day, you have to decide whether the tribe will get a full meal, skimpier rations, or no grub at all. Much like the oft-decried real world element of The Oregon Trail that lets you slaughter as many buffalo as you want but only take 200 pounds back to your wagon, The Lost Tribe limits the amount of food a person can carry to three shares apiece. Hunting and gathering is an everyday task, meaning you have to pay attention to the attributes of your area when deciding what animal to go after. Enough unsuccessful hunts and you'll have to assign people half rations or send them to bed without dinner, increasing the chance that they'll become unhappy.

Time is at a premium in the game, but any effort you can make toward improving your tribe's hunting skills will be rewarded. You can skip hunting if you have enough food, passing the day by having the tribe practice with their spears; the more you practice, the more experienced the tribe will get and the more likely they'll be to succeed on a hunt.

A troublesome tribe member, fittingly named Burgle, is waiting for any opportunity to usurp your position. If people get too unhappy or lack enough confidence in your leadership, you lose the game and he takes over. Though the game's educational component is limited to an encyclopedia about various animals and primitive cultures and such, it helps to browse it to find out where you're most likely to find certain prey. Go hunting for bears in the plains and Burgle will convince part of the tribe to hunt with him for bison instead; if he's successful, it's that much more of a blow to your leadership.

There's also the disquieting fact that you're setting out just a few months before winter. Once this season starts, it becomes harder to find animals to hunt or plants to gather.

As if all this wasn't enough, you'll also have your leadership tested constantly with random daily events. These range from serious (people growing weak from walking through the blistering heat) to silly (deciding who to vote for in the tribe's election for a "drain commissioner"). Many of these situations give you great advantages, including enormous quantities of food, if you answer correctly. If you make the wrong decision, you might lose supplies or even suffer the loss of a tribe member.

Getting to your new home is the only way to win, and there are plenty of ways to lose. Burgle might take over as chief and banish you. The tribe will abandon you if too many people die along the way. And if you keep the tribe's confidence but don't get to your new home before winter sets in, you're treated to a haunting end of game screen showing the tribe frozen in their steps and buried in snow.

The game works to keep the tone light and amusing, even if it does periodically remind you that you're figuratively responsible for the lives of a large group of people. A con man named Piltdown appears wearing fur shorts and a cheesy tie. The stick figure animations showing how the hunt went usually feature a humorous sequence, even if a member of the tribe is killed (one shows a hunter throwing a spear into a tunnel-like cave, only to be run over by a train that rockets out with a bear in the tender). There's even some suggestion that this isn't exactly taking place in a prehistoric era; in one scenario, the tribe comes upon the rusting hulk of a car and wonders what to do with it.

Incremental increases in difficulty keep the game interesting. Higher levels have little if any of the map filled in, forcing you to explore and look out for signs left by your ancestors to find your way to your destination. They'll also start you off with less food, unhappier tribe members, and fewer days until winter. If you can overcome all of the challenges, you'll be greeted with a triumphant victory screen and some classical music rendered in MIDI.

The Lost Tribe isn't perfect, of course. Though modern day reviews have been positive, there are also complaints about how much your leadership relies on clicking the mouse. You're only assigning tribe members to do things, so you'll be disappointed if you expect to take an active role in bringing down a boar.

Still, this game is an excellent challenge and well worth a play. Check it out over at Abandonia.

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