Tribal Pass has one of our favourite button prompts in a game. Pressing the Y button forces your tribe of cavemen to eat each other. It has a ‘cannibalise’ button! How good is that?
It’s not the only threat facing your little group. As it turns out, being a caveman is pretty hazardous. There are sabre-tooth tigers, woolly mammoths, terror birds, quicksand, pestilence, sudden drowning, death by other tribes, and so much more. You will be lucky to keep a caveman alive for more than sixty seconds, so life expectancy isn’t so hot.
Tribal Pass is an endless runner at its core. You control your tribe of neanderthals as they run from the top of the screen down. While you don’t have control over their speed, attacks or things like jumping, you can use the trigger buttons to form them into differently distributed groups. You can split them into two, then three, then four, and each time you are shuffling them to different parts of the screen. A tiger is sitting in the middle of the screen? Well, split into two and it might sit between them. Berry trees on the sides of the screen? Split into four, and the two groups on the left and right will pluck a few for you.
You will be using the split and regroup mechanic to avoid hazards and to collect stuff needed to survive, since Tribal Pass is not only an endless runner; it has some survival mechanics too, as you look to keep a food bar topped up. But it’s not as simple as grabbing the odd deer or crop as you run past: your tribe has to be armed correctly. With a press of a button, you can order your grunts to wield spears, which enable them to hunt animals, or you can keep their hands empty to harvest plants. Time these wrong and they’ll come out empty-handed, and your food meter will continue to tick down. Night occasionally falls, too, so you will need to press X to wield torches, so that you have an idea of what’s coming.
If your health runs down to zero, then that’s where our favourite button comes into play. You can eat someone in your tribe and refill some food, but this will obviously trim down your numbers. On the flip, you can recruit tribes-people if you have enough food, padding out those numbers. Your eye will occasionally track over to your food pool, wondering when you’ll nibble on a family member next.
And people will die. All the time. There’s no stopping it, really, as rhinos are big enough to fill most of the screen, food levels drop at a ridiculous rate (running is hungry work, it seems) and – generally – Tribal Pass does cruel and unexpected things to you. If you get to the end of a run, which is no mean feat, then you are zoomed out to a world map, and you can choose which area to run through next (with some details about what the area offers, or doesn’t offer), as well as apply a couple of buffs in the form of green and red tokens, giving you more food and people respectively.
To add to the endless running, survival and resource mechanics, Tribal Pass completes the genre-bingo by being a rogue-lite too. You’re not going to complete the game on your first run. You are meant to die, and learn, and die some more. Your aim is to beat personal bests and find regions that you haven’t reached before.
In our case, we blundered through Tribal Pass. It’s an unrelenting and unfriendly game, and it expects you to buck up your ideas to make anything like progress. For our tastes, it was too unfriendly, particularly in the opening hours of play, and it may be enough to drain you of patience. Be warned.
There’s a few reasons for this. The rules of what kills you are almost completely arbitrary. Fires and enemies will kill you if you have a small tribe, but will be defeated if you have a big one. But the line between small and large is fuzzy at best, so you’re never clear whether you’re sufficiently armed. The same goes for a lot of other hazards, like rhinos and terror birds. The screen also gets noisy with random stuff: there are trees, corpses, patches of different coloured sand and more. But some are just decoration, while others are instant death, and it’s not easy to differentiate at speed. Moving to a new area, after putting in all the hard work, can lead to an insta-gib as you tumble into something that turns out to be quicksand. That’s if you were lucky enough to spot which of the hazards did you in. You do get better with time, though, and the rules start emerging from the fog a wee bit.
Splitting your group to avoid obstacles is also pretty far from intuitive. If a death-dealing creature is sitting in a part of the screen, you’ll have virtually zero idea which permutation of group will avoid it. You’ll be hammering the left-trigger, hoping to find a formation that’ll get you through, similar to when you’re in the death throes of a Tetris level. If more than one hazard appears at once, well, you’re all but doomed. Your instinct will be to manually move the tribe, but switching formations on the fly takes some getting used to. We can only reassure you that it does come, but you’ll need the will to get there.
It’s also extremely hard. Like, extinction-level hard. It would have been a difficult-enough endless runner with just the formation switching, but you will have to multitask with the weapons your tribe holds, all while keeping an eye on food levels. There are so many spinning plates, and – really – only muscle memory will keep them spinning. To get that muscle memory means practice, and practice starts with patience. Whether or not you will have the patience is a big old question mark, since Tribal Pass doesn’t suggest that it will be worth it in the end.
That’s because Tribal Pass doesn’t give you much in the way of reward for being successful, so there’s not much compulsion to continue or get better. You’ll get a few green and red tokens to use, but there are no feelings of progression, no relics to keep. The levels do have different obstacles and backgrounds to ogle, but there are no standout moments. For a game that shares similarities with The Oregon Trail, it could have done with its events and choices to mix runs up.
That’s not to say there’s nothing to like, as Tribal Pass is certainly innovative, and its presentation has a lot of charm. Careening through this version of prehistory feels tense and atmospheric, and there’s an edge of realism to the pixel art that makes you feel like you’re wandering through a neolithic version of retro games like Cannon Fodder or Megalomania. The tribal music pounds away nicely, and there are moments where everything comes together and you complete a couple of levels with barely a scratch on you. It won’t happen often, mind, but it’s nice when it happens.
Tribal Pass on Xbox is an endless runner that feels like a prehistoric boot camp, pushing you to get up, get better and keep going. It’s far from easy, and it is particularly unfriendly in its opening moments. But push beyond them and there are morsels of enjoyment. The weirdness of the control scheme falls away, and you start learning the rules of what kills and what doesn’t. We just wish Tribal Pass wasn’t as skimpy as a loincloth in terms of rewarding you, making you actually want to persist, and mixing things up for each run. As it stands, it just about gets a (tribal) pass.