I hadn’t heard anything about the game Overlord until its demo was released on Xbox Live a while ago. Now that’s how you do a game release: under-hyped to the point of obscurity, then a wide-release demo that builds buzz, and the full release a month later.
The game itself (I’m playing the Xbox 360 version; it’s also available on PC) is the best I’ve seen in a long while. It’s frequently described as “Pikmin meets Dungeon Keeper“, with character design like Fable and some game elements like Sacrifice. That should make it clear that you’re not seeing something that’s completely unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. But the game stands out on its presentation, if not its innovation, and the fact that people just don’t make games like this anymore.
The premise is that you’re basically Sauron from The Lord of the Rings; an evil overlord defeated by a band of “heroes” at some time in the past. At the beginning of the game, you’re brought back by your imp-like minions and tasked to rebuild your dark tower. To do this, you explore the countryside (with a gaggle of minions in tow at all times), ransacking villages for treasure, finding pieces to improve your tower, and doing odd jobs for the locals. Or killing them; it’s really your call.
There are plenty of problems with the game. The camera is clunky and frustrating (and yes, I do know about the camera controls, and it’s still clunky). It’s easy to get into a situation where you just can’t see what’s going on. The game feels like you should be able to just think tactically and not require super-fine control over your minions, but then keeps putting you in areas where you need to have fine control. As a result, the game feels very indirect, as if things are generally happening around you and you’re a semi-involved bystander.
But what Overlord does right far outweighs the criticisms and frustrations. It’s just plain fun, more often than not. It’s full of nice touches; when the Overlord summons his minions, there’s the perfect sound of an otherworldly battle horn. When the Overlord dies, he collapses and sends out a shockwave much like the witch-king in Return of the King. Your minions pick up weaponry and random items from their pillaging and use them for armor; other times they bring back useful things for the Overlord and present it to you, calling out “For you!”
And allowing the player to choose between good and evil has been attempted in a lot of games, like Black and White and Knights of the Old Republic, but it’s never been really satisfying. Overlord avoids that by letting you choose between evil and more evil. It doesn’t often lapse into obvious parody, or attempts to be all edgy and subversive. It doesn’t get all its laughs out of pointing out how funny it is to be killing hobbits and elves; it assumes that the audience is already in agreement that they want to kill hobbits and elves, and then lets you do that in funny ways. And setting fire to a field full of hobbits just never stops being satisfying.
I was surprised to see that the developers are based in the Netherlands, because it feels like a British game: not just because of the dialogue and voice acting, or the art style and character design, but because as you’re playing it, you spend half the time thinking, “That’s really clever.”
When I said that people aren’t making games like this anymore, that’s exactly what I meant. It just exists to be funny, and it works. It’s not a perfect game (but it deserves much higher reviews than it’s been getting), but it’s so overwhelmingly charming that I’m enjoying it better than any other game in recent memory. And for the first time in a very long time, I’m compelled to actually finish it.