In recent years, games have become increasingly concerned with creating moral dilemmas, asking players to make difficult decisions that not only challenge their own personal ethics, but also those of the character that they are roleplaying. Deciding whether to save or harvest the Little Sisters in Bioshock, or judging which of Niko Bellic’s friends should live or die in Grand Theft Auto IV are the kind of choices that encourage players to emotionally invest in the gaming experience.
Overlord subverts this device by largely dispensing with the ‘good’ end of the moral spectrum, leaving you with choices that exist somewhere between ‘evil’ and ‘incredibly evil’. In fact, the most taxing quandary you’re likely to face is whether to immolate a peasant with a volley of fireballs, or set a rabid pack of impish minions upon him.
You take control of the titular Overlord who, at the start of the game, is woken from undeath only to be informed that his predecessor has been killed, and that the reputation of evil in the surrounding land is a joke. There’s a quick lesson in being evil through the medium of jester-kicking, and before you know it, you embark through the knowingly generic Tolkienesque landscape, ransacking villages, enslaving peasants, slaying corpulent trolls, rebuilding your imposing tower, and even taking a mistress to help you spend your ill-gotten gains.
The appearance of the Overlord falls somewhere between the Witch King Of Angmar from The Lord Of The Rings, and the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. A union of these two characters should also give you some idea of the game’s tone, and developers Triumph Studios have tapped into the kind of humour usually reserved by Peter Molyneux. However, for all of his grandiose, the Overlord is something of a shallow fellow, barely letting out a guttural grunt when throwing his battle axe around, let alone speaking. This lack of depth also extends to controlling him; you’re limited to walking around whilst executing a simple weapon or magical attack. Ironically, the Overlord is more of a herald for the real stars of the game: the minions.
The minions are a horde of small demonic creatures that accompany you through the game, and are more than happy to do your bidding. Whilst your silent suit of armour strides through the countryside, they bound eagerly into the distance, causing mayhem and destruction with such wicked enthusiasm that it propels you through the game, inspiring you to even greater acts of vileness.
There’s a great deal of flexibility in controlling the minions; by default, they’ll follow you around like a group of automated henchmen, or you can send them racing forwards to clash with whatever lays ahead. In certain situations, it’s necessary to take direct control over the entire pack, and manually guide them through more complex paths. It’s also possible to set up sentry posts for a set number of the little guys, so it’s possible to block pathways that enemies might try to come down. Whether you require the minions to attack enemies, raze a structure or smash up the landscape in search of gold and other items, the minions always act accordingly with an intelligence that betrays their appearance; they’ll even arm themselves should they come across weapons and armour.
Although you start off with just a handful of minions, their numbers increase to a maximum of fifty over the course of the game. At this point, you really feel like you’re orchestrating a small, chaotic army. It’s not just their numbers that increase either; you also gain the ability to summon different coloured minions that possess unique skills. For example, red minions are able to throw fireballs at foes, whereas blue minions are able to resurrect fallen comrades. The increased scale and ability of your forces is quite empowering, especially as you go up against increasingly large and threatening enemies. Unfortunately, you’ll feel like you’re not only taking on a menagerie of fantasy creatures, but also a difficult control scheme. There’s a certain degree of battlefield micromanagement required in later battles, and allowing you to substitute one group of minions for another (especially under duress) is something that the control scheme is not particularly adept at.
In addition to the increased abilities afforded by the new types of minions, the game’s RPG elements, which make themselves apparent after a couple of hours of pillaging, make it possible to improve your statistics by forging new armour and weapons. You’re also granted the ability to learn new spells, and if you want to take the role playing one step further, it’s even possible to customise the appearance of your tower.
The manner in which you accept quests also takes inspiration from role playing games; as you begin exploring the world, you’ll encounter many characters who will ask for your assistance. Some of these requests can feel somewhat incongruous with the spirit of the game, as you’re required to spend a good amount of time taking orders from the kind of slack-jawed farmhands that you’d rather be smiting than doing the bidding of.
As I alluded to earlier, the game periodically offers moral choices that determine how you resolve a quest or element of the story. Although the options that are presented to you tend towards the darker end of the moral barometer, some of them come dangerously close to appearing heroic. Luckily, there are no truly benevolent choices, more like grudging acts of small mercy that still serve your evil intentions in some way. Anyway, if you do choose to liberate and return a village’s food supply, there’s always the option to kill everyone in the village afterwards, and be rewarded for doing so. Although these choices provide an effective roleplaying device, it’s worth noting that they also have implications in terms of gameplay. They affect your Corruption level, which alters your appearance, how people in the world perceive you, and what kind of magical abilities you have access to later in the game.
Overlord‘s visuals are fairly impressive, and there are a number of notable graphical accomplishments; the animation of the minions conveys a great sense of zeal in everything they do, and the insipidly bucolic surroundings of the first stage provides the perfect backdrop for your nefarious deeds. As the game progresses, you’ll traverse a variety of other well-realised and familiar fantasy settings, including elven forests, sun bleached deserts, and even a hellish underworld. As attractive as the environments are, they are not really open to much exploration, and sometimes feel more like a series of claustrophobic corridors than outdoor locales.
Navigating these environments isn’t helped by an infuriatingly uncooperative camera, which will often get stuck behind objects, face in the wrong direction, and generally make things more difficult than they ought to be. Although it is possible to switch to an overhead view of your surroundings or snap the view directly behind your character, there’s no way to assume direct control over the camera. This often makes it difficult to survey your surroundings as well as identify objectives and paths to sweep your minions through. Unfortunately, there are some other technical issues too; the framerate is certainly not what it should be, and has a tendency to really grind along when there’s a lot of chaos on screen.
The PlayStation 3 edition of Overlord includes the Raising Hell content pack that was made available for the Xbox 360 and PC version of the game late last year, and includes an extended story mode and new multiplayer maps, as well as new weapons, armour and items. Although this offers good value for money, 4J Studios haven’t done a particularly great job of porting the game to Sony’s system. Ultimately, it’s hard to recommend the PlayStation 3 version of Overlord over the technically superior Xbox 360 version, which has a better framerate, less troublesome camera, and sharper visuals. My recommendation is to hunt down the Xbox 360 version of the game; it’s available for about £15 now, and if you’re not opposed to paying a further £10 for the downloadable content, you’re guaranteed to have a more satisfyingly evil experience.
However, if you’re able to look past the technical issues issues, you’ll find all of the components that made Overlord such an appealing release last year, including some surprisingly deep strategic elements, satisfying roleplaying, and a wicked sense of humour. And If that’s not enough, you can always go and set some more peasants on fire.Also on Overlord: check out our interview with Rhianna Pratchett here.
Josh Barton can also be found writing about games at www.finalboss.co.uk