Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Game Review: Overlord

Now this one's just plain cute.

Seven heroes (a Halfling, an Elf, a Paladin, a Dwarf, a Wizard, a Thief and a Warrior) defeated the Evil Overlord, ransacked his Tower and scattered his minions throughout the land. Years later, you awaken as the new incarnation of the Overlord, and set out to rebuild your empire.

There's just one problem: those heroes who vanquished your predecessor? They've each succumbed to one of the Seven Deadly Sins, so the Halfling steals food from other villages and has ballooned up to the size of a small house, the Paladin's lecherous liaisons with succubi has brought a plague of undeath down on his city, the sloth-induced slumber of the Elf King left his people vulnerable to an invasion of greedy Dwarves seeking gold, etc.

It's a subversion of typical fantasy fare, because while the game casts you as the traditional villain of the piece, you're fighting fallen heroes who are arguably worse than you. But the real appeal of "Overlord" is its darkly humorous approach and the many in-jokes: for example, as you stand at the mouth of a labyrinth, your chief advisor (and the game's narrator in lieu of the silent Overlord) tells you to kill any dancing goblins or singing princesses you may encounter. It'll probably come as no surprise that the game was written by Rhianna Pratchett (daughter of Terry), as its semi-irreverent parody of the fantasy genre and its conventions is very much in line with something like "Good Omens".

"Overlord" belongs to a particular sub-genre I've only just started exploring, where the environment and storyline react to the choices you make. At various points throughout the game, you're offered certain choices: do you save the last surviving Elven women or abandon them for a cartload of gold? Do you forgive the treacherous peasants who conspired against you or slaughter them to the last man? Do you stay loyal to your strategically-minded, prim and proper mistress or throw her over for her sluttier sister? You can choose to be noble or truly evil, and your appearance and powers will change depending on what you do; likewise, your Dark Tower (seen from the outside only at the main menu) will reflect your level of Corruption, as will the game's multiple endings. For the most part, the game seems to reward the most vile and wicked courses of action, as they result in more powerful minions and far more damaging spells. But to get full 100% corruption, you have to do things like kill 500 peasants, burn down the Elves' Sacred Grove, and steal a sacred idol just because it looks nice in your mistress' quarters. Too evil? That's up to you!

This compensates for a rather linear plot. While quests in any given land can generally be completed in any order, you can't choose which of the seven heroes to target, and you can't leave your current "zone" until the major quests have been resolved (probably a good thing, given that the levels get progressively harder). On the other hand, the game's script is so enjoyable that I don't much mind its restrictions.

Gameplay is interesting: you directly control the Overlord, but most of the action is achieved via your loyal minions - using the mouse, you order them to attack enemies, pull switches, pick up items and so on. Initially you start with five Browns (simple warriors), but you'll eventually recover the lost tribes and gather a horde thirty or forty strong. Summoning minions requires life-force, which you harvest by killing anything that moves: from sheep to townsfolk to trolls to rock giants. Controlling the minions can be a bit tricky, as you have to specify targets via a mouse-keyboard combination and you will encounter scenarios requiring you to multitask and split your followers accordingly, but once you get the hang of it, you'll enjoy setting traps and launching two-pronged attacks on unwitting enemies.

The expansion pack, "Raising Hell", takes the story a step further: you learn that villagers attempting to escape your tyranny have fled into mysterious portals that have opened up throughout your kingdom. Of course, as befits a Pratchett story, it's not quite that simple: the heavenly backdrop falls away to reveal a dimension of fire, torment and pain called the Abyss. And the souls of the fallen heroes have ended up here as well, suffering eternal torture of the ironic kind (ie: the Halfling's gluttony is stymied when the food comes to life and fights back). Since "Raising Hell" is integrated into the main game, you can actually access the Abyss levels before completing the core game - the death of a hero unlocks the Abyss zone correlating to his land. But the difficulty level is significantly higher, so you're better off postponing your trip to Hell until you're properly equipped.

I had a really great time with this game: it's charming, it's relatively fast-paced (except for the long walks between checkpoints...), it takes a hilariously sardonic swing at some of the biggest cliches in literature, and you'll probably get a little attached to your imp-like minions after a few hours. Very much worth a play-through.