Overlord

[14 August 2007]

By Arun Subramanian

With all the games that have popped up recently attempting to simulate moral decisions (ie. Knights of the Old Republic, Fable, etc.), it seems as if a splinter to the “games as art” mentality has been birthed.  These kinds of games have elements that are attempting to make the player think about the consequences of their choices and actions.  Though this is an interesting dynamic, it can sometimes seem a little heavy-handed.  Enter Overlord.  This is a title that exudes humor from many angles, not least of which is the fact that the moral choices you make vary only in how evil they are. 

Before Overlord, Triumph Studios, located in the Netherlands, was only responsible for the Age of Wonders titles for the PC.  While those offered straightforward, turn-based combat in a fantastical setting, they weren’t particularly renowned for their sense of humor or personality.  But with Overlord, Triumph has not only made its first foray into console development, but has also made a splash with a title that retains the fantasy setting of its previous games, while significantly changing their personality and formula to enjoyable effect.

Instead of the stuffy, Tolkien-esque fantasy realm that has become second nature to fans of fantasy books, RPGs, and the like, Overlord imbues its world with an over the top, almost spoof-level humor, similar to the 2004 title The Bard’s Tale.  What adds to the sense of humor is the notion that you have moral choices to make, but those choices aren’t between shades of good and evil, but rather between evil and very evil.  That said, the mayhem is kept somewhat removed from reality, a concept helped by the setting.  Certainly this title garners its rating for crude humor and cartoon violence, but there’s nothing on the same playing field as, say, Grand Theft Auto, for example.

As with any evil leader worth his salt, much of the game is experienced by having your minions do the dirty work for you.  This is where a good deal of the title’s personality comes in.  The minions are, by and large, fairly amusing in both their voice characterizations and their actions.  And as in Pikmin, there are various types for you to command, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.  Further, the total number you can have in your party at any given time is limited. 

Ummm…eww?

Ummm…eww?

Overlord shares its irreverent spirit and approach to evil, if not its setting or gameplay, with the 2004 PC game Evil Genius, in which you played the sort of madman villain from any given James Bond film.  In both games, there’s a sense of glee with respect to the lighthearted nature with which a shaky sort of moral fiber is approached.  It seems that if the choice had been made to make the violence and despotism of the game extremely realistic, it might have been more disquieting than fun.  This is an example of a game that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and asks the player not to either.  It is not attempting to change the landscape of gaming in general, nor is it likely to be construed as an “important” title.  It’s simply fun for the sake of being so, akin to a popcorn movie that will be enjoyed by the people to whom the form and source material appeals.

Critical reception of Overlord has been fairly positive overall, with most of the criticisms having to do with various technical issues like the camera and the utility of the control scheme during some of the more difficult battle situations that arise in the game.  To be fair, though, as previously discussed, this is Triumph’s first console game after a series of PC games.  Certainly the PC keyboard allows for more robust control schemes, and I would imagine the experience of designing for a game controller for the first time to be a challenge.  Such issues will surely be sorted out with Triumph’s next title.  Quite tellingly, nobody seem to question the title’s charm and sense of humor.  There isn’t really any fault to find there. 

What ultimately makes Overlord so intriguing is the way in which it’s something of a mashup.  In the way that particulary good DJs can make their own songs by collaging together bits and pieces of other things, the developers have brought a lot of established conventions to the table and created something unique.  Obviously, the fantasy setting has been done many times before.  Present here also is the moral choice dynamic that affects the look of the character and the outcome of the game, in the manner of Fable, although Overlord uniquely only lets you go from bad to worse.  Further, there’s the resource managements aspects of different types of underlings, in the manner of Pikmin.  Yet again all these elements, and many others, come together to make for an experience that hasn’t quite been seen before.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/overlord/