PLAY: 'Overlord' blends satire with generous game play

Justin Hoeger
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

3 stars
PUBLISHER: Codemasters
SYSTEM: Microsoft Xbox 360, also for PC
PRICE: $59.99 ($39.99 for PC)

Games that borrow from J.R.R. Tolkien are a dime a dozen. But satires? Those are less common.

And satires that mix a mockery of fantasy tropes with the cultivation and crowd-control game play of "Pikmin"? Well, there's only one of those so far.

"Overlord" makes no effort to hide its influences - indeed, it flaunts them. The player's avatar, the Overlord himself, is dug out from under a pile of rocks by a pack of goblin-like Minions. He looks suspiciously like the Peter Jackson films' version of Sauron, Tolkien's great villain. He even has to spend the game gathering bits and pieces of equipment and material from the surrounding countryside to rebuild his tower.

He does this with the help of that pack of Minions, a virtually limitless horde of cackling miscreants that look like wicked House Elves or gremlins, and act about the same. They'll cackle with glee as they pick up a dropped knife or club, and they'll strap on bits of junk for armor. They'll put pumpkins on their heads to make jack-o'-lantern hats. They'll bring treasures and potions to their Overlord with cries of adoration.

Oh, and they'll fight to the death, no questions asked. They'll dive into pits of blood and mana to restore health and magic power to their ruler.

There are four kinds of Minions, but only the basic Brown warriors are available to start with. Later, the Overlord gains the ability to call forth flame-absorbing (and expelling) Reds, amphibious Blue healers and sneaky Green assassins.

Each Minion requires a charge of life force to summon, which is gained by offing hostile creatures (or non-hostile ones). While only five Minions can be summoned to start with, the Overlord will soon gain the ability to call up many more. The horde can be controlled as a group, or the player can single out different Minion types for specific tasks or positions. Often, a switch or object will require the teamwork of several Minions to overcome or move.

Controlling these Minions is simple as can be - and again, it's very much like Nintendo's "Pikmin" games. The right analog stick is the most reliable method - just swing it around and the Minion horde will follow its movements, attacking whatever's in its way, activating switches and cranks, busting up crates and searching for valuables. Or a player can point at a location or lock onto a target and send individual Minions in that direction with the touch of a button. Another button recalls them.

This works fine for simple, line-of-sight tasks but is not as useful as the joystick control.

Our good Overlord is not helpless, either. Aside from his weapons and armor, he eventually has access to a variety of spells, from fire-magic shields to mind-clouding attacks and Minion boosters. He is all-important but able to defend himself if the player isn't reckless.

Speaking of recklessness: The Overlord is evil, but just how evil is left to the player. Doing especially cruel things raises his corruption level, which affects the Overlord's appearance, the reaction of people to him and even the spells he can learn.

Visually, the game is quite sharp, with an overabundance of light-bloom effects, and humorous for the various Minions, peasants and foes the player encounters. "Overlord" also has a wicked sense of humor, mercilessly mocking Halflings for their corpulence, for example. On the whole, the humor reminds one of "Fable," with lots of clever digs at stupid peasants and overplayed fantasy tropes.

The game is not without its annoyances. Easy as the Minions are to control, it's hard sometimes to direct them to exactly the right spot, especially with the point-and-shoot option. There's no map to speak of, so a player must memorize the areas where quests are to be undertaken or just wander around until an active one is found.

Overlord - Gameplay demo

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