An interesting game with tons of personality but some poor gameplay design
Overlord is a third-person action-adventure game developed by Triumph Studios and published by Codemasters. The game released on PC on June 26, 2007 and has since received a couple of expansion packs. But for the purposes of this review, the original version of the game is what I have played. The game was in development for over a year and a half which began in early 2006. The end result is a fairly clever and original game that has good production values, but some of the gameplay mechanics will definitely keep some players from completing the single player campaign. There is no multiplayer or co-op component, so be aware of that.
Overlord is set in an unnamed fantasy world, where the player takes the role of a resurrected warrior known simply as The Overlord who has control over hordes of gremlin-like creatures known as "minions". The player must defeat seven corrupt ruling heroes in order to re-conquer the lands and establish his lordship over its inhabitants. The main selling point of the game is that you can be “evil”, however it is not truly the case. This is a Teen-rated game, after all, so the definition of “evil” here is more of the Disney kind of evil with some violence thrown in. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, however. The whole story and character interactions play out on the “evil” overtones as a joke, such as your main minion elder always suggesting you complete some mischievous deed, or telling you how much he hates the sunny and pleasant country side. There are a lot of things you can do in the game that require you to decide if you want to be evil or not. Many quests are based around saving some trapped characters so that you can earn their trust, and at the end you are given a choice to just let them go or make them pay you for the rescue. Such decisions of “personal benefit Vs the greater good” appear in the entire game, and work well. The story is not a very engaging one, because you are never really told what happened to the previous Overlord, why you are trying to rebuild your castle, and who exactly you are. But I guess that can be disregarded as the game does not really take those elements into the storytelling. The length of the game can run between 10 and 20+ hours, depending on the amount of bonus quests and exploration that you wish to attempt. Much of the core gameplay is artificially lengthened, though, more on this a bit later. As I mentioned, after you are done with single player, there is nothing left to accomplish. But since it’s a good length game, I can say that it’s a good value.
As Overlord, you have two basic attack methods – melee and ranged. Your melee attack is just a swing with your huge axe, and your ranged attacks are your spells. These spells vary from fireballs to ice spikes, and use up your mana points pretty quickly. Your health goes down rather fast too, but thankfully there will be very few instances where you actually have to lift a finger. In the game, your minions are the primary fighters. They are your little army, and you can do with them as you please. There are a few types of different minions in the game, Browns (regular), Reds (fire), Blues (water), Greens (poison), etc. A lot of the time is spent finding and recovering a Hive for one of these minion types so that you can unlock them and use them. This is where one of the major game design issues comes into play – the only useful type of minions that will do good in any level are the Browns – melee fighters who can pick up attack weapons and armour to increase their damage and defense stats. These guys can take quite a beating, and they are versatile enough to survive almost everywhere. The rest of the minion types, however, are only really used in one “domain” (level). Half of the level though is spent recovering a Hive for these minions, so you can’t even summon them yet. Once you finally have the Hive, you usually summon a few of them to get you past certain puzzle (use Blues to swim across, use Greens to clear the acid path, etc), but after that they are quite useless. Once you’re done the level, there is little use for these special minions because they are usually weak fighters, and can only pickup armour (not weapons because they use ranged attacks).
Overlord features a large “open world” environment, and it will take some time to explore and familiarize yourself with it’s various exists. Once you exit the main town, you start on a linear quest to complete an objective, obtain an item or rescue someone. These quests are somewhat repetitive, however the various levels in the game are nicely themed and varied to enjoy playing through them. But this is where another game design flaw must be mentioned – you could be half way through a level (maybe 20 minutes of gameplay) and you arrive upon a puzzle which can only be solved with a specific type of minion (say, crossing a pond with Blues). But very often, you have not yet unlocked these minions – to do so, you should have taken another exit out of the town, and completed that other level first. Well, sorry, developers, but some kind of a hint would have been very helpful. So you end up having to run all the way back to the cave entrance, back to the town, and to the other side to start the quest to unlock the proper minions. These kinds of backtracking issues occur very often, unless somehow you are lucky and do the quests in the correct order (or you read the FAQs). It’s pointless, tedious, and it’s frustrating. The process can be sped up by teleporting to your tower and starting the other quest from there, but if you do that, you lose all minions that follow you and have to re-create and re-arm your little guys. As well, you lose your whole minion army pretty much any time you leave the game or use the teleport feature, so you force yourself to backtrack and finish the other quest. Not a good design decision.
The controls in Overlord work fairly well. With the full utilization of the mouse, you simple turn into the direction of the enemy and hit the left button. A glowing circle then appears above the head of the enemy, and it lets you know it’s health and how many of your minions are currently attacking this creature. This is useful for designating targets and managing your attack on multiple enemies. You can call your minions back at any time with the right mouse key. The health of your minions is never shown, rather they just fight until a certain amount of damage, or a special attack, kills them. As long as you have minion points though, you can summon more from one of the minion wells around the level. To gain minion summon points, you can kill enemies or the innocent sheep that roam the country side. There is also an advanced minion control option, when you hold down both mouse buttons, your minions group up and you can manually guide them around as a group. This is used primarily to guide them to areas you cannot reach and they aren’t clever enough to get to by themselves.
Graphically, the game looks quite sharp, with resolution able to set very high. The environments are well done and levels are unique and interesting to look at. There is not much in terms of special effects, other than fire and water which look ok. The character models are decent, but some NPCs really stand out as poorly created. The game runs smoothly on even mid-range machines with all settings maxed, as it’s not a very graphically intensive, but still looks nice. Voices are done with amusing quotes and interesting conversations, the narrative is enjoyable to listen to. Music is present, but it’s mostly background music and not really that noticeable either way. There are quite a few cutscenes here, mostly to introduce bosses and then their defeats, as well as some story elements.
Overlord was not a huge commercial success, maybe because of the lack of advertising, or perhaps most players were unable to get past the gameplay issues such as backtracking. Some could have not liked the minions control scheme, or that your main character is so weak, so the only action happens with the help of the minions. Overall, the Overlord has enough original gameplay, good graphics and fun characters to make it worth recommending to action and puzzle fans. But at the same time, these gameplay elements could stop many gamers from fully enjoying this title.