Overlord on the Xbox 360 is a unique execution of familiar concepts, blending elements of Action/RPG and RTS to create a relatively fresh gaming experience out of ideas you will immediately recognize, but it’s not without it’s blemishes. How does it stack up? You’ll have to read more to find out!
Upon first diving into Overlord, it bears a striking resemblance to Fable, a groundbreaking Action/RPG hybrid from last generation. It’s got a similar pace; simple, single-button combat; some spells for flavor; similar character interaction with the same sort of British-accented yokels; and to some degree a good/evil point system, although your “hero” is by all standards evil. A little deeper, though you find some other familiar, yet entirely un-Fable-esque play mechanics as well. You see, as an evil Overlord, you control an army of Minions that handle pretty much all of your dirty work, and while they are obviously close relatives to the malevolently mischievous Hollywood Gremlins, they sure do control a lot like Pikmins. Remember Pikmin? Probably not. We’ll discuss the Minions at length in a bit.
If you’re looking for a story-driven game, you’re not going to find it here. The game opens with a handful of Minions prying open your sepulchre and rubbing acid in your eyes to awaken you from what your advisor informs you has been a very long, subterranean slumber. Your predecessor has been killed and you are now the new Overlord. After a brief tutorial in the basics of being “Evil” and Minion control, you are cut loose to collect a few items to rebuild your stronghold, which was ransacked when the previous Overlord was killed. Why you have been asleep a long time, whether or not you were Overlord before, and why you are just so darned evil are not made immediately apparent. Basically, you’re the evil Sauron from the The Lord of the Rings movies, and I swear the first enemies you fight are Hobbits.
Once you are set loose on the countryside you generally pursue what are more or less selfish goals, although I’d rarely consider them “evil”. In fact, you mostly do good deeds, liberating towns from zombies and succubi and whatnot. Of course, the game presents this as your way of earning the adoration of the people that you intend to rule. If you kill an innocent, or succumb to evil during a number of other scripted moral choices during the game, you earn points on your “corruption” rating. As you become more corrupt people will revere you less and fear you more, going from commending you as you pass, to fleeing in terror when you approach.
The voice acting is solid, and consistently funny (intentionally, even!). Even the Minions have a few little phrases to shout. The visuals and sounds really bring the world to life. The colors, textures, and main characters are all vivid and bursting with personality. To continue the Fable comparison, there is that sort of soft, glowing fairytale halo around everything in this pristine countryside you’ve come to desecrate, while the occasional dungeon is appropriately dank and dark. Mostly, though, the sun is shining, birds are chirping, and the sheep are bleating in panic as your Minions climb atop them and beat them in the head with clubs.
Sadly, the beautiful graphics are occasionally marred by some serious clipping and pop-in issues, as well as some very occasional, very minor frame rate chugging. Also, models for regular civilians are few, and repeated often, thought that’s a small detail that is easily overlooked. Much of the environment goes to waste, because despite the appearance of a lush, wide-open world, you are kept on relatively strict pathways for the majority of the game.
These pathways keep the game fairly linear, though offering the illusion of a sandbox. You may have many active missions on your objective screen, but will likely find only one or two can be completed before you’ve achieved certain other objectives, effectively leaving you to guess at which missions to try and in what order. Couple this with the fact that there is absolutely no map of any sort, and exploring even the most impressive environments can become a bit frustrating at times. The contrast of peaceful tranquility to your lumbering Overlord and his demonic Minions is essentially the games entire shtick, but it works, and for the most part it works well.
There’s a good bit to say about Minions, since they do most everything. Sure, you carry a weapon, but if you just charge into battle without the help of your Minions, you’re dead meat, and quick. These little guys are 90% of your strategy. Since you utilize your Minions constantly, for everything from combat, to puzzle solving, to simple item retrieval, it’s a good thing that Codemasters got them right (well, mostly). They ooze personality from every pore of their evil, little bodies. They really are very reminiscent of the Gremlins, my heroes. They gleefully hop on enemies, laughing, cheering, and jibbering as they beat them to death, and will excitedly sacrifice themselves to restore a bit of your energy or mana. You really get the sense that the little creeps love being there for you, doing what they do best: wreaking havoc.
Anyone familiar with elemental fantasy or RPGs (or Pikmin) will quickly understand the Minions’ convenient color-coding scheme. Minions come in four distinctly different (but equally delicious) flavors, each with it’s own strengths and weaknesses. “Browns” are your down-and-dirty warriors. Able to sustain the most damage, they love to run in and tear your enemies apart face-to-face. “Blues” can swim and have magical properties, including the ability to ressurect other fallen Minions, however they are frail of body and weak in hand-to-hand combat. “Reds” carry properties of fire, including the abilities to absorb fire and to hurl powerful fireballs long distances. Finally, “Greens” are immune to and able to neutralize poison, as well as having some stealth capabilities.
For the most part, Minions are smart. The can be ordered to “guard” an area, return to you, attack, or be manually controlled en masse with the right thumbstick. If you go through the water and your Minions can’t swim, they will find a way around if it is available. They will automatically return to you with any treasure they may retrieve, and automatically equip any useful (and sometimes not-so-useful) items, such as weapons, armor, or a helmet improvised from a pumpkin. Browns will attack what you attack, while Reds are smart enough to stay back and rain fire from afar. Blues will automatically carry a fallen comrade to safety before resurrecting them (a great way to get non-swimmers across the water!).
Overlord‘s weak point is largely the controls. I know that all 3D games have some camera issues, but these get pretty major at times. Since the right stick is reserved for Minion control, the only real options you have are tapping the L trigger to center the camera behind you, or clicking the right stick to bring the camera to an overhead view (which you will forget about every time). In the claustrophobic spaces you often find yourself in, centering the camera behind you is not always what you want to do, particularly since that leaves your weaker Minions that you’ve back-rowed (and any threats to them) out of view.
The Overlord himself feels heavy and clunky, which is semi-excusable considering he’s a huge guy in full plate mail armor, but I’m willing to suspend disbelief in order to play a character with a little speed and dexterity. You have a single button with which to melee attack, and tapping that button three times will give you a stiff, but relatively effective, combo. Again, you should use Minions for combat much more than the Overlord himself.
While the Minions really are a pleasure to work with, they can be a bit wonky at times, too. Every once in a while, particularly if you charge your Minions into battle, a handful of them may get “distracted”. They’ll find a corner, or stop wherever they defeat the last enemy, and not return to you as they should when the fighting is over. It’s an easy enough problem to solve, as you can call your Minions back to you manually, but it’s a bit of a hassle nonetheless. Controlling the minions can be a bit tricky, also. Oftentimes you will need to seperate a specific color of Minion from the rest of the horde or manually lead them to an area that is kind of hard to make out in the distance. These exercises can be difficult, but with a little practice are not so bad.
The game also has a lot of bugs. Minions tend to get hung on obstacles when carrying large objects, and I personally had the game freeze on me twice. There is at least one game ending bug that will not allow you to proceed if you leave a room before completing a certain objective. In the Brewery, be sure to enter with at least 12 Minions. Trust me. Most seasoned RPG players know to stagger multiple saves just in case of such an occasion, but for some strange reason, Overlord lacks this most obvious of options. The only save option you have is autosaving that occurs when entering certain areas, and it will always save to the default slot unless you enter the game’s options, and from there, change your default device and slot. It’s so counter-intuitive, it can’t even really be considered a save option, so don’t mess your game up!
Overall, Overlord is a fun game, and a clever foray into a genre-bending field, but it has a lot of really nasty spots that could have been cleaned up with a little care and polish. I’d love to give it a higher recommendation for it’s ambition, but it could have been so much more. This one’s only worth a rental, but it’s a good rental.
+Minions are fun and a clever gameplay mechanic
+Game has tons of personality
+Visuals are mostly fantastic and very appropriate
+Play the bad guy!
-Graphical glitches and bugs abound
-Mostly a linear game experience
-Controls could use polish