October 2007

Overlord takes no chances with its potential to be evil, but still offers a fun and strangely pleasant experience.

overlordbox.jpgMost Zelda-like adventures star a hero embarking on an epic journey to vanquish some all-powerful threat, but your quest in Overlord is to become that very threat and to force your sinister will upon a bright and colorful world in dire need of corruption. Your sole purpose is to absorb every city, home, and willing resident into your dark and vast empire. You have been awakened from ages of sleep and it is time to reclaim your kingdom while at the command of an army of goblin-like minions ready to kill and die for you with cackling glee.

Sounds truly sinister, doesn’t it? Some would certainly hope that Overlord is a taste of the Forbidden Fruit, a deliciously decadent experience. In truth, Overlord has more of a darkly comic tone due to its light-hearted nature, fairy-tale artistry, and general goofiness. It’s probably a good thing that Overlord doesn’t take itself too seriously. Such creative direction makes it rather hilarious to burn hobbits alive.

You, as the nameless Overlord, command minions that babble like children, play dress-up, and chug ale on sight then urinate seconds later. As it turns out, these silly little imps can kill and loot with alarming ruthlessness and speed. They are the standout unique feature of Overlord and, frankly, represent the only reason to play the game at all. Without them, Overlord would have been yet another remedy for insomnia.

The right thumbstick guides a single band of minions within a wide radius wherein they will destroy stockpiles, ransack houses, fetch items, and kill every enemy while the Overlord just stands there staring into space, if he so chooses. Thanks to decent AI, your minions are quite independent once guided to their target. They auto-attack any nearby hostile or container, outfit themselves with dropped gear, and will even run back to you with offerings of treasure and minion-generating lifeforce harvested from defeated enemies (or even friendlies). Running these guys around to wreak havoc and collect riches is terribly fun and just doesn’t get old. Although the minion feature is well-designed and mostly efficient, it is imperfect. Sometimes minions try to attack unreachable targets, get lost or hung up somewhere or misbehave in other ways, but these problems occur sparingly and never hurt the fun. I approve of how Overlord handles the concept of commanding followers to do your bidding. Really, little need be done to change it.

Those with concerns about potential repetition from giving little helpers all the work need not fear. Story progression unlocks minions with different abilities such as ranged attacks and resurrection, thus adding minor puzzle-solving, very basic resource management, and a bit of strategy to battles. Conveniently placed portals act as minion dispensers that shoot out the desired number and type of minion. However, having to mix-and-match minions can be either tiresome or unchallenging. Sometimes slightly tedious backtracking is needed in order to find the proper minion dispenser, and sometimes the exact minions you need are available in the right place all too conveniently. Being able to summon any minions at any time but with more strategic resource management may have been a better idea.

overlord.jpgFans of similar games will be reminded of one particular title the instant Overlord starts: Fable. Overlord’s artistry, level design, and even some of the voice cast are ripped straight from Lionhead’s Xbox hit. Technical graphic quality, however, isn’t much different between the two, which is now a bit of a problem given the 360’s power. Think of Fable in high definition with a smooth framerate and hilariously bad NPC animations, and you have pictured Overlord’s appearance almost exactly. And the NPC animations are terrible. Peasants flee like circus clowns, “sexy” women strut with great exaggeration, and faces in cutscenes morph grotesquely during dialogue as if cycling through several random emotions per second. Thankfully, this is the only laughably bad aspect of Overlord.

At any time during your conquest you may return to your black castle with expectedly pointy architecture and tinker with the most shallow aspects of the game. You have access to very limited castle upgrades such as placing a long red carpet before your throne or flanking it with ominous statues. This feature is just another stripped-down form “upgrading your crib”. There’s also a forge for making improved gear and a dungeon where you can practice battles with previously defeated enemies. These are Overlord’s functional if obligatory attempts at the customization and mini-games we have come to expect in recent years. These side tasks are mostly unremarkable, but those dungeon battles can pose a mean challenge.

Another problem with Overlord is its disappointing writing. You would expect this light-hearted tale of silly evil to have been laced with more irreverence and satire. Although the plot takes jabs at RPG cliches, the dialogue itself is on a par with mediocre cartoons: no groaners, but no whoppers. Gnarl, the Yoda-like minion who acts as your guide, has a few choice phrases here and there but the competent voice actors are given nothing clever to say otherwise.

If nothing else, Overlord is amusing. The minions are the stars of the show and set Overlord apart from all other fantasy-adventure titles. Although the game could benefit from sharpened graphical detail and a rapier wit, it still generates all the appeal necessary for a person to see it through to the end. Overlord is simply fun, and really doesn’t need to be anything more.


And this week’s Xbox Live Arcade release is…once again, NOT PUZZLE QUEST!

Since the creators of the $30 Tetris Evolution proved that it is entirely possible to botch a terribly simple game that has been reimagined and ripped off endlessly (and often with higher quality), I think we legions of Tetris fans are entitled to a true version: simple, addictive, and very, very cheap.  Lo and behold, Halo-resistant Xboxers can enjoy Tetris Splash on Xbox Live Arcade this Wednesday for a thumbs-up price of 800 MS points.


So the word “Splash” signifies what kind of gimmick?  Are we going to have to endure yet another misguided attempt to spice up a game in need of no spice?  The answer is a sweet, merciful “no.”  This is old-fashioned Tetris, exactly what XBLA needs.  The only difference is that this version can accomodate up to six people at once, and the “splash” only means that it sports an aquatic theme. 

I was afraid there’d be an option to drop a boulder onto the blocks and “splash” some of them off the board.  I would have then decided to drop a boulder on my 360 and “splash” it across my driveway.