We step into bright midday sunshine. Before us lies a textbook country vista: rolling hills stretch off into the distance, blanketed by lush green grass. Flowers angle their heads towards the sun and a flock of sheep nonchalantly chew upon the grass. It’s an idyllic scene. But the peace is about to be shattered.
Smirking maliciously, we project our will to the diminutive creatures standing next to us. Their howls of laughter fill the air as a handful of them rush over to the nearest group of ovines and start attacking them with the pieces of wood they’ve picked up as makeshift weapons. One even gets on a sheep’s back, riding the panicked beast round the field before it too is sent to the big shepherd in the sky. PETA is probably preparing a lawsuit right now.
It’s a typical scene from Overlord, the game in which you play an evil warlord with a host of mischievous goblin-like minions at your command. Set in a lush fantasy world with a slightly dark sense of humor, your task is to defeat seven heroes and gain uncontested dominion over the realm. For a quick idea of what the game’s like, the settings (and the strong country accents) instantly bring Fable to mind, while the gameplay has more in common with Nintendo’s Pikmin.
As well as conquering and pillaging, you also have to recover various items strewn around the levels in order to upgrade your private tower into the ultimate evil “crib.” That includes opening up a forge where you can create upgraded armor and weapons by sacrificing your minions, getting yourself a buxom wench and decorating the place to your evil tastes.
However, it’s the minions themselves that are the highlight of the game. You start with only brown minions (strong attack) but will soon rescue three more hives, bringing the red (fire-resistant, can throw fireballs and put fires out), blue (water-resistant and can heal other minions but weak to attacks) and green (resistant to poison and possessing a good stealth attack) minions under your control too. With only a limited number of minions at your disposal at any one time, you’ll use these little critters to rescue tower parts, take down enemies (after which you can harvest their life force, therefore earning you more minions) and generally pillage everything in sight. After all, evil overlords don’t spend their days making daisy chains and cuddling kittens.
Your minions are highly entertaining too, with some amusing dialogue, excellent voices (we detected a hint of Cartman more than once) and a liberal dose of humor - even the most devout of animal lovers will chuckle as they jump onto the backs of the bleating sheep. They’ll also pick up whatever they find lying around to use in battle, which occasionally yields amusing results (such as pumpkins used as helmets). And of course there’s a strange sense of satisfaction to be gained from trashing everything you see.
The game is pretty fiddly when played with mouse and keyboard, but is much better with an Xbox 360 gamepad (or equivalent) if you’re playing the PC version, where the dual analog sticks perfectly fit the character/minion control. Once you’re controlling your minions, the Pikmin similarities become self-evident. Direct your minions to swarm a creature and an indicator of how many are attacking it appears above its head. Objects that need to be retrieved have numbers above them indicating how many minions are needed to carry them. And when you first meet the giant frogs, you almost find yourself starting to look for spaceship parts.
Despite a lack of originality in the settings (elven forests, dwarven mines, swampy caves… yawn), some good artistic design largely saves the day. The forest of the elves is a particular highlight, with its misty waters, pulsating roots, giant frogs and luminous toxic plants. Connecting these levels is open countryside, populated by inbred peasants (we assume by the fact that there’s only a handful of different character models that they’re all “well acquainted” with one another) and a lot of sheep. Strangely though, the game is devoid of a map, leading to a fair bit of aimless wandering - a real issue in a game where you’re free to go where you want.
The enemies are another highlight, especially the boss battles. From the halfling leader who’s eaten the entire village’s food supplies and now rolls around like a beach-ball (and who, rather disgustingly, has to be finished off by popping him), to super-violent unicorns, cackling succubae and aquatic serpentine menaces, some real thought has gone into creating these and the different methods required to defeat them.
Unsurprisingly though, even evil overlords have issues. For one, your main character is disappointingly weak. This is the guy meant to be the epitome of evil and yet, more than once, we found ourselves getting our butt handed to us by an insect. Evil overlords just aren’t what they used to be. Healing points often feel too far apart and there are times when you have the wrong mix of minions or not enough of a particular type, forcing you to trudge back through levels. Multiplayer proves to be a confusing affair, with nothing to differentiate between one player’s minions and another.
While Overlord has some good ideas, its minor issues can be frustrating and time-consuming, and after a while the “puzzle solving” starts to feel a little repetitive. On top of that, the balancing could do with some tweaking, with some enemies too hard to defeat and some bosses too easy. However, playing as a character devoid of morals is still very appealing, and smashing up everything in sight does provide a massive dose of stress relief. Shame there weren’t any sharks with frickin’ laser beams on their heads though.