Overlord: First Impressions

By Shamus
on Mar 9, 2009
Filed under:
Game Reviews

In Overlord, you begin the game with a bunch of nasty little goblins prying the lid off your coffin, standing you up, and declaring you to be their new master. Whether or not you have been fully brought back to life or are simply the reanimated dead seems to be up for debate. In any case, you’re up and about with a following of minions and an evil tower of your very own.

I can’t think of an existing genre that could contain this game without qualification. Trying to categorize this game will turn me into the sort of pretentious doorknob long since lampooned in this Penny Arcade strip. But categorizing the game is sort of my job here, so I’m going to have to suck it up and be a doorknob for the sake of the review. I guess I’d call it an adventure RPG action game with quasi real time strategy unit control. With puzzle elements. And a hint of sim. Or something. I mean, you have these guys, and they kill stuff when you tell them to, okay?

Once you sack a house, smoke pours out of the front door.  This is funny in a cartoon sort of way, while giving you a nice indicator of which houses you’ve done and which ones still have goodies inside. Just because I’m evil doesn’t mean I don’t want to be thorough.
Once you sack a house, smoke pours out of the front door. This is funny in a cartoon sort of way, while giving you a nice indicator of which houses you’ve done and which ones still have goodies inside. Just because I’m evil doesn’t mean I don’t want to be thorough.
The game isn’t anything like Fable 2 in terms of gameplay, but I can see why the two games are compared so often. Both have a stylized storybook feel which is both whimsical and charming, and which acts acts as an absurd backdrop for the hilariously mean sense of humor. (That sense of humor vanishes during the central story of Fable 2, but Overlord suffers no such confusion.) I don’t usually enjoy playing the bad guy. Like this series by John Walker at Eurogamer, I tend to recoil at the thought of being a jerk to nice people. It takes a certain degree of willpower to go for the really awful choices in a game. But this does not seem to be a problem with Overlord. The peasants are humorously thick-headed goofs who are just begging to be subjugated. Their homes are delightfully smashable cottages full of plunder. And putting the lot of them under your boot gives lasting rewards. This is a game that lets you revel in your cartoon evilness.

At the heart of the game is a system for controlling your army of minions, which grows ever larger as you progress through the game. There are four types of minions, which loosely correspond to classic MMO character classes. You begin with brown minions. (Your basic fighter class.) Later you will acquire red minions (ranged attackers) green minions (backstabbing damage-dealers) and blue minions (fragile healers) by performing certain quests. Your avatar can engage in direct combat with the use of his axe and a few magic spells. Early in the game you’ll probably be on the front lines supporting your troops in combat, but as your army grows it makes less and less sense to place yourself in harm’s way when you have so many obedient servants prepared to kill or die at your command. It’s usually easier to replace them than to heal yourself. There is a cap on how many you can lead at once, but there are stone circles spread around the world where you can change the ratio if you find yourself needing more or less of a particular color, or if you need to replenish lost forces.

Have you ever wondered where you <strong>put</strong> all that gold you’re accumulating in an RPG? In Overlord, you can go to your vault and see your ever-growing pile of ill-gotten dosh.  This is very satisfying. It actually made me not want to spend money.
Have you ever wondered where you put all that gold you’re accumulating in an RPG? In Overlord, you can go to your vault and see your ever-growing pile of ill-gotten dosh. This is very satisfying. It actually made me not want to spend money.
In other games, you must earn your living by trudging through the world, bashing up barrels and crates and scavenging your way up the equipment ladder. But a proper ruler doesn’t waste his time on that sort of gross manual labor. In Overlord, you simply hold down a button to let your minions run wild, smashing and looting everything in their path. (The player base has charmingly dubbed this button “auto-rape”.) Your minions bring the the spoils with an sadistic enthusiasm, and equip themselves with useful plunder. They’re armorless and bare-handed when you first summon them, but they grow in power as they accumulate better and better items. (Which creates a small incentive to use them wisely instead of carelessly sending them to their deaths.) Seeing them caper and cheer as they trade up from one weapon to another is almost as rewarding as getting a new one yourself.

Oppress the people of Spree enough, and they will let you make off with some of their women.  They’re supposedly your slaves, although they just hang around your throne room wearing clothing not at all suitable for manual labor.
Oppress the people of Spree enough, and they will let you make off with some of their women. They’re supposedly your slaves, although they just hang around your throne room wearing clothing not at all suitable for manual labor.
I need to give Codemasters credit for making an effective control scheme. In this game you have the standard controls: Move, target opponents, attack, use magic, move the camera, and select spells. But you also have controls for directly moving your troops around, breaking them into groups, giving orders to specific minion types or even individuals, directing them to attack or retreat, and a number of other functions. That is a lot of input to pack into the standard controller, and I managed to get the hang of most of it within a few minutes. (Although I didn’t know it was possible to manually manipulate the camera until someone mentioned it in the comments. (I should also note that the camera did pretty well on its own. It’s a rare game that has an auto-camera that doesn’t make a hash of the gameplay. The camera was always where I needed it unless I was doing something unexpected (like making comics) and it even managed to see me through tight corridors and rooms without frustrating me.))

I have a nitpicks post coming up, but the bottom line is that the game is new, different, witty, and fun.

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201030 comments. (A twenty-sided die has 30 edges.)

From the Archives:

  1. Rawling says:

    Sounds a bit like Pikmin. Evil Pikmin.

  2. Guus says:

    I love Overlord, not just because it’s dutch and so am I, but because it was fresh and new without being a drooling mutant.
    A lot of games present themselves as new or innovative, and are either a rehash of old stuff or suffer from broken gameplay/story./music/and what not.
    Overlord didn’t have any of it, and I thoroughly enjoyed it for that.

  3. LintMan says:

    I’m looking forward to John Walker’s next installment – I hate playing as a bad guy also, so this is interesting reading. I didn’t even do the real bad guy stuff in Overlord.

    The Xbox 360 controller scheme is pretty good, though I was never really satisfied with the camera control, myself. I tried using the mouse and keyboard at first, but that doesn’t work that well for this game.

    I don’t think your Overlord character is undead. I’m not even sure he needed to be resurrected. But for those who haven’t finished the game, I’ll add a spoiler warning:

    SPOILER ALERT!

    At the end you discover that you’ve been set up/used by the real baddies, from the very beginning. I think by that account, the whole thing of the minions “discovering” you in the tomb in the basement has to be a fabrication. And if they just planted you there to mislead you about who you are, you can’t really assume much else was true.

    END SPOILER ALERT!

  4. Primogenitor says:

    Door-knob, or Dork-nob? Was it just me that had to read that twice?

  5. A fan says:

    You can also make yourself some new weapons, like a sword or a mace.And even armour.

  6. Jos says:

    I always go for the mace just to complete that Sauron look the Overlord’s got going for him.

    However, I only waded into battle personally later in the game. Early on you got little health and crap magic so you can’t really do much and have to rely on your minions. Later, when better smelting opportunities become available and you’ve got so many minions it’s no problem to throw a few hundred of them into the fires for greater defence and health regeneration and whatnot, the Overlord becomes a near-indestructable force of destruction.

  7. Cat Skyfire says:

    What platform did you play it on? PC? Console?

  8. Anaphyis says:

    “Both have a stylized storybook feel which is both whimsical and charming, and which acts acts as an absurd backdrop[…]”

  9. Carcer says:

    Actually, as the game progresses and you get better armor and weapons, it makes even more sense to put yourself on the frontlines.

    You can survive much more punishment than your minions late in the game, and your minions, once they’vre grabbed armour and weaponry themselves. become quite valuable and its massively frustrating when one of them dies.

    Or all of them die.

  10. DKellis says:

    I remember really liking the idea behind the game, but giving up after the nth frustrated instance of sending my minions to their doom thanks to crappy keyboard-and-mouse controls.

    I realise that it’s likely the best the devs could do, but I never really got the hang of the “controlling the path using both mouse buttons” thing.

  11. lebkin says:

    This is still one of my favorite Xbox 360 games. It just has a wonderful charm to it. The game never felt too frustrating, either in controls or difficulty. Instead, I got a nice, even play experience. It is one that I will probably go back to and run through it again someday.

  12. Jock says:

    A propos of nothing but my freakish knowledge of your previous posts, just find it funny that the Penny Arcade comic you linked to came right in the middle of your ‘Golden Age of Gaming’ (http://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=1861). I think what we have is a case of the Back-in-the-Days :)

  13. Yar Kramer says:

    You know, if you outright can’t comprehensively define what category it falls into (assuming it’s not just a muddled mess of confusion), that probably means somebody’s doing something right. On the other hand, it’s probably going to be less-accessible to the newcomers …

    As far as that goes, incidentally, how “punitive” is failure in Overlord?

  14. Sam says:

    I think I might have to try this game out. It sounds too entertaining to pass by. Can anyone who owns the PC version tell me if it’s riddled with DRM or if it’s relatively decent when it comes to that?

  15. Spider Dave says:

    Failure in overlord is varied. Your minions could get wiped out, in which case you’d better high tail it back to the last spawn point. If you die, you have options: quit the game (usually not very rewarding since you arent playing anymore)(reload the last save file (A LONG TIME AGO) or respawn back at your base (which means that everything actually happened, minions died etc, but is otherwise not punitive at all.)

    I really liked the idea behind this game, but it didnt quite live up to my expectations. The game is funny, it looks good, your little gobbies are hilarious and exceptionally fun to boss around; but I kinda wish there were only one type of minion. I’m not very good at the game yet, and all my non-browns just die all the time. Then I need to go harvest more souls, and it’s a pain.
    Also, I feel really restricted when I’m playing it; I want to take over many villages and crush heros beneath my boot when they challenge me…I want to have an agenda that other people need to stop to save the world. As the game is now, it feels like standard hero work; stop the bandits from attacking the poor innocents, kill their leader, de enchant the forest, stop the Zombie plague, yada yada. And jeepers, do I ever not want to be a hero when I’m playing this.

  16. Brian Ballsun-Stanton says:

    My favorite part of Overlord was that it was written by Rhianna Pratchett, daughter of Sir Terry. The Pratchett influence is obvious, even when writing for a plot-by-committee. However, I do think it made the game what it was.

  17. Maldeus says:

    IGN’s review could be summed up as “It’s fun until it breaks.” I don’t know if you read this deep into the comments, Shamus, but if you do, I’d like to know if you ran into any game-breaking bugs like this.

  18. Miral says:

    I look forward to the nitpicks :) (And I too am curious about which platform you were using.)

    Overlord was definitely a lot of fun (and I keep meaning to pick up the expansion pack sometime, but there’s far too many other games on my list at the moment).

    One thing that did trap me a bit, though — when you get close to the end of the game, you need to remember to stockpile enough minions. There aren’t as many opportunities to increase your minion count once you get to the endgame, and the boss fight at the end gets quite tricky if you start to run short… (I played through it twice, once as good-evil and once as evil-evil. When playing good-evil I did start to run a bit short of minions at the end; as evil-evil I had thousands to spare. Not sure if that’s just the result of better experience or if there’s a difference in the balance involved.)

  19. modus0 says:

    @ Miral

    Use the dungeon to harvest enough life-force. You can get about 70 life-force from any of the beetles each time you go through a dungeon “battle”. Makes encountering brown, red, green, and blue beetles very worthwhile.

    @lebkin
    As for the PC control scheme, I’d recommend getting a wired Xbox 360 controller, and mapping the controls to that, it’s what I did. Removed all the control issues I’d had with the keyboard and mouse.

    The biggest gripe I have for the PC version of Overlord is that they didn’t include a tie-in to Live and Achievements. Some are mentioned as “accomplishments”, but they’re just mentions (like the Enemy of Mankind one). Given that at least some of the achievement mechanics are still there, it’s a chump move that Codemasters did not letting PC gamers get any achievements.

  20. SolkaTruesilver says:

    Well, the “Achivement” is merely calculated with your “Corruption Level”. I don’t remember if it had any influence in-game..

    By the way, Shamus, try making items that cost a lot of soul. I really love that they show you exactly how many people died for your new unholy sword.

  21. John SMith says:

    @Sam – Overlord PC DVD is a DVD check of some kind. No activation thankfully though, unless you buy the download version.

    The overlord add on is only avaliable on DVD if you have a console or live in Germany. The addon for PC is only avaliable in an activation infested download.

    If they brought the add on out on a no activation DVD for the PC I would snap it up!

  22. John SMith says:

    @modus0 – I’m glad they did not include any tie-in’s to Live and the like. If they did they would probably have gone with activation via Live (Like most but not all Live PC games do) and I would not have been able to buy the game as I don’t have an Internet connection at home and even if I did I dispise having to ask permission to play something I paid good money for.

    Of course if they made activation over Live optional. I.e. You can activate it and not use the DVD or use the DVD and not activate it (Hopefully with a patch in a couple of years to remove the activation and DVD requirements as the main sales stage by that time would be over) I would have no argument to that. Its fair to both parties and give you the achievements thing you like too.

  23. Inscrutibob says:

    No mention of Dungeon Keeper? Sounds like a lot of overlap in the territory.

  24. StingRay says:

    @ Rawling:

    It is Pikmin. Evil, glorious Pikmin. (“Glorious” is based purely on a couple hours of play.)

  25. JW says:

    You need to mention how cute the minions are. After the first time playing it, my wife and I spent the better part of a week saying, “For me?” “For youuuu!” whenever we, say, passed the salt at the dinner table.

    Inscrutibob: Similar to DK only in the fact that you’re an evil baddy building up your evil empire in a fun and funny fashion, totally different gameplay.

  26. MuonDecay says:

    Damnit, you made me start playing it again.

  27. MadTinkerer says:

    Shamus, I can assure you the PC version is just as fun. There’s just one tiny issue: The expansion is a console-exclusive. Fortunately, the main game of Overlord is plenty fun without it.

    The minions are the core of the game, and just brilliantly well done. Their enthusiastic loyalty to the point of cheering as they’re being sacrificed to upgrade your weapons is hilarious. Every time they bring me gold with a cry of “For you!” “For the mastah!” it always brings a smile to my face.

    I too am itching to play it again after reading this, but I’m holding off for now because I’m in the middle of other projects.

    I actually prefer the benevolent path, because the peasants constantly lick your boots, metaphorically speaking. I’ve never received so much gratitude in any other game for being a hero. Also, I like the spells better and the armor is shinier.

  28. MadTinkerer says:

    Brian Ballsun-Stanton: “My favorite part of Overlord was that it was written by Rhianna Pratchett, daughter of Sir Terry.”

    I did not know that, but it makes total sense in retrospect.

  29. G-funky says:

    I’ve always thought that the two games you were missing in your “Golden Age” mythology were:

    Heroes of Might and Magic and Civilization

    I’ve reached the point where I can comfortably call Civilization IV (particularly with the Beyond the Sword expansion) my favorite game of all time. I can play it for hours, put it down, come back in a month or two and get hooked all over again.

    Heroes of Might and Magic peaked with the 3rd title in the set (Heroes of Might and Magic IV was buggy and the company fell apart, Heroes V didn’t quite draw me in) — I can think of no other game more enjoyable as a Hot-seat game than what HOMM III was (many were the hours that my brother, sister, and I spent crowded around the PC, playing hot-seat games of both II and III).

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