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Codemasters and Triumph Studios deliver an entertaining mix between Fable and Pikmin on the Xbox 360 and PC...
- Unique action/adventure gameplay.
- Sense of humour.
- Satisfying tactical gameplay.
- Clunky control setup.
- Aimless wandering without an in-game map.
- Dated combat system.
Amidst a chorus of yokel twangs and moral dilemmas to face at every fork in the adventure, Codemasters and Triumph Studios' Overlord bears more than a passing resemblance to the works of Peter Molyneux at first glance. Yet despite the apparent similarities to Fable and the undoubted Dungeon Keeper influences lurking beneath, the biggest inspiration behind Overlord stems from something surprisingly different.
Taking on the role of a recently resurrected dark master, Overlord challenges players to succeed by being wicked and evil, launching a shadow of darkness upon the lands with which you walk, razing and pillaging to earn enough gold to return the evil tower to its former glory and pick up a wench or two on the side. Split between five different areas of largely routine mission objectives - collect this, go there, kill him - Overlord differs from the typical third-person action/adventure mould, by placing the focus on the four types of minions found within the game instead of the imposing protagonist. Essentially a darker take on Miyamoto's Pikmin, taking control with the right-thumb stick to 'sweep' your minions into position, Overlord presents a complex and imaginative setup that initially seems clunky and unwieldy, but ultimately creates a refreshingly unique experience on the Xbox 360.
Unlike Fable, Overlord isn't necessarily a choice between good and evil, but more a case of just how evil you want to be. A handful of these choices are scattered throughout the game, whilst you're free to slaughter innocent civilians to impose a little fear wherever you go. Using the evil tower as a central hub, the non-linear progression ensures Overlord always manages to keep a hook on you, despite its numerous frustrations. When spreading evil across the land and the missions loose their appeal, you can use your ill-gotten gains to spruce up the evil tower with a catalogue full of furniture and decorations that would please any inspiring evil masters. A small touch, but one that lends a sense of customisation and reward for the piles of gold you'll amass throughout the game.
Undoubtedly the stars of the show, the Gremlin-esque minions rampage through the game's villages, towns and dungeons, doing their best impersonation of football hooligans as they chug down beer, pee all over the place and leave a wake of destruction behind them. Colour-coded by the Red, Green, Blue and... Brown face-buttons, each minion type has its own skills and abilities to help the Overlord on his way. Beyond teaming up in numbers to overcome their individual weaknesses, unleashing an assault on any halfling, elf or dwarf the Overlord chooses, and chasing after you with a bag of gold, arms outstretched in sheer devotion, the minions provide the tools to solve the various puzzles and handle the game's tougher opponents. Beyond taking direct control with the right thumbstick, the Overlord can also target specific opponents, items and objects to attract the minions' interest. Unfortunately, the targeting system is one of the most erratic around and a constant barrier to what you're trying to achieve in the game, flipping between everything you don't actually want and more often nothing at all.
Overlord's initially unremarkable hack n' slash manner soon reveals a more rewarding tactical side. Largely a result of the minions' effectiveness coupled with the Overlord's initial inadequacies, strategy and tactics is paramount once all of the minion types have been unlocked. Positioning the fireball throwing Reds onto a high platform, concealing the Green assassins, whilst the weaker Blues hang-on to resurrect the casualties, the main brunt of the work lies with the balanced yet reliable Browns. Many of the game's lesser opponents can be dispatched with little thought; however, tougher adversaries such as bloodthirsty unicorns and seductive succubae will require a far more cunning approach. Spawning minions from the gates dotted around the landscape, the supply pool for each type is replenished by the varying life-form orbs collected from everything you and the minions slay. With a limited cap on the number of minions available (upgraded throughout the game), the positioning of these gates serves as the design for some of the games' more demanding puzzles. Beyond an all-too frequent quest for the spoke to unlock the door, Overlord is at its best when solving the puzzles geared around the various abilities of the four minions. Laying down barriers to prevent access with the exception of a particular minion (fire/red, gas/green, water/blue), Overlord's general design involves plenty of re-visiting regions to access areas that were previously inaccessible.
When staying behind, issuing orders and throwing minions into battle becomes a little too passive, the Overlord can wade into the battles to provide support and unleash his inner fury, the only problem is the actual execution falls a little flatter then we were hoping. Beyond an attack repertoire that involves little more then pressing the A button, a wider range of spells provides the only satisfaction to taking charge yourself. Taking control of the Overlord feels tired and bland, with the most exhilarating aspect stemming from the challenge of grappling with the auto-targeting system. After acquiring the three different smelters found throughout the game, additional weapon and armour upgrades become available to bring the Overlord up to spec and far less likely to die spectacularly amongst a crowd of beetles. Sacrificing the loyal minions to imbue their spirits into the various pieces in return for a variety of augmented bonuses, it's worth bearing in mind that the minions remain your most important instrument throughout the game.
Despite the apparent glee to which your loyal servants will jump to their doom and the appeal of a shiny new suit of armour, keeping a large stock of minions is advised as later stages can find stocks in significantly shorter supply. The inevitable slog through the landscape hunting for orbs constitutes Overlord's weakest moments. In addition, whilst the minions generally come across as a fairly intelligent bunch, carrying treasure and items back to the teleport on their own accord, there are times when they'll get lost and unable to rejoin you. Because there's a cap on the number of minions at your fingertips, this leads to situations where you're unable to find them and also incapable of summoning anymore, which can prevent further progress through the game - again the only solution is to trudge through the landscape once again, keeping an eye out for the critters. Fortunately, the inclusion of a printed map goes someway to curing one of the game's biggest problems, although the decision not to include an in-game option still seems baffling. For a game that involves a considerable amount of travelling across confusing landscapes, the little help provided by the printed map fails to solve the sheer amount of aimless wandering that's sometimes involved. Whilst the controls and auto-targeting are easy to overlook, this is Overlord's undeniable weakness and one element that you'd hope would be addressed with a quick patch - how hard can an in-game map be?
Offering a scant supply of Xbox Live options, Overlord presents Co-Op Survival and Versus modes. Challenging two players to combine their efforts, the Co-Op mode provides two maps with the simple objective of surviving across waves of increasingly difficult opponents. Versus presents Slaughter and Pillage game types, the former essentially a deathmatch, whilst the latter rewards the player who emerges with the most amount of gold. With a bare selection of modes and maps, Overlord's online options seem to be there for the sake of it and unlikely to provide any genuine long-term appeal, despite incorporating all of the minion gameplay from the main game. Unfortunately, our experiences with the game suffered from severe lag, which literally made the games unplayable.