Developer: Ruari O'Sullivan
Release Date: April 4, 2019
Reviewed On: Switch
Genre: Action Platformer
With the increase in roguelike games, developers have to think outside the box to stand out in the genre. And while Overwhelm from developer Ruari O’Sullivan does check the usual boxes seen in other titles, with elements such as pixel art, twitch control platforming, and dying a lot of times. Using fear and dread in its atmosphere is how Overwhelm truly stands out from the crowd.
Overwhelm starts off with the player entering an area of the game known as the hive. While being introduced to the controls and rules of the world, the game teaches its systems early on. With things like platforming and the game’s twin-stick shooting mechanics nailed down, players enter a dangerous hive that the player needs to destroy. To do this, the player must defeat five bosses, collect their crystals and then return to a generator to face the final boss. The game is presented with eerie black and red visuals that let me know the hive is not a place full of sunshine and rainbows.
Instead, I ventured force in the hive accompanied by a tense soundtrack along with grinding sound effects that made me feel like I was going to die any moment. Like a number of titles in the genre, Overwhelm has branching paths that let the player attack the hive in any direction they choose in order to reach one of many bosses in the game. Each path has various environments, obstacles, and creatures to keep the player on their toes. The first time entering each area had me take my time due to how quickly an enemy can take you out.
Enemies in Overwhelm can kill you in a blink of an eye. I had to find a balance between treading carefully and reacting to enemies quickly. If I took my time, enemies seemed to respawn behind me and I would end up wasting too many bullets. However, if I went too fast, I would end up being surrounded by enemies since they are prone to following the character through multiple sections.
Inevitably, you’ll die, and with death comes consequences. Such as if you were carrying a crystal from a defeated boss when you died then you’ll need to retrieve it, a la Dark Souls. Additionally, the more you die, the louder the sound effects get, and shallower your vision becomes as the game aims to intensify the overall dread. In the event that you exhaust all three lives, and trust me, you will, you restart with every crystal gone and the bosses revived.
Luckily, Randomnine designed such a brutal game with some caveats to lessen the deep failure I felt during my playthroughs. For one, I appreciated the choice to have a small set of button commands. The few inputs include punch, gunfire, and jump commands which allowed me to focus on my actions during the times I needed fast reflexes. Also, when arriving at a bosses dungeon, your ammo is refilled, giving players a fighting chance.
After defeating the boss and dropping the retrieved crystal into a generator your lives reset which easies the trek to the next boss. While these features made the adventure more approachable, the fear of losing my progress never escaped me. On the player’s fine life, the words “Last Chance” are towering over your character as the sounds effects rise to a loud grind. This is how Overwhelm gets horror mixed in its sub-genre and I can appreciate a game that blends genres to create something unique.
What I find most interesting about the game is how it steps back and give players the choice to tackle bosses in any order they choose. This means each player has the potential to have a completely different experience. What makes this even truer is that after a boss is defeated the hive evolves to have creatures with those same traits appear throughout the game. For example, when finishing off a boss that is a giant ant with the ability to spit venom, the hive gains enemies that do the same. Similar to when you continue your adventure and defeat a boss that has a shield covering its face, well now there are ramming beasts you need to attack from behind, on top of spitting venom monsters. These mechanics continue to stack until your final encounter, resulting in a game that gets harder as you progress.
This feature makes choosing which bosses to take on one of the biggest choices in the game given that it all depends on what the player considers themselves good at. Sure, you could take on the flying boss first, but then you’ll need to deal with those enemy types throughout your entire adventure. Though the game is never easy, choices like these gave me a sense of control and encouraged me to find a plan of attack that worked with my play style.
Additionally, the same screen co-op mode for the Switch version does a decent job with introducing players to the rogue-like genre in a fun way. Passing a Joy-Con to a friend offers players an easy way to collect some crystals as they take their chances to get to the final boss together. While the mode sacrifices accurate aiming done with the right analog stick, the added auto-aim feature with the left stick does the job. More interestingly, a downed partner can be revived by standing over the character and waiting for the resurrection. These refinements make it clear that the mode was designed to ease the difficulty which I can appreciate on a console focused on multiplayer options.
With that said, Overwhelm is not without its faults. Games of this genre tend to need controls to be reliable, especially with roguelikes’ nature to strip players of all progress upon deaths. So it’s disappointing when the camera has an issue shifting between sections of an area. As you’re running through the map, there are edges of a map that the camera will through as your character enters new areas. The issue occurs when the camera sticks to those edges, limiting your view ahead. All while enemies are still active and attacking off-screen, making it nearly impossible to avoid death. In my playthrough, it was definitely frustrating when I lost my “last chance” life to this, causing me to unfairly start again.
And while on the subject of control reliability, the double jump also caused issues for me when dodging enemies. Since the double jump also acts as an uppercut attack, it has a forward arc. While useful in its own right, I had difficulties in tough sections that required me to jump on higher platforms that were within a tight area. Most notably in a boss fight that had me run away from a giant tunneling worm while climbing. The forward arc caused me to “stick” to walls, similar to wall clings in other platformers. But since only movement available from wall clings is kicking off the wall, I perform actions that resulted in many deaths.
Overwhelm is a refreshing take on pixel art roguelikes. It cleverly uses the nature of the genre’s death system along with visuals, sounds, and gameplay to convey dread and fear. In addition to that, the ever-growing roster of enemies and traps fit the narrative of an evolving hive that’s out to crush you. And crush you it will. Overwhelm is for fans of difficult and fast roguelikes who don’t mind their skills being put to the test. Sure the camera can act against you at certain times, but this is one spooky and frustrating adventure that I just couldn’t seem to put down.
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