Overgrowth is something of an indie Daikatana. It is, of course, a better game than Daikatana, and thankfully never sold itself with the threat of one-sided sexual gratification, but “hubris” is still the word that most springs to mind when I think of it. It’s a self-proclaimed “absurdly ambitious” title that’s been in development for nearly a decade with practically nothing to show for it. In fact, if I didn’t know what a massive undertaking programming a game engine is, I’d assume this was a rush job. It’s technically spotty, presented in a bland and disjointed manner, and actually removes more features from its predecessor Lugaru than it adds.
Both games are surprisingly dark Watership Down-as-martial arts titles ,featuring context-sensitive combat based on timing and movement, stealth elements, two damage types that affect the player differently, and the ability to launch yourself off walls and enemies with powerful jumps. But where Lugaru contained the ability run on all fours for added speed, as well as enemies who could smell the protagonist if he was downwind or had blood on him, Overgrowth has…a greater platforming focus and unusually organic blood physics. Yay? For what it’s worth, the stealth and platforming are moderately satisfying. Like teleporting in Dishonored, the ridiculous aerial capabilities of Overgrowth’s rabbit protagonist Turner lend a tense, efficient quality to sneaking, and the enormous environments can be fun to leap around in. Every aspect of the gameplay has problems, however.
Regarding the platforming, while calculating huge jumps eventually feels quite natural, ledges and walls cause it to become uncooperative again. The number of ledges I pulled myself up to without incident was matched by the number that I attempted, only to have Turner do a little glitchy shift upwards a few feet and fall right off. Additionally, the window for launching a wall jump always closes a split-second before it looks like it should, which wouldn’t be a problem, except that nearly all of the dedicated platforming sections stretch their gaps to the maximum achievable distance. In stealth segments, the issues are mostly with missed potential – only the weakest enemies can be silently killed, and while you can hide bodies, the levels are so open and your movement is so fast that there’s never any incentive to do so.
The all-important combat is the most frustrating, because it may be one of the most inconsistent systems I’ve ever encountered. Sometimes both enemies and players get immediate one-hit kills, while identical situations only end after 3 or more strikes. Pressing the block button just before an attack lands is supposed to counter it, but with next to no indication of when a blow will be thrown, it’s largely a guessing exercise. I think there’s a location-based factor in damage calculation (i.e. head strikes are stronger than torso ones, etc.) but the game never mentioned one, so I honestly don’t know. It’s a poor decision regardless, because another thing that goes unexplained is what movements and contexts trigger what actions, giving you little control over where and how you attack.
When it works, the combat looks and feels great, but whether or not that will happen in a given encounter is anybody’s guess. The “leg cannon” move – the aforementioned ability to launch yourself off enemies – is especially satisfying, but its simplified use after Lugaru makes it extremely overpowered. Relatedly, the easiest scuffles in the game are with the bosses, because they’re almost always fought alone and are only one stunlock away from dropping dead. The ability to finely adjust both the game speed and overall difficulty using sliders is greatly appreciated, but since inconsistency is the biggest roadblock here, it doesn’t improve the experience much.
The difficulty becomes even more uneven when tackling the remake of Lugaru included alongside Overgrowth. The developers clearly couldn’t decide which campaign should introduce players to the game; both of their endings suggest the player begin the other one. More importantly, while the Lugaru story is the quicker, easier one (because a lot of its content was stripped down and the updated combat mechanics are more straightforward), it doesn’t include any tutorials. So regardless of the player’s decision, the prequel will always be astonishingly underwhelming, either because of confusion-induced frustration, or because of simplicity-induced boredom.
Honestly, the package as a whole is only made worse with Lugaru’s inclusion. In addition to tacking on an extra hour of pointless gameplay and unnecessarily eating up who-knows-how-much development time, the decision to cut up and reformulate the narrative was bizarre. The plot, which begins with Turner’s family being murdered and him swearing revenge, always went off in a pretty nonsensical direction, but now it flits around at a disorienting pace following a newly unlikeable protagonist. Where Turner previously had moments of introspection and hesitation, this new incarnation undergoes the fastest “he who fights monsters” transformation I’ve ever seen, before abruptly ending the story with a flimsy excuse for a segue into the sequel.
The sequel’s story is of about equal quality. It once again follows Turner as he tracks down the source of an invasion and becomes a colossal Mary Sue, to the point where I was surprised there was no reveal of him being part wolf by the end. Every scene exists to cement the protagonist as a misunderstood badass: characters tell him doing something is impossible, and then he does it; he tries to talk his way through a situation and is summarily denied by everyone; and most egregiously, characters ask that he not resort to violence, only to forget about it when he inevitably resorts to violence.
I appreciate the inclusion of moral characters from all of the visible races – it elevates the enterprise above a simple M-rated Redwall – but the way everyone drops in and out of the plot after a scene or two makes it impossible to care about or even differentiate most of them. The game can’t even keep its story and gameplay aligned; a quote instructing rabbits to run and hide if they see a wolf instead of fighting is immediately followed by the first encounter with a wolf…which you have to fight. Finally, for any fans of the previous game hoping that this sequel would touch on the ambiguously post-apocalyptic nature of the setting, you’ll be out of luck.
The developers have stated that one of their reasons for making their game about anthropomorphic animals rather than humans was to avoid the uncanny valley, but it really didn’t work. The story is told with static cutscenes that highlight the character’s expressionless black eyes, making them even less relatable. Similarly, Overgrowth’s press kit touted the game’s realistic blood effects as having never been done before, and it’s clear that the reason for that is because they don’t look right at all. It was admittedly rather impressive the first time I flubbed a leg cannon and spent the rest of the mission with Turner bleeding from the back of his head, but most the time, it just looks like the combatants all have squiggly lines of red paint applied to their bodies.
For such a small team to create an engine of this calibre is a commendable feat, but the way its used is full of rookie mistakes. Characters in battle constantly clip into each other, diminishing the impact of the smooth animations, and there were several sections where the borders of the ground textures were clearly visible. On the audio side, the lack of voice acting leaves the cutscenes feeling especially empty, but it also means we dodged the bullet of bad indie game voice acting. The soundtrack is suitably atmospheric, but suffers from severe repetition throughout both campaigns.
It’s possible that Overgrowth would have blown minds had it been released when it was first announced back in 2008. It would probably be passable entertainment, at least. In 2017, however, it merely feels like a shallower, more linear Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry bogged down with a dreary, self-important story. Come to think of it, someone at Ubisoft is clearly a Lugaru fan, given that directional combat was the big schtick of For Honor. The difference is that I’m 100% sure that For Honor’s system had an effect beyond aesthetics, which I can’t say about Overgrowth.
This review is based on the PC version of the game, which we were provided with by Humble Bundle.
Overgrowth's opaque combat, off-putting presentation, and unremarkable ideas would have made it a mediocre game ten years ago. Today, they make it a bad one.