Roguelites, and games like them (let’s just call them “Restart Games”), often persist due to their variability from one playthrough to another. The roll of the dice is what keeps us coming back for “one more run,” and the endless possibilities of power-ups, enemy types, level design, and even what boss you’ll be facing are all part of the main hook. Overwhelm, announced and released at this year’s PC Gaming E3 conference, offers a different kind of variability: instead of you getting stronger when you succeed, the enemies do.
When I first saw the launch trailer (embedded above), I was enthralled by the game’s art style and oppressive atmosphere. Enemies are brutal, and the three-tone landscape creates a sense of dread as you stumble from one room to the next. The sound design is also top-notch, giving the “crunchy” (in the developer’s words) combat the punch it needs to feel satisfying.
Overwhelm features five main bosses, all accessible via a hub area that acts as a safe zone and through-point to the different zones. The only goal of the game is to defeat each boss, collect the crystal it holds, and get it back to the safe room intact. Do this five times, defeat the final boss, and you’ve beaten the game. This is no small task, however, as every time you defeat a boss enemies in the world gain a power akin to the zone’s theme. Defeating the acid-spitting ant boss allows enemies to shoot projectiles. Killing the wall-walking lizard boss allows the spider-like enemies to cling menacingly to walls and ceilings. Combine these powers for an absolute nightmare. Deciding which boss to fight first, and planning your route to make life easiest, is all part of the fun.
The main catch, compounding the game’s already brutal difficulty, is its one-shot, one-kill policy and lives system. If you’re so much as grazed by an errant pixel you die horribly. Three lives are allotted at the beginning of a run, and are only replenished when defeating a boss and when returning their crystal to the safe room. Dying also has the unfortunate effect of constricting your view radius, and on the last life you’ll be moving at a snail’s pace for fear of being ambushed from off-screen. This can feel at odds with the zippy double and wall jumps, since you’ll spend most of your time slowly sneaking along on the ground.
Enemies are unpredictable, sometimes lunging in just a way that will leave players cursing at the supposed unfairness of it all. This is compounded by a bewildering camera system. Instead of being able to “peek” around anywhere using the cursor, the game takes it upon itself to designate choke points at doorways. If this were Metroid, the camera would scroll to the next room as it loaded, but in Overwhelm the camera simply cannot be advanced beyond these points until you’ve breached them. This means if there’s an enemy lurking just in the next room, you may not know until it’s too late. Even under an objective lens, some deaths are simply unavoidable, and with only three lives, this can lead to serious frustration.
In light of this, there’s an option for players who are feeling, excuse me, overwhelmed. An assist mode can be activated, allowing for infinite lives. Options like these are great for those who want to see the content a game this challenging has to offer, but it’s also a great mode for practicing a specific segment if you’re feeling stuck.
But for all the available challenge, the game is light on actual content. With just a handful of enemy types and a small map with little replayability, Overwhelm ends up feeling a little sparse. This would be perfectly fine if it were near-perfect in execution, much like the similarly-styled Downwell, which features a score and upgrade system, along with other goodies to unlock. But not even the highlights – its bosses – are very well designed; four of the five simply chase after the player as their mode of attack. When it feels like you’ve got a boss on the ropes, they jarringly teleport away. This, along with the game’s overall difficulty, feel like a compromise to interesting design, and that’s more frustrating than any death.
Overwhelm asks a lot from a prospective player, and offers little in return besides the same hour or two of gameplay rehashed with minimal variability. It’s captivating for the first hour or so, when the world feels mysterious and horrifying. The luster fades quickly, however, when you’ve fought a nauseating number of repetitive enemies which evolve well past the point of being fair. Overwhelm has something interesting going on under the hood with its enemy evolution system, but it doesn’t hold up its end of the bargain when it comes to rewarding gameplay and a fun challenge. The presentation as a whole is excellent; I only wish this quality carried over to the game’s design.
This review is based on the PC version of the game. A copy was provided by Untitled Publisher.
Overwhelm has something interesting going on under the hood with its enemy evolution system, but it doesn't hold up its end of the bargain when it comes to providing rewarding gameplay and a fun challenge.