Isolation in a game is a very tricky mechanic. If done properly, it can convey a sense of dread and helplessness to a player. Not the most pleasant feeling, but one that provides a lot of memorable experiences. The downside is that isolation done wrong just makes the player walk away. Falling short of your objective will most likely just make the player feel as if they are part of an empty world.
Enter Overwhelm, a game that was built up from the concept of being thrown into an isolated setting and the horrors that await you in every corner of the world.
Developer: Ruari O’Sullivan
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Release date: Apr 04, 2019
Overwhelm is a horror-action game. You are a knight and there is a hive, your objective is to eliminate said hive. The catch is that the hive is constantly adapting and becoming stronger, while you stay pretty much the same throughout the entirety of the game. The hive constitutes an interconnected map, so good luck trying to run away from your fears.
The most important element of Overwhelm is how the hive adapts to you, but allow me to explain the general structure of the game.
Upon starting a new game, you are thrown into the center of the hive. It is an interconnected map and you are free to choose any route you desire on the map. The map will be revealed as you explore the cave and it is always the same exact map so no randomly generated structures or anything. In terms of size, the map is quite small, but I appreciate the fact that it doesn’t change because knowing the layout is of utmost important for future runs. Trust me, you want to know every corner of the map because you will be coming back a lot after each death.
Your objective in the hive is to collect 5 crystals. Each of this crystals is guarded by a boss. Lucky for us, the location of the crystals is clearly marked on the map, so you can head into a general direction and find your target with ease.
Guardians of the hive
The catch is that with every boss defeat, the hive evolves! Each enemy boasts a distinct ability, and upon defeat this ability is bestowed upon the rest of the hive. For example, the forest spider boss will spit venom during its second phase. After it is defeated, the enemies will start spitting venom as well.
This simple mechanic coupled with the open nature of the hive gives the player a unique opportunity to plan a run ahead. Whether your strategy is going to be to start with the hardest boss, or end it with the one who has the most obnoxious ability, it is up to you to plan ahead and face the consequences of your decisions.
The bad aspect, is that the bosses, aside form having a unique ability, aren’t encounters I would classify as fun. This staleness is in part caused by the controls and in part by the bosses themselves. Twin stick shooters have a terrible habit of devolving into “run away from the enemy while shooting at it” kinds of games.
What’s your reaction time?
I have a habit of going through every single menu before starting a game for the first time. This means going to the new game screen, going to the options screen, going to extras, etc. Usually I don’t find anything interesting other than adjusting the volume and maybe even tweaking difficulty, but there was an option I had never seen before: reaction time in miliseconds.
As deceiving as the name might be, the real purpose of this slider is to define game speed. The default setting of 250 will be the fastest speed, while lowering it to 500 will makes things much more slower. I apologize for what I’m about to say, but I didn’t even try to play on the slowest speed, even for review purposes. I think the fastest speed is in line with other action shooters such as The Butcher, and it works like a charm.
During boss encounters, ocassionally the screen will go blank slightly and you will hear that same sound you used to hear when you changed channels on the TV. When this happens, the boss disappears and reappears shortly after. It is definitely a novelty. It doesn’t seem the enemy can spawn on top of you, which is nice, but I actually didn’t like this mechanic. I think it breaks the pace of the fight, HOWEVER, there is a very neat interaction with this breaks the more you progress through the game. I hated the mechanic, but seeing the clever uses near the end of the game made for a full redemption.
The hive playing with you
When it comes to gameplay, there is a lot to cover and I don’t even know where to start.
One of the things that bother me the most is that there is a distinct lack of variety in enemies. There seem to be about 5 different types of enemies. I assume they meant for it to inspire a sense of familiarity on the player, or maybe it was about having a low amount of enemies adapt in different ways. Unfortunately, it just ends up feeling like more of the same every run.
And speaking of runs, I have a hard time coming back to the game at times. I attribute this to a lack of any real progression for the player. Overwhelm is about beating tha hive, and that’s it. Your run won’t change, you won’t find new weapons, you won’t encounter different enemies. What you saw during your first 30 minutes is what you will be playing with the entirety of the time.
That doesn’t mean the game isn’t fun. By all means it is a fun game that is best enjoyed in short bursts of gameplay. It doesn’t have the same inherent desire to come back like a game such as Enter the Gungeon or Dead Cells, but it is most definitely a game you think of booting up at the airport to kill some time while your plane arrives.
Death as a detriment
In Overwhelm, you die in a single hit. Die 3 times and it’s game over for you. Luckily collecting crystals or going to deposit a crystal at the hub will restores your “lives”. I enjoyed this mechanic because it drove me to put myself in danger with the remaining bosses or just keep on going. There is no place to grind HP or enemy to cheese into being healthy, it is pure adrenaline that keeps you going.
It is in your best interest to not die though. With every life you lose, your vision grows smaller. When you are on your last life, there is a buzzing sound echoing in the background, reminding you you are on your last leg. I actually dislike this a lot. One death snowballs into a game over, in part because you see less and have more distractions, but also because of the inherent tilt of dying and having to start a section all over.
There is something I found particularly fun when you pause the game: you see enemies that aren’t there. Perhaps I haven’t mentioned this enough, but there is a deep psychological factor playing into the game. Pausing will let you see enemies which aren’t actually there, to fuel the panic. It definitely got me the first time, as I paused to take a bathroom break only to find out there was an enemy in front of me. After careful planning on how to dispose of the enemy, I unpaused to see it wasn’t really there.
If you are thinking that this game resembles the terror of the first Alien movie, an idea which is reinforced by the enemies that look like face huggers, then let me tell you that you are absolutely right. I love Alien and I love the ambience.
Each area has its own way to make you panic, like the spider’s forest where the enemies are hidden in foliage, or your first foray into the water zone, or the crumbling blocks near the lizards, of the strong winds near the hornet (eagle? I don’t even know what it is).
Or when enemies jump you from off-screen, but we certainly don’t like that.
The truth is, Overwhelm is excellent at setting up an atmosphere of uncertainty where every step must be taken with caution. It has several different ways to make you feel tense. Not all of them are fair, mind you, as nobody likes when a hopper jumps from off-screen and kills you. However, Overwhelm is definitely a game where you are walking slowly and aiming in all direction to try and spot danger, it feels like a movie at times and I believe that is awesome.
But my favorite display of horror comes from the “blinks” that occur during enemy encounters. While I already mentioned that I hate the gameplay implications it has, it does have its uses. I think this is something that is better left for the player to discover, so I’ll just mention that this blinks drastically change the more bosses you have defeated, culminating in the ultimate mindfuck I could possibly think of. With all the ups and downs of Overwhelm, I can confidently say this visions are the most memorable aspect of the game, and one which will live in my memory of the game, even as I stop playing it.
Just take the help
Overwhelm is difficult, and I dare say unfair at times, but it does feature an amazing assist mode. Assist mode can be found on the options menu, and allows you to tweak certain setting to make the game more accesible. These setting can be unlimited lives, unlimited ammo and even aim assist.
There is a stigma with enabling assist mode on games that brands you as a “bad” player, but I wholeheartedly recommend it here. Many of the flaws I found within the game can be alleviated by accepting a little help. It undermines certain aspects like the tension you feel when you are on your last life, but ultimately I think it makes the game more enjoyable when you take away the loss of progress caused by losing all your lives.
I am a proud gamer and an advocate of difficulty in gaming. I challenge myself on the highest difficulty settings and whatnot, but I also support it when games ease up their rules in favor of accessibility. R-Type Dimensions EX and what I thought of its infinite mode is a proof of this.
Also, Overwhelm has an incredibly amazing ending sequence which I would advise all to experience at least once! Everything from the 5th crystal onwards is absolutely jaw-dropping.
Beating the game will reward you with the option to play on new game+. In my opinion, new game+ should have been the default mode, as it changes the rules of the game and creates a more unique experience.
The biggest change of new game+ is that you can no longer take the route you desire through the game. Areas are locked until you collect crystals, which creates a specific route you must follow on that specific run. I know a lot of people enjoy freedom, but the way you are forced to plow through the hive in a specific order feels fresh and unique. The challenge of tackling the evolving hive becomes more rewarding, because you don’t evolve it in the way you want anymore, but rather have to adhere to what the run gave you and face challenges you wouldn’t have normally taken.
It also flips the map, so get ready for some Master Quest shenanigans.
Overwhelm certainly has a very neat concept. Fight a hive and see it evolve before your very eyes. I really like the concept a lot and love it when you have a certain control as to how a game is going to change. Unfortunately I think the execution left a lot to be desired.
Overwhelm is certainly a fun little game, and assist mode opens it up for everyone to enjoy it. Every cheap death, every enemy hidden behind your vision, every time the uppercut fell a pixel short of destroying the enemy, all of those are made much less with assist mode. In many ways it feels like the standard mode is the wrong one. Overwhelm would have been a better version of itself if new game+ was the norm and the assist mode was the default one. It would even make sense to make the free roaming mode the unlockable one after beating the game, and the 3 life system being a hardcore difficulty.
Of couse, all this is wholly debateable. I can say for a fact that I would have an entirely different opinion of the game if I had started with assist mode and cleared it on my first try. I enjoyed the punishing difficulty and watching how I slowly managed to beat 1 more boss up until the very end.
As cool as “a game where enemies power-up and you don’t” sounds, it shows its ugly side once you play it for enough time. The idea of scaling challenge is great, until you remember that as a gamer you also enjoy growing stronger and observing your journey as you get better. Overwhelm is a skill intensive game for sure, but it becomes hard to boot the game after a while.
It definitely falls on the more arcade-y style of games, so I fully recommended if you are into that.