By Craig Pearson on July 16th, 2012 at 4:00 pm.
Overgrowth‘s slow-motion button is the Best Thing Ever Of All Time Today. Pressing TAB turns the work-in-progress bunny beat-em-up into a work of art; a dilated dalliance between lagomorphs. You can see all the systems clicking into place: the gamey legs stretching out, the lucky rabbit’s foot crunching the unlucky rabbit’s larynx, the crumple as the body is broken beneath that big, flat hoof. Who’d have thought rabbit-on-rabbit violence would be so satisfying? Not me, bucko.
I was going to say Overgrowth is ‘early in development’, as it’s still in early alpha and doesn’t have anything approaching levels or objectives. But it’s been in development since at least 2008. To temper that lengthy development cycle, Wolfire have been releasing weekly alphas to pre-orderers. The version I’ve been playing is ‘a185‘, which shows you just how committed they are to this process. It’s still early in terms of the progress, though. They’ve focussed on how you do things over what you do, ensuring the player feels like a skilled, kung-fu bunny. There are a few test levels that I augmented with a community launcher that adds fan-made maps to the game’s menu. Soon, I had a lot of content: not particularly polished or game-selling, but enough to get a feel for what’s there.
Everything you do in Overgrowth is contextual, allowing a wide-range of movement with relatively few jabs of the mouse and keyboard. It feels a little like the good Prince of Persia games, but not having your paw held while you try the tricky stuff. It’s tough to master, though, and timing is particularly crucial. Breaking it down, you strafe or dodge according to the game’s combat state. Your rabbit can punch and kick according to how he’s moving. He’ll either block or judo throw an attacker with right-click which also serves as the ledge-grab button, sneak can be modified into a leg-sweep, jump can turn into a wall-run. Right-clicking while sneaking up on a guard takes them hostage.
Put it all together, in a fast-moving bunny brawler, and it’s tough to burrow into. Because it’s systemic, you can mess things up rather easily: like accidentally hitting crouch while jumping could send you ears first into the ground. My first few shots at myxing it mostly resulted in lots of mis-steps: I’d be on the ground in seconds, a group of violent, big-eared guards pounding my curled up, squealing form. I couldn’t quite see what I was supposed to do when I was supposed to do it.
Then I discovered TAB, and everything changed. Slow-motion is actually too slow to play the game, but it presents everything in a ‘My First Fight’ view: it allowed me to notice just how connected everything was. There’s no abstraction layer: timing is really critical. Jump forward the hour or so it took to unflub my fingers and Overgrowth becomes a lot more fun.
I’m on a desert bridge: lumps of stone block the guard’s view. I should probably mention the jump button at this point: it’s the definition of ‘Wheeeeeee!’, tossing the player like the Rabbit of Caerbannog. I springily leap from cover to cover, gripping onto the side of each large block I land on rather than landing on top and showing off my position, until I’m in striking range. Both guards are on either side of the bridge, looking outwards, possibly doing the least amount of guarding ever. I aim at the one on the right side and come at him through the air, timing a perfect flying kick – the best thing about the flying kicks is that you hit the target and push yourself off, each of you flying in opposite directions. This guard was stood on the edge and he’s catapulted right off. Meanwhile, I’m flying back the way I came and manage to grab a ledge. Since deciding my assault a few seconds ago, I haven’t touched the ground. I decide to make a thing of it and leap from the ledge in the direction of the now approaching second guard. I plant my furry toes into his chest and he squeals and crumbles.
I’m in the air! I can see altogether too much of it. I’ve boosted myself off the bridge. Triumph turns into failure so easily when you’re a kung-fu bunny.
I chased one guard, who was fleeing my rabid rabbittery to find some back up (the AI is braver in groups, and runs off to find help) – I jumped and wall ran over his head and dropped in front of him. I unsheathed a knife and prepared to toss it. Weapons add some chaos to the combat: throwing a knife can kill an enemy outright, but it could also hit them handle first. I’ve had to flee so many guards who’ve grabbed my knife mid-air after it’s plopped blunt-end first into their chest. I’ve laughed as the knife slides lithely into an unsuspecting chest then cried as another guard ripped the blade from the corpse and ran after me. I’m not good enough to parry edged weapons, yet.
With this guard I landed in fighting, but not throwing, distance and initiated a round of fisty- er, hoofy-cuffs? He slid a cunning leg-sweep in underneath my slashes and stomped me to death on the ground. As he was cockily walking away, probably on his way to father 17 more babies, he trod on my knife and died.
I’m not saying that that sort of clumsiness will end up in the end game, but if they take it out I’m going to go apeshit. It’s got a sweet mixture of cool and calamities – huge leaps from massive towers down into one-on-one fights that end with you losing your footing and getting booted while off balance.
But what sort of game will all this produce? It’s strange to be playing a four-year old game and not have any idea of what the player’s progress will be like. The shipped levels are mostly testers to show off certain actions, or the range of backdrops. The fans have been getting busy, and I have a pile of their maps to play with. The editor lets them create small, self-contained fighting challenges in arenas, or parkour style obstacle courses. My favourite of these builds assassination missions that challenge the player’s understanding of the rabbit’s capabilities: how do you get to that one ledge? Is it a combo of wallrun and grabbing, or maybe a walljump sequence? Wherever the fans are taking it, I’d quite like to see some of the developer’s plans for what they intend to throw at me. But they’ve got me convinced that their detailed, very specific take on the burgeoning rabbit beat ‘em up genre is the right one.