Overland [official site] is a sorta-turn-based strategy meets sorta-roguelite, and comes from the folks behind the deathless Canabalt, progenitor of the endless runner as we know it. I shouldn’t draw too many comparisons, as that was a long time and several games ago for Adam and Rebekah Saltsman, but it does share a strong sense of style, a refreshingly exposition-free approach to the end of the world and a constant sense of encroaching doom with Canabalt. I’ve been keeping half an eye on it for a while now, intrigued by how it seemed to pair XCOM tactics with a survival theme and creepy rocks-monsters, so I signed right up when its ‘first access’ build appeared on itch.io a few days back.
While the XCOM comparisons aren’t unfair, it’s probably closer in mentality to something like Darkest Dungeon or The Banner Saga: less about slowly building up a super-squad, and more a war of attrition, hoping you can hang onto just enough people to keep going.
Here’s the setup: something awful has happened to America, and the place seems to be abandoned, bar a handful of lone survivors. The reason for that appears to be the monsters – are they aliens, mutants, fungal, plants, what? – which are attracted by sound and thus turn up in ever-greater numbers the longer anyone stays in one place. The survivors must band together, find fuel and drive across the country to… well, who knows?
It’s always refreshing when a game tells you nothing about its setting, and particularly when, like this, it’s done not to be cryptic but to let the art and atmosphere tell the tale. What Overland says near-wordlessly but entirely clearly is that the world is a terrible place now, you are being hunted, and that you must keep moving if you do not wish to die.
It is, you see, not really a combat game. You can kill the monsters, but doing so is often an enormous risk. Kill one and the noise attracts more within a couple of turns: in other words, fighting makes your situation worse. Fighting is also a distraction from what you really need to do, which is find more fuel and, if needed, medical supplies and usually short-lived weapons, then get the hell out of dodge. The longer you spend in any one place, the more monsters will appear, and the more difficult your escape from it will become.
It’s presented very differently (and far less clinically), so you can’t necessarily see it, but there’s no small amount of FTL woven in here too. But where FTL was more about the ship than its crew, this is the opposite. Your guys find, abandon or destroy vehicles during their deadly road trip; they can even travel on foot, although I seriously don’t recommend this.
A car, in the long term, does not matter, but a survivor does. You can replenish or expand your ranks as you progress, but it’s far from guaranteed and until you do being a man or woman down is a massive handicap to what you can collect, carry or fight. And so we move closer to the XCOM model: death is not the loss of a resource, but a major blow to everyone else’s chances of survival. What I’m trying to say is that the tension and sense of danger in Overland is beautiful. As beautiful as the ambient melancholy of its soundtrack and its perpetual sunset tones.
Overland, you see, manages to be a horror game while avoiding traditional horror overtones. It is brightly lit, the location of its monstrous dangers is always known and deaths are never gruesome, but the sense of threat, and the creeping realisation that you probably will not survive, is absolute. There’s also the lack of a safe place – no base to return to, be it to restock or take stock. All you can do is push on, leaving place after place behind and filled with foes.
I like what that absence does for tension, but in Overland’s current state it is the root of some irritating logical fallacies. Everything in Overland takes an action, an every action is precious. To fill up the car from a found jerry can consumes one of your character’s (in most cases) two time units, as does healing another character. Those time units would usually be better spent running somewhere or grabbing something, so doing even these essential things is a risk.
However, the game shows us the characters resting by the roadside as you choose which destination to head for next after you’ve escaped one. Why can’t they refuel and heal then? Why can’t they do it while they drive? It’s unfair to demand total explanation or even sense from a game which so deliberately avoids easy answers, but given that the meat of the game is about the relentless pursuit of practicalities, this stuff grates more than it probably should.
The only other irritant I’ve encountered is the dialogue. The characters don’t say much, but when they do it’s often to utter shocked descriptions of a monster they’ve already seen fourteen times or to declare that it’s another one of the things they’ve never actually seen before. There are a couple of typos too. Totally, totally minor stuff that will almost certainly be fixed, and entirely to be expected from
early first access, but I mention it only because I do otherwise really recommend checking Overland out now and wouldn’t want you going in expecting total polish.
It’s a cruel game, presented as a cuddly game. And what appears simple gradually flowers into something complex, peppered with micro-tactics against specific enemies or to survive specific situations. Found one-shot items can change everything, at least for a turn, while the aforementioned cars open up a new vein of strategy too. You could turn your escape vehicle into a makeshift bomb to buy you a turn, for instance, or drive it over to an endangered comrade and drag her in before making your escape.
Everything takes an action, everything involves some small measure of sacrifice, and thus everything is stressful: and it works so well. There is a rudimentary note to some of the presentation and some of the concepts (why can’t cars drive off-road? Why can’t canine members of your squad attack?), but frankly it’s difficult to say what is due to this being only part-way through development and what is deliberate stylistic minimalism in design as well as aesthetic.
I have little doubt that there’ll be big and small changes during development, and the crucial thing is that I already want to go back and see them. Unlike, by way of recent, vaguely similar and apologetic example, The Flame In The Flood, I feel compelled to push on, to try again, to get better, to see what else is out there, rather than that I’m just repeating myself and at the whim of lady luck.
Because, in Overland, I already know that lady luck is never on my side.
Overland’s first round of alpha keys is already sold out.