Overgrowth is a game that has been eight years in the making and still isn’t anywhere near finished. An anthropomorphic fighting game of swift kicks and raw punches to the side of the head, it is beautifully animated, pleasingly ragdoll, and Bruce Lee fast. There also isn’t very much to do. There’s a lot of pleasure to be got from executing the perfect series of kicks and punches against its tough, intelligent opponents, especially when they’re armed with heavy one-hit-kill swords. But unless you reeeeeally like that, the joy of it soon dries up.
Part of this is understandable. The reason it has taken eight years, and will likely take even more time, is because all the programming has been on one man, David Rosen of Wolfire Games. Which makes the creation of the complex combat, the physics, the parkour, the AI and the levels an impressive thing. But it doesn’t mean there’s any real game here yet. It has had an Arena mode and two-player Versus mode for some time but last month it added a campaign mode, based on the story of its predecessor Lugaru. I felt like this was enough to finally give it a taste, and while it’s admittedly very gamey (nyuk nyuk) it’s still undercooked.
Your rabbit, Turner, is said to be a martial arts master. He’s living in a nice grassy village when suddenly it comes under attack and his wife and child are killed. At this point, it’s time to join Max Payne and the ten million other protagonists on the same bloodthirsty quest for revenge. This almost exclusively involves being plopped into a wide open level with a set number of guards to knock out or kill. Successfully batter them all senseless and then it's on to the next area – lush valley, desert dunes, snowy mountainside.
The first thing I noticed was how concrete hard it quickly gets. Even before I hit the levels with multiple foes, I had to go back into the tutorial to learn the finer points of fighting and stealth. And even there the sparring partner, once unleashed from his programmed state of “allow all incoming knuckles”, thoroughly kicked seven shades of rabbit droppings out of me, not to mention slicing me to bits over and over again like a psychopath as I attempted to learn how to disarm and throw an armed opponent. By the end of this tutorial I looked like a raspberry.
After boxing, jumping and falling my way through that, I headed back into the story, where any level in which I had to take on more than one foe at a time left poor Turner repeatedly battered and bruised. You do get a default knife early on, which you can unsheathe and sneak up behind enemies for a quick throat-slit. But often, due to the open levels and space between enemies, you’re in plain sight of another baddie. Once the jig is up, you’re often faced with three or four relentless thugs, who will not hesitate to kick a rabbit when he’s down. Once, as a result of my poor aggro-ing skills, I was chased by five rabbits across the desert. I was beaten very badly that day.
In one sense, this is where the combat shines. The AI is designed to be ruthless. You need to dodge knife slashes, block blows, interrupt throws and – when you do get whacked to the sand – scramble as quickly as possible to your feet with the roll key. Each punch can be blocked by holding the right mouse button and hitting the corresponding direction key as it comes in, but you also have to dish out your own strikes in between defensive posturing, putting an opportunistic boot into any downed enemy before he himself rolls away. Even if you survive all this (you probably won’t) you’ll still see Turner holding his chest in pain, dripping with blood from cuts and gashes all over his head and torso. It’s a remarkably fast-paced and brutal combat system.
But Turner’s pain as a fighter is often your pain as a player. This isn’t Arkham Asylum, there’s no blinking symbol or brief pause to show your enemy is about to hit low or high or attempt a grab, no tell-tale signposting save the motion of the enemy rabbit’s body as he actually goes for your skull or your legs. Because all of this happens at a lightning pace, it often feels like most of your successful blocks come down to luckily mashing the right keys at the right time. I can often handle a single opponent without getting too badly hurt. But the instant a second bunny joins the fray, my chances of survival plummet. And that’s before any knives, staves, swords or spears are introduced.
You can disarm a foe of their weapon, but like many manoeuvres in this scrappy game it is frustratingly hard to do. You need to dodge and then quickly throw them, a doubled-up move that’s much harder to pull off than it sounds. Meanwhile, it’s a move that comes supernaturally easy to the AI, so any weapons you do get a hold of can often be lost just as quickly as your life.
There’s also a button to throw your weapon at the enemy. On paper this is a fun way of dealing with multiple baddies - burying your knife into one bunny’s skull from ten feet away, before drop-kicking the other in a ferocious attack of action movie proportions. In reality, you throw the knife at the targeted rabbit, and eight times out of ten, he will simply catch it, like a smug Bond villain, and then storm at your limp body, which has failed to land the required dropkick on the second bunny and is now lying, for that important half-second, in a vulnerable heap on the snow. Slash, slash, stab. You’re dead, wabbit.
Someone else will revel in the high difficulty of the combat, in the hardcore details of a brawler in which even landing awkwardly can knock you out cold and end the level. But at level 14 of 22, I had to give up on the campaign mode, whose occasional dialogue was nothing more than a half-hearted excuse to go from one environment to another. This isn't necessarily very important. Most levels are just setups for a fighting scenario but this isn’t to say there’s zero variety. Some could be approached in a more stealthy way (one had me cutting the throats of multiple desert sentries with impeccable timing, honed after twenty previous attempts to do the same thing). Another involved a single unarmed wolf, animals which are impervious to all normal hand-to-hand blows and have to be dropkicked a few times in a row with perfect accuracy. Fouling up a single dropkick and landing badly can lead to terrific pain. When you’re on the ground and a rabbit kicks you, you sometimes fly a couple of yards in reaction. When a wolf boots you, Turner goes wheeling through the air like he’s been launched from a catapult. Wolves are ferocious. I do not like them.
There’s something funny and appealing about that, I know. But when all of this exists outside of any other system or mechanic, never mind outside of any decent storyline, it quickly becomes tiring. Neither the stealth nor the parkour (you can wall-run and wall-jump) are robust enough to integrate well into the game, and there are currently no signs to help softcore fighters like myself. There’s not even a means of quickly telling how much “health” the fragile Turner has left. Only his bloodied bodily state, which is a neat visual addendum but isn’t very easy to see in the midst of a fist-filled melee.
Like its lagomorphic antagonists, Overgrowth is a strange beast. It is fast, tough and impressive in many ways. When you look at videos of someone playing it, especially the (unsurprisingly) well-trained developer, it seems incredible. Even with a small set of moves, the fighting seems fluid and fierce, the ragdoll physics makes knocking out a rival a work of art. But even if you find the limited combat easier than I did, or if you stick with it long enough to become a master of reading the enemy movements, it still often feels like an empty world, like a gorgeous and terrific tech demo.
The developer has said that a new campaign will be added in the next few months, and it’ll be interesting to see how this is formatted. Will the levels be more than a single scene in which to have a bust-up? Will there be an easier mode for the softies among us? Will there actually be an environmental reason to use the parkour during a fight? It might turn out to have some amazing updates. But at present, that’s too many questions without a clear answer. Right now, Overgrowth is like that one fight you had in school. You thought it looked amazing, but really you were just aimlessly slapping a kid on the head, as he aimlessly slapped you back.