Overland [official site] is a turn-based post-apocalyptic road trip simulator. You drive a car across America, beset by hideous bugs that emerge from the ground and eat your gang of survivors, while everything burns around you, and you try to survive against overwhelming odds. On paper, it's precisely the kind of game that should be taking up all of my free time but the reality isn't quite what I hoped for or expected.
During my second playthrough, Overland confronted me with a horrible scenario. The minivan I'd found at the side of the road was running out of petrol and I'd risked taking a long detour in the hopes of gathering enough juice to keep the wheels turning. My group of survivors had three humans and one dog, and as we tried to gather the fuel cans scattered around the map, we were soon reduced to one man and his faithful hound.
To ensure that my sole surviving human could continue, I had to use the dog as bug-bait, sacrificing the poor hound in order that his adoptive dad could steal a moment to refuel his car and trundle off down the road.
The creatures that make the roadtrip so hazardous come in several shapes and sizes, but they all have one thing in common; they're attracted to noise. That means that almost every action comes with a risk attached: clear some rubble that's blocking the road and you'll make a racket, fire a gun and you'll make a racket, accidentally set fire to one of the petrol canisters you're desperately trying to retrieve – you're doomed.
Your roadtrip has you travelling from right to left on both a map of America, in which points of interest are marked as nodes alongside the main highway that you're following, and on the individual screens that are randomly generated to represent those nodes. They're tiny, the actual encounter maps, and claustrophobically cluttered. It's not unusual to find your car surrounded by enemies, blocked in by obstacles, and at immediate risk of exploding.
It's the tight, narrow nature of these maps that defines Overland, and might be the deciding factor as to whether or not it's a game you'll enjoy.
On that playthrough with my ill-fated man and hound, I'd managed to clear a path for the car. That's one of two vital objectives on each map – you need to make sure you have enough fuel to continue and that there's a path between the car and the edge of the screen. Sometimes that's no challenge at all as the road might be clear from the moment you arrive, but as you progress, each map becomes busier and eventually you'll be forced to clear two or three pieces of debris off the road before escape is a possibility.
Shuffling debris around the map involves moving a character next to it and then either pushing or pulling. To push you need an empty space in front of the item, to pull you need an empty space behind the character. Clearing a route can require some planning, then, as you try to figure out the best (or sometimes the sole accurate) order in which to push and pull. It's not quite Sokoban but it adheres to similar principles.
And while you're doing that you're avoiding enemies and spending an enormous amount of attention on inventory management. Just as the maps are limited in size, so are inventories. In fact, inventories don't really exist. As a general rule, each character can carry one item (there are rare exceptions through abilities and backpacks), whether that's a can of fuel, a shield, a stick, a knife or a bottle. Characters also have an extremely limited number of action points, so that in a turn they're going to concentrate on one short-term objective. That might be collecting something, blocking an enemy route, clearing a route for the car, or searching a container.
Across three major areas – inventory, item use, map size – Overland is a game of hard, strict limits. What that does to the game is make every risk-reward decision incredibly important. The margins are so tight that choosing to travel to a tile adjacent to the one that might have worked can lead to a total loss, and collecting the wrong item at the wrong time is a possible death sentence. This is even more frustrating when the interface conspires to confuse - its pop-up menus are often elegant but can occasionally obscure parts of the map and managing a vehicle's storage space still seems counter-intuitive to me after a few hours of play.
If all of that combined to make Overland extremely difficult, which it does, I'd be happy to learn from my mistakes, but the precision required has another effect as well. There's a great deal of effort to make this a game about stories, with small pieces of text doing a lot of heavy-lifting in that regard. Every character has a brief backstory and they'll chatter away as they explore each area.
The whole setup, of the doomed roadtrip, is a natural engine for manufacturing miniature tales of sacrifice and tragedy, but the requirements for success on each tiny map are so strict that pragmatism and perfect planning wins out over improvisation and roleplay almost every time. You might feel that Harrison, the optimistic biker you picked up a couple of stops back, would be willing to fight against a horde of burrowing bugs to cover for his new chums, but unless he happens to be well-placed and correctly equipped when the feces hits the fan, he's going to end up ferrying gas to the car rather than making a stand.
The more I play Overland, the more I become accustomed to treating characters like tools. They're functional, to be applied as needed rather than developing as characters. You could argue that's true in every game to an extent - whether Crusader Kings, Baldur's Gate or XCOM – but it's astonishing what some wiggle room can do to let a character breathe. Here, the margin for error is so slim and the demands on every character are so high at every moment, that they end up suffocated.
Where Overland appeals to me, it's as a series of miniature puzzles, in which people (and dogs) are little more than the moving parts of machines that must be repaired. Those machines are the maps and you fix them by collecting petrol and clearing a route to the exit. What's surprising is that despite how much I enjoy the way those gorgeous isometric spaces are rendered, and how evocative the setting is, I find myself looking past all of that for solutions to puzzles rather than finding stories that emerge from all of the elements in play. The dynamic spread of fire seems like the perfect mechanic to make the maps messier and more reactive, but it becomes one more plate to spin, blocking movement and forcing further precision.
It's possible that all or some of this will change as the game moves through development (there are interesting conversations all over the forums, including this about the one-item carry limit), and the version I've been playing recently is still a very early one, as part of the First Access release. More variety might help, as the difference between a stick and a knife at the moment is simply measured in how many kills each can commit before crumbling. That makes finding a new item rather less exciting than it should be – most of the time you won't be able to carry it and it'll be a replica of something you already have (which the characters comment on, in defeated fashion).
Perhaps that's what I find trying about the game. It's not just that these people I'm controlling are going to die on the road, it's that the rewards of surviving are so slight that I quickly feel as defeated as my characters do. Even as the challenge escalates, the rewards rarely do, and you're still picking through dumpsters for bottles and branches. That, combined with the puzzle-like precision that the maps demand, makes for a trip that's mostly risk and little reward.
Overland's first access builds are available now, direct from the developer for $20, on Windows, Mac and Linux.