I Heart… Overlord

iheartoverlord1The dark influence of Dungeon Keeper is spread throughout gaming, and it’s that which originally attracted me to Overlord back on the Xbox 360. With Dungeon Keeper being one of my all-time favourite games, anything that called it to mind, even indirectly, tended to catch my attention, and still does. You play as the bad guy? Great. You direct evil minions to do evil things? Perfect. You build up an evil empire? Look, just gimme the fucking game. Not only is the gameplay appealing but it looks intriguing, colourful, and has a sense of humour – made evident by the gambolling, ill-mannered minions under your control.

The humour and general evil are where the Dungeon Keeper influences fade, however, as this isn’t a strategy management game, set in a dungeon hewn by dutiful imps. This is an action adventure set in a fantasy overworld populated by nauseating creatures like elves, dwarves, and halflings who are just asking to be destroyed in your quest to wreak vengeance on your foes. Hurrah. Running around the overworld in (often) pretty landscapes seems deliciously at odds with who you are (but makes sense, given the story), and even reminded me of the proposed idea for the long-dead DK3.

One of the first things I loved, aside from the minions themselves, was the Pikmin-esque gameplay, as you control and sweep groups of minions, getting them to home in on objects in order to move things, smash stuff, and swarm and kill beasties. It’s all incredibly reminiscent of Pikmin, even to the point they’ll haul useful or story-crucial items to the nearest portal to transport them back to your tower. Although, that said, I don’t remember any flower Pikmin guzzling beer and urinating against the wall of a looted tavern. Maybe Ninty thought it wouldn’t be family-friendly. Pikmin was a game I loved, back on the GameCube, and I think that was part of the reason I clicked with Overlord’s main feature right away, falling more in love with the odious sheep-slaughtering minions than I did the cutesy alien creatures of Pikmin’s world.


So, a dash of Pikmin and a handful of Dungeon Keeper… a tasty if odd mix. But somehow it worked. Although not all the time. If ever a game needed a fucking mini-map it’s this one. Having to navigate, early days, without any idea where you are going, and with often similar-looking pathways to take, is tricky and leads to a great deal of backtracking and frustration. Until you’ve run through areas multiple times to learn the layouts and locations of enemies, health, etc., it can be a pain in the arse. Once you learn an area, however, it’s easier to navigate and everything seems smaller than those first appearances would have had you believe.

iheartoverlord3For me, getting lost wasn’t helped by the fact that you are so weak early on, especially when playing on the hard difficulty, or as the good Overlord. Taking a wrong turn or not knowing where crucial health and mana spots are can be dick when you’ve only got three piddly health bars to keep you from becoming a worm farm in fancy armour. Yes, in an interesting twist, despite being evil, you can be ‘good evil’. You can make nice-ish decisions or you can be a complete bastard, and the game gives you different outcomes based on those choices. Although they are not that in-depth, they’re enough to be amusing or interesting. One of my faves *spoiler* was choosing to let the elf women die and save a huge sack of gold instead, which meant that the elven race was condemned to die out. Good, I hear you say. Given the way they whinged on about it, I’m inclined to agree. Not that it mattered anyway when my mistress spent the gold on some soft furnishings and a handful of flags.

In that same situation, you could be the good Overlord (no fun), and choose to forgo the gold and save the women. Overall there’s not much reason to play either good or evil exclusively unless you are an achievement hunter. And back on the Xbox 360 I was. The ‘good’ playthrough was one I never finished and it was far harder to get through the game this way, as you couldn’t just go and smash up the town and kill peasants to farm easy lifeforce. Being evil was certainly the way to go.

The variety of locations was diverse, from the classic fantasy-style town of Spree, to the elven glades of Evernight, dank underworlds, and mines, all with their own enemies. And you’ll have to venture into all of them, whether you want to or not, but certain areas (and items for rebuilding your castle) are inaccessible until you have the right minions.


And the minions maketh the game. The loveable little trouble-makers come in several varieties: red, green, blue, brown, and vegan. Just kidding about that last one. That would be evil. No, the four types have different strengths and abilities, and allow you to do specific things (such as the reds who throw fireballs), or pass certain areas (only blues can swim, for example). So, until you find the blue hive later in the game you won’t be able to traverse any watery sections to unlock hidden secrets. The same goes for greens who, aside from their useful stealth abilities, are able to resist poison clouds. Browns are the all-purpose thugs but shouldn’t be discounted. I retain a certain fondness for those tankish yobs, and they’re ideal for smashing stuff up, rush attacks, and even cannon fodder while your others clear fire or poison, or haul away objects to the tower portals.

And minions don’t come free – does anything, really? To get minions, you have to farm life-force. Killing sheep, people, beetles, and the weird and deadly denizens of this oddball world will net you life-force. Different creatures give off different life-force, so if you need red minions you’d better find some fire beetles or other things to kill. Repeatedly. This is where Overlord can get incredibly grindy because the game can be bloody hard, especially in the later areas, which can see whole swathes of your minions wiped out by a single creature or boss. You’ll need a huge supply of minions to make it to the end, which means a LOT of grinding to replace losses and build your unholy army.

Revisiting the elven forest in order to farm green minions and build up my reserves, for example, was a pain, even with the set routes I had (and after dozens and dozens of revisits, believe me, you’ll have mapped out an optimum run to maximise your time there – and in most places).

iheartoverlord5It isn’t just enemies that will happily reduce your minion population either. If you want to upgrade your helmets and other gear, you’ll need to sacrifice minions to do so. Hundreds of the little bastards. While you can use your tower’s underworld arena to farm life-force by entering repeated battles with whatever creatures you wish (provided you’ve unlocked them by meeting them in your story travels), it takes time. I quickly learned that for items that don’t require specific minion types, then farming blues is your best bet by having them repeatedly scrap with an arena full of Ghost Elves. As handy as the arena is, it can get very boring and you’ll soon have dungeon fever. This is when having a few familiar routes through enemy-dense game locations comes in handy to break up the tedium. And that’s what lets the game down a little – the fact that there’s any sort of tedium. But hey, that stuff floats some folks’ boats.

Although there was a lot to enjoy – giant, bloated rolling hobbit boss (sorry – halfling), anyone? – I think it’s the little touches that I love most about Overlord. The fawning evil voice of Gnarl, the huge, fearsome overlord being directed to carry his new mistress’ luggage back to the tower, and the minions themselves. Ill-mannered, loutish, hooligans, they swarm and pillage, living only to smash things and drink beer. It never ceased to amuse me how they would gather things on their raids and breaky jaunts through the countryside, donning broken pumpkins, or utilising helmets from vanquished dwarves. Drunk minions would relieve themselves against tavern walls, while others would wander off and smash up pots and carts. You can’t take them anywhere, seriously. Imagine these bastards at some sort of fantasy version of Crufts. The judges would never get out alive.

Although I love the game to bits, perhaps Overlord‘s biggest failing is the ridiculous inclusion of a multiplayer mode. It came about at a time when nearly every game was grabbing hold of the rickety online-play bandwagon and shoehorning in multiplayer elements for games that had zero need of them. Sadly Overlord was such a game. Hey, I can ignore it, right? Well… wrong if you care about achievements, and I did at the time. So there I was trying to get a number of crappy achievements that involved that sin of all sins, having to win random matches. Have this whole jar of ‘Fuck That’, won’t you? These heinous achievements largely involved me pairing up with my sister and using the headset to co-ordinate our searches for random matches in order to be paired together and alternate wins to pop the cheevies. Sad, yes, but that’s what happened in the dark days of crappy random-match achievements. And don’t get me started on having to glitch a map in order to get the survivor achievement.


It saddens me that Overlord didn’t quite get the sales or reception that it deserved, but it did get a sequel, which is something. I’m sure I’m not alone out there in thinking it’s an utterly enjoyable, if somewhat overlooked game. It’s bright, funny and, despite some issues that I can overlook, enjoyable to play (and replay). It may be a grindy bastard at times, but the concept, gameplay, character, and humour made it something that stayed with me. I never dabbled in the over-saturated looking sequel, although it’s on my to-play list, but I wouldn’t touch the new Diablo-esque game with a minion’s meat-mallet. It would be a shame to never see another proper Overlord game. It was a bold step from a studio who only ever puts out car stuff and I just worry that sales and a perceived lack of interest mean we’ll never see the threequel it deserves.

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One Comment

  1. Rook says:

    Another proper Overlord game would be very welcome but unfortunately I doubt we’ll ever see that. It was great to play at the time, sweeping the minions across the land just to see what they could break and loot they could find. Overlord and the sequel will always be fond memories as they were very different to other games.

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