I’m going to start by saying that I generally like Overland. Several paragraphs from now, I’m gonna tear the game a new one, but overall, I like it. I hope it makes back its development cost, and I hope Finji as a company makes more games. Overland is good, interesting, and even if it’s not great, it was a solid use of a Sunday afternoon.
This article will contain spoilers. Some for Overland, and some for Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. You have been warned.
So, Overland is a turn based tactics game that at first glance feels similar to XCOM, but after a few hours, I’m inclined to call it almost more of a puzzle game. Fighting enemies is almost never the best option. This might sound a bit unusual for a tactics game, so lets get into the mechanics to explain why that is.
Each level has a very simple goal: get your car to the end of the level. To do this, you simply need to turn on your car, and drive it off the board. This is pretty simple, except it usually won’t be what you actually want to be doing. Instead, its more likely that your merry crew will leap out like a bunch of clowns, and proceed to run around the level, searching for gas, rocks, first aid kits, broken bottles, and weapons and other gear.
Rocks are apparently very scarce in this apocalypse.
The biggest thing you’ll be searching for is gas because you need it to fuel your car, and by proxy, your apocalypse road trip. Between levels, you’ll drive across the country, choosing to stop at various places, and any amount of travel requires gas. Should you run out of gas, you’ll find yourself playing a bonus level, where you will have to find some more gas. And when I say bonus, the primary bonus you’ll get on these side levels is the chance to be stabbed in the face by some incredibly angry rocks while you attempt to refuel.
Even if you for some reason strike it rich, and have gas to spare, each zone has a ending level with a blockade, and for these you are forced to get out of your car to clear the path ahead. This means breaking down barricades, rocks, and other things while you try to have enough space to run your car through. Unlike many games, your car is not an indestructible slam machine, and ramming anything in an attempt to clear it out of your way is far more likely to damage or destroy your car. So instead, you’ll have to get out, and move things around by hand/axe/improvised molotov cocktail.
So now that we’ve talked about the general gameplay loop and structure, let’s talk about one more detail that plays into why I’d consider the game to be more puzzle than tactics game: enemy AI and the action meter.
Your survivors have an action meter, and this drains from doing almost anything on a turn. Moving? That drains meter. Making an attack? That drains meter. Searching an object in front of you? Drains meter. Turning on your car? Drains meter. Driving said car? Drains meter. The only thing that doesn’t drain meter is swapping items you have on the ground, and between your characters when they stand next to each other. What this means is that unlike something like Fire Emblem, you can’t necessarily move up to an enemy unit and attack it the same turn, because if you moved far enough, you don’t have meter to spend for the attack. So where you have your survivors and what they’re doing is critical. You don’t have actions to waste. Oh, you can only take two hits without gear, and taking one hit makes your character almost useless, halving the amount of actions they can take on a turn.
So what about Enemy AI? Well, it’s very simple. Most enemies have one action. On their turn, they will use this action to move toward the closest source of noise. If they are within range, they will attack instead. Some enemies have two actions, and they can move twice, attack twice, or move an attack. There are a few other enemies that behave differently, but generally speaking, the different ones aren’t inherently aggressive, instead being able to res downed enemies or call in reinforcements.
This is the extent of enemy AI, and this brings me to the last key point about gameplay: killing an enemy will almost always alert additional enemies, who will burrow up from other areas of the map after one or two turns and join the fight. So where does that leave us?
Putting this all together, you get a game where the enemy is easy to predict, but impossible to permanently remove from the board and the player’s characters are incredibly fragile, with very limited actions. These mechanics pull together to create a tactics game where you’re far more likely to want to kite enemies around and distract them, than to actually try to kill them. Movement is a puzzle to solve, not a fight to win. It’s not about killing enemies, or clearing a board; it’s about getting enemies to go where you want, when you want, so you can desperately siphon gas out of an SUV. It’s about looking at the board, and trying to think a few moves ahead, and improvising when/if something goes wrong.
Okay, so, I generally like the gameplay. I really like the art. I think the music is pretty good. Why don’t I think it’s great then?
So lets drive into the spoiler seas to get into this: the narrative meshes miserably with the gameplay and the rest of the game. It fucking sucks. The ending feels like a massive cop-out, and to top it off, it’s not even super original as a concept. When I talked Elevation in a previous post, I noted that because of the story, we don’t have to know why the main character is losing weight. The supernatural aspect of it wasn’t important to that story, but it is important to this one, and the game utterly fails to give any sort of conclusion or ending. After traveling across the entire country, you reach the ocean… and that’s it. There is no reason given for the alien creatures you’ve seen to exist, or explanation. You’ve just reached the end of the world. Credits roll.
So here’s the thing: the idea of some sort of semi-alien ecosystem that is slowly covering the world and making uninhabitable for humans has been done before, and its been done better. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind has this, and it has a much better payoff: the discovery that at the heart of the spreading corruption, the world is slowly being remade and purified from the destruction caused by humanity and during an event called the Seven Days of Fire, which more or less destroyed the entire planet, and all of industrialized society. This is a bittersweet realization as well, because the implication is that humans might either destroy the planet again once it regrows, or that humans might not be part of this regrown world. The planet will survive without us. I wouldn’t call it happy, but it is…. satisfactory. It lets us know that regardless of how the story of our characters ends, there is still hope afterward. That something will continue.
The ending of Overland doesn’t give that whatsoever. I know it could be argued that the journey is more important than the destination, but still. It’s even implied that the entire reason your party of strangers is doing this is to try to get an answer. To see if there is anything left. And not only do they not get it, the player doesn’t get it either. Some games make you want to continue playing so that you can keep diving into the secrets and hidden lore of a world. Overland is the first game I’ve played where I actively want to keep playing the game for the gameplay, but find it actively hard to do so, because no matter what I do, the story ends the same. The world ends. There are no answers. We reach the end of the line.
This is the big thing that frustrates me about Overland, but there are a variety of minor things I find annoying as well. For starters, you can’t do anything out of combat. Someone’s injured, and you have a medkit? Better wait until you’re surrounded by murder crabs again before you pull that out. Run out of fuel, but have a full container on the roof? Better find a scary alleyway to refuel. Why fix your car in the middle of a wide open road when you can do it next to exploding rocks? It feels punishing for no good reason, and it pulls me out of the story the game is trying to tell. The game even has a moment where everyone sets up around a small fire, and talks about what they want to do next, and you can move items around on that screen, but you can’t use them.
In addition, while the game looks amazing, the UI is obtuse and frustrating. There is an option to undo your previous move, but if your move triggers an event, you won’t be able to do this. Misclicking and having someone end up in the wrong place happens a lot. You also can’t rotate the camera fully, which makes seeing a map tricky, and can make it frustrating to place a character exactly where you want them. You can’t tell if something can be interacted with or not until you go right up to it.
Overland is available on iOS and PC. For iOS, it’s on Apple Arcade, and if I was to recommend where to play the game, I feel like it would fit well on mobile. On PC, it’s usually $25, but there’s a sale as I write this on Steam for $15.
I would not pay $25 for it. I would definitely not pay $15. Overland feels like a $10 game to me for what I got out of it. And while it’s beautiful and very enjoyable at parts, my end feelings on it were dissatisfaction, and a lack of closure.
If you like puzzle games, and have an afternoon to spare, Overland might be worth it. But if you pass, you’re not missing anything amazing.