While moral choice systems are the feature du jour for contemporary games, there has been a curious lack of games that allow players to play as the villain, especially in recent times. Characters in various open-world crime games such as Grand Theft Auto are certainly despicable, being vicious, violent criminals (especially the “hero” of Saints Row 2), but even then, the player is not implied to be villainous, diabolical, or really evil, terms usually reserved to describe the antagonists in superhero fiction.
The original Overlord was one of those games, casting the player as a rising (or falling) star in the world of evil, out to depose the hypocritical adventurers that did in his predecessor. It garnered attention and praise for its novelty (to those too young to remember Evil Genius, Syndicate or Dungeon Keeper) and charming aesthetic, twisting traditional stereotypes to make being an evil overlord a good thing to be. The affair was flawed, though, as it ultimately cast the player as more of an antihero, forcing him to actually liberate territories in his quest to topple the former heroes, which were even more evil than the player, unwillingly serving the greater good and undermining the concept of being super-duper evil. Does Overlord II manage to do proper justice to injustice?
The answer to that question would be an unrestrained “yes,” followed by echoing diabolical laughter. Overlord II really has players acting the villain rather than a mere antihero, replacing the bog-standard moral choices of “good-versus-evil” with ones more along the lines of “this-kind-of-evil-versus-that-kind-of-evil.”
Overlord II starts the player off as the son of the first Overlord, fittingly called the “Overlad”. After escaping extermination by the magic-hating Empire, the Overlad grows up and sets out with his minions to take his vengeance – and pretty much everything else along the way.
The game’s basic mechanics are identical to its predecessor’s, and as such are best likened to those Nintendo’s Pikmin – only evil. As the Overlord, the player directs groups of goblin-like minions to do combat and perform various tasks. Each minion type is color-coded according to a given speciality. Brown minions are melee fighters, red minions toss fireballs, green minions have a backstab attack, and blue minions can swim and resurrect fallen comrades. The key to success is in managing coordinated groups of minions to exploit weaknesses in enemy formations and solve various simple puzzles.
Overlord II’s mechanical additions are minimal. Minions can now ride mounts which expand their capabilities (browns riding wolves can break enemy shield formations, etc.), and some stages feature the use of vehicles and war machines, like ships and ballistae. A minimap is now included by default (though it was present in the late PS3 port Overlord: Raising Hell). AI improvements have tightened up minion pathfinding, and the different spells have been changed to emphasize the Overlord’s interaction with the minions as opposed to direct combat. All in all, Overlord II plays in almost the exact same way as the original.
But of course, Overlord was known more for its charm than its gameplay. Thankfully, that quality has been preserved in its entirety, and improved upon to boot. Minions mill around the Overlord’s knees, cackling and flinging fireballs at all things cute and fluffy. Brown minions loot fallen enemies, wearing their helmets and wielding their weapons, and Quaver the jester composes witty limericks for each of the Overlord’s achievements. Also freed from the pressure of proving its own novelty to a new audience, Overlord II spins a more original narrative yarn, treating the Empire more as competition than opposition, with the Overlord looking to prove himself the greater evil, rather than trying to stop their atrocities.
Moral choices in the game are more practical than philosophical, in keeping with the emphasis on sticking to being the bad guy. Do you prefer that your foes be enslaved or eviscerated? Enslaved or annihilated? To use a Dungeons and Dragons-style of moral alignment, Overlord II‘s moral choices are between “Lawful Evil” and “Chaotic Evil”. Triumph Studios appropriately calls this system “Dominate or Destroy.”
Each choice has its own pros and cons, ones not unlike the gameplay alterations found in recent games such as inFAMOUS or Knights of the Old Republic. Preferring Domination can enhance specific aspects of the Overlord’s available magic spells. For example, a Domination-infused “Halo” spell will be more effective when used to enhance minion’s protection and damage output, while a Destruction-infused “Halo” spell will have a more powerful shockwave that the Overlord can use in direct combat.
The differences also manifest in the form of peripheral benefits. Domination-aligned Overlords can enslave the inhabitants of different territories, who will then go to work, mining gold and other resources to produce a steady flow of equipment, cash, and lifeforce (needed to create additional minions). Destruction-aligned Overlords gain much more in the way of immediate rewards, as each villager killed or house ransacked results in a large drop of lifeforce and cash, at the expense of reduced long-term benefits.
Unfortunately, the execution of the system is less-than-optimal. Domination Overlords will find it tedious and boring to have to enslave villagers one by one, and Destruction Overlords quickly find that the resources received from destroying territories are simply insufficient, with even more farming required.
And while having a minimap is good, it’s rarely as effective as it needs to be, especially since stages are now much larger than before. Objectives are poorly marked and stated, often leaving you to wander around an area until you finally get what it was you were supposed to do.
All these flaws in execution are made up for by the game’s enduring affability. It’s well-paced enough so that the player consistently receives new challenges and abilities, each new minion type allowing for increasing degrees of strategy. The customization options for the game are also vastly improved, allowing players to buy new beds, thrones, banners, rugs and curtains to make an Overlord’s netherworld abode feel comfortably evil. Armor and weapon options are also expanded, with weapons and weapon types now having different effects rather than just being stronger or weaker. Minion hives can be upgraded using resources to allow minions increased survivability – all the more important for saving the ones wearing the best hats – and the Overlord can even recruit more mistresses, who further add dialog, decoration and wit to the mix.
As with the first game, Overlord II‘s charm, pleasing aesthetic and witty coherence make up for its various mechanical shortcomings, turning what would otherwise be an average Pikmin clone into a fun romp with a squad of insane furbies.
Reviewer’s note: PC version was tested for this review
The game is gorgeous. Armor and weapons are lovingly bump-mapped and detailed, and the lighting hits the "just right" level of bloom, perfect for making idyllic places all the more fun to crush.
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With the basics essentially unchanged, the game follows the "more is better" line of thinking, adding mounts, additional equipment, and smarter pathfinding.
The voice work is great, and the sound effects of minions cackling and cooing "good wolfie" to their mounts is adorable in its villainous way.
The game is substantially shorter if choosing not to completely control or destroy towns, but following the story alone, should last a good 20 hours.
While essentially unchanged gameplay-wise, Overlord II retains and builds upon the immense character and charm of the original.