Review: Overlord II

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Being bad is often good fun, but when gameplay problems plague would-be conquerors with issues keeping their pawns from their appointed rounds, it quickly becomes a case of where if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.

Triumph Studios’ Overlord set the tone by casting players as a fantasy bad guy, the nameless Overlord, while poking fun at its cliches by having the villain run roughshod over them with his army of loyal, and quite-happy-to-be-disposable, minions. Having an army of summoned temps assist you with Pikmin-like obedience in laying waste to hobbits and flabby former heroes had its definite pluses and perks. With the sequel. Triumph Studios and storyteller, Rhianna Pratchett, hope to up the ante with even more taboo breaking humor. Previous experience isn’t necessary, although there are one or two things here that will warm the nostalgic, coal black hearts of veteran villains.

The opening act starts you off as the Overlad, the kid version of who might possibly be the new Overlord, who finds himself at home in a village frosted with snow and ready to celebrate the holidays. But the minions that discover him aren’t yet so sure that his masked face and burning, red eyes, are enough to convince them of his potential evil, eventually enticing him to destroy snow forts, scare the local children who have come to call him “witch boy”, and eventually set off fireworks.

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Unfortunately, the Glorious Empire decides to crash the fun, arriving with a legion of armored goons who scream at the village to give up their magic users since they hate magic. The village leader says that they don’t have any, but the Glorious Empire is convinced that they do. You can guess what happens next as everyone’s eyes turn to their local “witch boy”. After narrowly avoiding capture, the Overlad manages to escape…with a little help from an unexpected friend…to the Netherworld frozen in a block of ice, but safe for the moment. Now in his new home, he is taught the ropes of what being evil is all about.

When a game starts you off by terrorizing a village before beating down baby seals for their souls, there’s not doubt that its dark humor plays up its virtual performance in a way that only a game like this can. But this isn’t a game that makes you come off as pure evil of the Lord of the Rings variety. Just as in the first game, this is an action adventure whose evil may have dribbled out from the skits of Monty Python crossed with the Three Stooges. It might not be everyone’s favorite cup of hemlock, but it does add a few interesting twists to the usual pillage and plunder.

Gnarl, the leader of the minions since the former Overlord’s “disappearance” in some sort of cataclysm two hundred years earlier, had managed to relocate what was left to new digs dug out from the bowels of the Netherworld. Old hands will recognize this as the Tower, home of the Overlord, and the hub linking together your nefarious empire. Hanging upside down from the cavernous ceiling as a titanic, black spike blistering with buildings, windows, and platforms teeming with minions, the Tower is your home away from burning other people’s homes.

It is from there that you’ll be able to teleport to other locales as they’re unlocked thanks to minions that tirelessly dig beneath the earth to open new portals for you to use. It’s also where you can listen to those that petition your greatness for favor with side-quests or continue the main arc that will eventually pit you and your minions face to face against the vast power of the magic-hating Glorious Empire and its armies.

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Unlike the first game, you now have more, tangible benefits depending on your choice as to how evil you want to be. Two paths, Domination and Destruction, are offered through choices made in the game and can affect your Overlord in different ways. At first, he starts out with a basic lightning spell that can also act to sap the will of his victims to defy his awesome presence but over time, a few other tricks become available with their own alternative uses which depends on your timing. For example, zapping a person and then releasing the button at just the right moment as they fall to their knees will make them a slave and a convenient distraction for enemies. Holding down the button instead of letting go will turn them into a crispy example that will send everyone screaming from you.

A meter tracks just how Dominating or Destructive you are, although it isn’t clear exactly what affects it such as whether the choices you make concerning certain characters are what impact it more than the usual stuff that you do as a matter of being the Overlord. Being more oriented towards Domination makes it easier to enslave peasants and has the nice bonus of forcing many of them to work for you by mining gold or creating weapons to outfit your minions with. Destruction gives your spells an added level of lethality and strength making it easier to dish out annihilation in every new neighborhood you drop into whether it’s frying the locals or turning their homes into burning kindling.

As the Overlord, you’ll also run across mistresses who open up decorative options for your Tower and, eventually, a few Achievements, although they provide little else other than add a splash of detail to your demesne. It would have been nice if they had offered special quests or had done more for you than stand around repeating their dialogue. In addition to what they can do, you can also improve the Tower which can increase the power of your minions, although it was of little use in my own playthrough and didn’t seem to have much of an impact on getting through its challenges.

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But the bloody heart and blackened soul of the game is in managing your minions to solve puzzles, destroy foes, and generally pick up anything that isn’t nailed down to wear on their heads or wield in their little, grasping claws. There are four types of minions to juggle, but after two hundred years, they’ve ended up scattered everywhere in the land leaving it up to you to reunite them under your banner of wickedness over the course of the main story. The first minions that you’ll have access to are the Browns who are the scrappers of the bunch. They’re your soldiers and will pick up almost anything that isn’t nailed down to help them become even better at their jobs whether it’s a baby seal skin that they’ll wear on their heads or a sword that a freshly killed soldier has kindly left behind.

Red minions are the fire specialists, immune to the hot stuff while also able to destroy flaming barriers. Greens revel in poison and can travel through hazardous areas filled with gas. They’re also the assassins and can quickly kill even many of the toughest foes if you can get them to attack them from behind. Last, but not least, are the Blues who can resurrect dead minions as well as travel through magically contaminated zones. Unfortunately, they’re about as useful in a fight as a paper sword.

Growing your army also requires you to harvest souls which appear as glowing, colored balls, dropped by dead enemies just as in the last game. Each colored ball corresponds to a different minion and the more you collect, the more of that minions you can summon. The rest can be used as currency in creating more powerful weapons or even resurrecting powerful minions that you may have lost, adding their strength back into the ranks. Discovered relics can also raise how many minions you can have in your roving army, health, magical power, and unlock new weapons and armor. And summoning minions is as easy as finding a minion portal and calling them out.

Moving them about the field with the right stick allows you to sweep them through areas, push and pull giant objects to solve your way through boss encounters or other obstacles, and generally get to places that your hulking, jump impaired, Overlord can’t. But as useful as your minions are, they’re not exactly the brightest torches in the party. It’s not their fault, though.

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Tying in the sweep controls to the same stick that works the camera can often lead to several frustrating moments in the game where you can find yourself fighting it when all you want to do is to get your minions to where they should go. What is even more frustrating is you can also occasionally lose the ability to send your minions anywhere for no apparent reason. No amount of swearing will get them to move until after a few moments of running around trying to find the one minion that is stuck behind an obstacle.

And despite having all of these helping hands at your side in battle, they are almost absolutely useless when it comes to doing some of the things that you expect them to do as a cleanup crew. During the entire game, I often had to repeatedly sweep through an area just to get a batch of minions to pick up things that they should have automatically done in the first place. Stuff like weapons for themselves, armor, treasure, or souls, would often lie neglected on the ground despite the legion of servants standing right on top of them. I understand that they’re as dumb as rocks without me, but I wish that they’d show a little incentive on getting the basics right without having to repeat myself.

It’s probably safe to say that Darth Vader didn’t bust himself down to hangar scrubbing while on the Death Star because someone didn’t do their job right. In Overlord II, however, I often ended up doing many of these chores myself which didn’t help in contributing to the feeling that I was the Overlord. I’ve had to run to soul balls and treasure chests because I was tired of sweeping my minions through them and waiting for the AI to decide that it was supposed to gather them up for me.

The Overlord isn’t a very dynamic fighter, either, with mostly the same set of moves making him a very boring warrior to button mash through enemies with which I had to do in order to help out my minions on occasion, but at certain locations, he can possess one to help get around special puzzles. Weapons and armor will also consume minions making it important that you have extra souls to spend so as not to eat into your more experienced ranks, but aside from a few new looks, they’re not particularly fun to wield…mostly because of the Overlord’s lack of awesome combat ability to match his appearance. The use of catapults, though, was always fun.

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The controls this time around seem to be more confused on whether Overlord II is an RTS or an action adventure. While they can allow the player to divide up minion groups, use flags to assign certain numbers to them, break away a select few, or even pick between those mounted on animals versus those that aren’t, most of the game can be played without finessing your way through these extra options. Most of these simply feel as if they just take away from the focus of the Overlord II’s faster, action oriented, pace and don’t feel as if they blend in as well as last time. And the camera can be aggravating on its own to work with making it feel as if its claustrophobic view is the only way to see the action in some cases.

The single player adventure can take anywhere from between fifteen to twenty hours to complete, but whether you will enjoy the story depends on how much you like your evil well humored and love repetition. Some of the humor manages to keep things lively and the quests that you go through are creatively insane, but you will be spending much time among peons whose dialogue can often repeat itself with the consistency of a jackhammer. Some of the jokes also have the tendency to never seem to end when they feel as if they should have in the first hour of playing. Hippie elves? Get it? They love nature so they’re…never mind. At least the minions never get old.

Some of the sound production can also come off a little glitched with what can appear to be a few missing effects during climactic cuts or interrupted speech at the worst moments. One example of this is with Gnarl who often has something to say before you sit on your throne to teleport somewhere else. As soon as he starts talking, the scene showing you sitting on your throne cuts right into his piece every time instead of simply fading him out or generating a clever reply. It would have been funny to hear him actually insult the Overlord or say something to the effect that he knows running an empire is more important than hear him repeat the exact same thing he had said to you in your last visit to the Tower.

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It’s not the only time the game interrupts itself, either, as the cut scenes can sometimes play with what appear to be missing sound effects despite the otherwise solid acting. At least the music was consistently good.

Multiplayer is also offered to pit would-be Overlords against each other in a variety of game types in case you want to try your hand at ruling the online world. Unfortunately, this is also a little rough around the edges. Connection problems and a distinct lack of other players made this a less than compelling option to extend its shelf life, but in case you need to test your skills against other Overlords in the world, this option is always available.

Having smothered the world in light-hearted evil in the first game, the second Overlord comes off more as the same thing with a few familiar problems wrinkled in alongside new ones. Dominating the world or destroying it may not be stained with as much grim seriousness as that found elsewhere with its irreverently humorous take on villainy, but Overlord II can also remind you that good help is still hard to find.

Overlord II
Codemasters / Triumph Studios
PS3 / Xbox 360 / PC (Xbox 360 version reviewed)
Rated T for Teens