The smart perky Overfall can be awfully demanding

, | Game reviews

It’s hard not to like Overfall. It’s has such an eager-to-please enthusiasm. The way it talks to you in tiny snippets so as not to wear out its welcome. The ingratiating pop culture references. The simple breezy battles with a thick gooey center of complexity. Its archipelago busy with criss-crossing little boats going about their business. All these cute NPC classes waiting to join you. Ice Maiden. Wrestler. Knife Juggler. Kirinborn, whatever that is. Unlockable weapons like Bloodfang, Nightbane, Harvester of Sorrow, Deepest Ocean, The Butterflies. The elliptical hints for how to unlock them. Overfall is playful, sly, sleek.

And, after the jump, overbearing.

Don’t infer from Overfall’s big-headed characters that it’s lite, casual, or kiddie. Sure, these bobble-headed heroes look like they took a wrong turn on the way to their kart racing game. But this isn’t just a whimsical artistic choice. It’s a usability choice. The big faces help you keep track of your characters. By emphasizing oversized noggins on the map, you can easily associate them with their faces on the character panel. You’re not going to confuse a heavily armored Guardian with a heavily armored Fighter. Paul the Guardian does not look like a Eugene the Fighter because Paul doesn’t look like Eugene.

The silliness of these full moon faces hides an unsilly and meticulous combat system. The heart of Overfall is an intricate thing that expects you to pay close attention. Very close attention. Since Firaxis’ sleek X-com reboot, the trend in tactical combat has been towards boardgame simplicity. XCOM, Massive Chalice, Skyshine’s Bedlam, Invisible Inc, Renowned Explorers. These are all very good games with a confident less-is-more approach to tactics, decision making, and detail.

Overfall looks like it belongs in that category at first blush. After all, how much detail can you fit into those goofy faces? How seriously can you take them? You’d be surprised. Overfall is a course correction back towards the complexity of the original X-Com. It is festooned with so much detail, with so many variations, with modifiers to its otherwise simple numbers, with trinkets with unique effects, with dozens of buffs and debuffs, with procs and crits and DOT and CC and math in general. Doing three points of damage might seem small in the overall scheme of things, but three points of damage is never just three points of damage. Overfall give you a lot to chew on. What looks like cotton candy is actually taffy.

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One of Overfall’s unique tricks is to make sure its dozens of buffs and debuffs come into play. In most games, a character will get to move and attack. When a fighter attacks, he attacks with a sword and when a wizard attacks, he attacks with a spell. But in Overfall, on each character’s turn, he gets to move, cast a spell, and attack. The “spell” is basically a special ability that has some sort of effect other than dealing damage. This usually means at least one new buff or debuff is introduced every time a character takes a turn. Often more than one because most attacks also do something special. This forces into play all of Overfall’s crazy conditions, identified by icons that stack up on top of a character’s big head. Which also forces into play abilities that interact with all of Overfall’s crazy conditions. Rarely has a dispel or cancel magic been this useful.

It’s dizzying at first. Eventually you’ll learn all these icons, or at least the ones that come into play more often. Even then, it can be a mess when you have several characters standing toe-to-toe, each hoisting into the air his own stack of icons over his own big fat head. But this is the heart of the game. This combat system, and all the detail therein, is where you spend most of your time. But I’m not convinced Overfall manages it very well. I’m not convinced Overfall knows when to stop.

For instance, characters are mostly a handful of stats and then nine abilities. A weapon confers three attacks, a set of skills confers three “spell”, and three trinkets tweak everything with some special bonus. As you unlock characters, weapons, skills , and trinkets, you unlock a lot of possibility here. A lot of mix and match potential during the setup before a game. Even during the game, you can train to tweak your skills and pay a blacksmith to tweak your weapon.

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It’s ultimately a smart combat system. Far smarter than you might think given the artwork. For instance, when you’re down to one last enemy, that enemy becomes “enraged”. This is a unique state applied to the last man standing. That character is immune to certain debuffs, moves more quickly, and takes extra damage. You might just assume this is thematic. Yeah, sure, a guy gets really angry when you kill as his friends. But there’s more going on. The enrage state is specifically to prevent cheese tactics like drawing out the battle so your cleric can use her tactical healing abilities which aren’t available on the strategic layer. You can’t just kite the guy around, you can’t freeze him in place, you can’t chip away doing one point of damage at a time. For the most part, Overfall knows what it’s doing and it does it well.

But then there are “personas” (terrible name, that). These are perks and liabilities, often temporary, that can stack up. After a particularly disastrous battle, your cleric might be lame, giving her -1 movement for 10 days. Or maybe after some triumph, she’ll be immune to bleeding effects for a month. Oops, she’s acquired “panicky”, so now her evasion and accuracy drop by three points, but her critical hit chance goes up by 18%, but only when she’s below 50% health. Ah, she’s got a leadership persona that means adjacent allies are immune to immobility.

These same things can apply to every enemy characters. So when you come across someone immune to bleeding for whatever reason, and you haven’t meticulously checked every dropdown banner, you’re in for a rude surprise when your bleed build doesn’t make much headway.

A lot of this is just there. It’s happened and it’s out of your control unless you want to sail around to find an inn to pay to cure it. But you can’t plan around it. Neither can you ignore it. Given how razor-thin victories can be, and given how every point of health is an important resource because you use precious food to heal, these aren’t always trivial issues. This glut of detail is relevant and important. Overfall drops you over and over and over again into battles that get bogged down in a swamp of interconnected detail. They feel less like battles with cool characters and more like maddeningly intricate and punishing puzzles.

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Some of the detail is hidden, which makes it all the more maddening. For a game with such a meticulous combat system, Overfall is awfully cavalier about what it’s going to show you and what it’s going to hide from you. Do I really not get to see what abilities enemies have, even though I can see their accuracy, crit chance, speed, and persona modifiers? Because, frankly, if you’re going to give me information, the information I’d like is what a mentalist can do compared to what an arcanist can do. Fine, so one has more hit points and is faster, but a little information about what they actually do would be nice. What makes a fire troll a fire troll and not just a troll? What about a plague troll? I can guess, but some specifics would be nice. If Overfall expects me to care that my cleric’s evasion and accuracy drop by three points, and her critical hit chance goes up by 18% when she’s below 50% health, does it expect me not to care what that mentalist is doing?

This sort of carelessness is evident throughout Overfall. Why do dialogue choices cover dialogue or sometimes important information? Why won’t the overland map pause when I pause? Why can’t I get some overview of the world? Am I supposed to sketch out a map on paper? I’d really like to get in good with the orcs now. Where are they again? Where is that altar where I can cash in my runes? I was there just a few days ago. The problem with games that present helpful information is that you notice all the more when they don’t.

Furthermore, someone making Overfall seems to have forgotten when I’ll want to see certain bits of information. It’s all good and well to know how much food I have during an encounter, but when I’m asked whether I want to help the dwarves or the goblins, why can’t I see the state of my relationship to the dwarves and the goblins? When I’m asked at an inn whether I want to cure any negative states, why can’t I see what negative states are affecting my characters? Overfall is mostly good at knowing what I need to see and when I need to see it. Which is why it’s conspicuous when it’s not.

Overfall is a very demanding game, and the difficulty levels don’t help. Did I mention this is a perma-death rogue-like, more than happy to shut you down dead-end paths, built for multiple playthroughs? The normal difficulty is a bit too punishing, so I’m assuming the idea is to grind a bit on easy difficulty to build up your set of available characters, to increase the number of options available for customization. But the easy difficulty is both too easy and too long, which is a pretty dire combination.

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I wish it was a bit more friendly, because it’s a smart combat system with lots of options. I can’t say the same about the overworld, which is the key to making these combats matter, to tying them together, to giving them context. As you sail around a rather unremarkable (procedural generation at work) world, bumping into islands to trigger encounters and battles, the archipelago evolves. Varg invaders come in, islands change hands, the undead rise up and are driven back, ships sail back and forth, beat each other up, limp home, deliver supplies. The Everguard trying to hold back the inevitable growing tide of Vorn invaders, who will eventually destroy the world (I presume a “successful” playthrough means stopping them). You get to navigate all these interacting bits, but you’re mostly a bystander. You don’t have many ways to interact beyond deciding whether or not to attack someone. Did you attack them? Your reputation with that race drops a point. Did you help them? Your reputation goes up a point. So you do missions hoping to build up your reputation with one race, who I’m guessing will help you drive the Vorn back into their interdimensional invasion portal? I can’t say for sure, because Overfall has beaten me down every time. At a certain point, without a more accommodating context for these difficult battles, with the conspicuous gaps in otherwise excellent feedback, with a sense of helplessly watching stuff happen around me on the overworld while I struggle to keep my heroes healed, Overfall is just too much. Maybe a course correction back towards the original X-com isn’t a good idea after all.

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