I keep dying at the same place. It’s been three or four times now and several hours of play. I’m fed up. On my last go I thought I’d nailed it. I’d patiently built up my two-person, one-dog team, driving hundreds of miles from the West Coast America towards East Coast America, ostensibly to find refuge from an alien invasion of some kind. I’d kept my car repaired and fuelled, collected useful supplies, but then I made one silly mistake and undid it all in a heartbeat. I blew my humans up. I drove the abandoned car into the roadblock at the end of my turn rather than the beginning and so didn’t have time to run clear. An hour or so of gameplay exploded before my eyes.
This is how it goes in Overland. It’s how you learn. Each road trip’s failure teaches you a new thing, somehow, about how the game works. It’s a brutal kind of teaching method but it’s not the only game to do it, and the feeling of satisfaction that comes from overcoming challenges like this can be great.
So here I am again, on my umpteenth try, trying to get through the roadblock. There’s a lot of fire, there are a lot of enemies, and despite all the painstaking build up, I’m soon on my knees. I’m terrified as I order one of my characters to plough through two enemies to the exit, because if it doesn’t work, if the car takes too much damage and erupts in flame, and then blows up, I am seriously done with this. So I give the command and I hold my breath, and to my delight, this time I steam through.
I would have been so embarrassed to give up there because the zone I was on, Woodlands, is only zone two. Yeah, I know. But what else was I supposed to do? Trying and failing had been my experience for several hours, and I like to think I’m not an idiot all the time. It was only sheer determination for review’s sake, really, which pushed me to continue.
Nevertheless, I was delighted. I thought I would finally see the rest of the game – the missing piece. Because, until now, Overland had seemed so barren, a loop made of scavenging fuel and equipment from turn-based scenarios while trying not to die, then sitting down and deciding, on a map, where to stop next. Do you need fuel? Go to somewhere where fuel apparently is. Need equipment? Go for the equipment stop. Need a new car? Someone has heard there’s a car at X.
But I didn’t see anything different, not really. The environment changed from woodland to grass to mountain, and some new enemy types were mixed in, and the odd new weather effect, but I was doing the same thing. The characters didn’t evolve, the story barely moved, and I died in the end just as unceremoniously. Then I went back to the beginning in the same way I had before, another long drive ahead of me if I wanted to try and push further next time. Nothing to sweeten the deal – nothing to encourage me to go back. No unlocks like in Slay the Spire or Dicey Dungeon, two similar try-again games.
Those games bake failure into their loop and find ways to entice you to having another go, like unlocking new powers to use next time, or new characters – new toys to play with. But Overland doesn’t. It only allows you to start further down the road. This doesn’t always help – sometimes it’s better to build from the beginning – and it doesn’t make playing the same thing over and over again any more fun. It doesn’t give you a new approach, a new strategy, a new way in which to see the game, it just starts again. You are no better off trying a 10th time as you are a second time. But you will, of course, understand more. In being uncompromising, Overland does force you to understand every detail in order to squeeze every advantage, and there’s a base satisfaction in learning, naturally.
You’ll learn, for instance, Overland isn’t a game about being an alien-killing powerhouse. You can’t, for starters – you can kill aliens but they’ll soon overrun you, and every time you kill one, another two burrow up from the ground, so it exacerbates the issue. It’s not a good idea.
You’ll learn sound is a key consideration. Aliens are guided by it. Make a noise and they’ll go for it, which works both for and against you, depending on your motives. You’ll learn fuel is invaluable, because if you run low, or run out, you’ll be forced into really hard scenarios to find more. You’ll learn sometimes you have to leave people, or pets, behind, because waiting another turn could mean the end of all of you. You’ll learn a lot of things, and they all tie in with the harshness of the post-apocalyptic setting.
But will you have fun? I don’t return to Overland with anything like the same enthusiasm I do Slay the Spire. Some of this has to do with playing it on Switch, I’m sure. It is not the ideal platform to play Overland on. The controls are fiddly, with no touch-screen support, and they can lead to accidental commands. The scenarios, often dark, are really hard to make out the small Switch screen as well. It’s better docked, and on the big screen, the reductive, clean-lined art style – which looks a bit like it’s pulled out of an illustrated children’s book – looks rather handsome. But the game chugs a bit, both in terms of how it performs on the hardware and how you have to wait between screens. It lacks the zip a try-again game like this needs.
It’s a game which feels almost there. I really love the two-sentence bios you get for each new character – “Otis was obsessed with origami. Can’t handle the lack of electricity,” for example, or “Cruz sold cars and sometimes other things. Wishes this was just a game,” and the dogs are adorable – but the stories they’re hinting at never appear, nor do characters react or chat beyond a few stock phrases when they sit around after a scenario is cleared – when I had only one guy, he carried on spouting them as if others were there. The world story barely emerges either. It’s like a layer is missing.
Maybe all will become clear when you reach the East Coast, when you reach the end. But how many people will? Perhaps Overland will become known for being hard and reaching the end will become something desirable to brag about – and I feel a pang of determination stirring as I write that. But how many other people will? How many other people will put up with several hours of failure with not much to show for it? The rewards weren’t enough for me to overlook the frustrations, which is why I can’t easily recommend it to you.