The end times are nigh in the Onion Kingdom. The Ever Peckish has appeared, a giant spaghetti-and-meatballs monster whose appetite can never be satiated. King Onion summons his top chefs to try to feed the beast, but they can't keep up with its demand for food. There's only one thing for it: To send the cooks back in time so that they can develop their culinary skills to a level that will help enable them to defeat the beast.
This is the rather crazy premise for the humorous Overcooked, a one- to four-player couch co-op arcade game in which the participants prepare and cook meals against the clock. The action plays out across a series of 30 kitchens that start out fairly straightforward, but whose layouts and challenges become increasingly more complex as the game progresses.
As soon as a level begins, food orders start coming into the kitchen. These appear as iconographic recipes that have to be prepared from scratch. That means collecting the correct ingredients from the pantry, slicing up each item, putting them into the cooking pot/frying pan/deep fat fryer, and then plating the food when it's ready. After that, the plate has to be carried over to the serving hatch to complete the order. And that's not all: On some levels, you need to collect dirty dishes from the serving hatch and wash them to ensure that you have a fresh supply of plates to use.
Each step of the food preparation takes a few seconds to execute, and making this process as efficient and streamlined as possible is what Overcooked is all about. Communication and cooperation between players is key to ensure meals are cooked correctly and on time, because every level has a strict time limit in which you're given to score as many points as possible by delivering completed dishes. The higher the score, the more stars you earn – and stars unlock later levels.
It helps to break down tasks by players. With a couple of cooks in the kitchen, it's quite easy to do so: One player can collect and chop ingredients, while the other takes care of the plating and serving. However, add more players into the mix, and things start to get very chaotic. The more players involved, the higher the score required to earn stars, and that means everyone really has to operate as a smooth-running team to crank out dishes quickly and efficiently.
It's in these kinds of situations where Overcooked works really well – its two-button gameplay is really easy to pick up and play, but actually delivering the food is quite challenging because so many things can easily go wrong. For example, leave an ingredient on the stove for too long, and it'll catch fire, requiring the flames to be quelled with a fire extinguisher. That takes time and, of course, wastes the ingredients. Orders themselves are on a timer, and if you don't deliver them quickly enough, they disappear, and you're deducted points. That means prioritizing meals based on when the orders come in, which means more players yelling at each other to get stuff done quickly.
As you progress through the game, levels become more challenging, not only in terms of the complexity of the dishes that need to be served, but also their configuration. For example, you have to cook meals on the deck of a ship, whose motion causes certain parts of the food preparation area to slide across the screen every so often, essentially rearranging the layout of the kitchen. There are also haunted levels where ghostly goings on can move different units around the cooking area, causing chaos to a smooth-running team.
More challenging still are levels set on the back of trucks that are constantly moving down a road. The trucks only stay together for a brief time, meaning that you need to coordinate the preparation and cooking of the food very carefully, and ensure that you don't end up with all cooks in the same half of the kitchen when the trucks separate. A similar later level splits the kitchen across three trucks, making food preparation even more difficult. Add in ice levels, one where you're cooking meals in the dark with only a flashlight to look around the kitchen, and a level where rats can steal your food, and you end up with a really varied and interesting set of challenges that require subtly different strategic approaches to hit the level goal.
While Overcooked works best as a multiplayer game, it does have a single-player option for the campaign mode. Here, you actually control two cooks, switching between them using L1. It starts out a little tricky coordinating the pair, but with practice you soon learn how to do things like start chopping ingredients, and then quickly switch to the other chef to tend to the stove, or grab more ingredients – or whatever else needs to be done.
Playing solo is definitely quite challenging, but I enjoyed its frantic pace. It requires a lot of concentration to keep track of everything that needs to be done – especially on later levels where you're dealing with things like the kitchen rearranging itself at regular intervals. Indeed, most levels require you to have a bespoke strategy in place to ensure that you have your cooks in the right place at the right time when things begin to move around. If you don't, it can completely blow your chances of achieving a decent score.
However, while the single-player mode is entertaining, it's nowhere near as fun as playing with other people. Overcooked just nails multiplayer perfectly, presenting straightforward tasks that anyone can participate in with a coordination requirement that quickly gets even the most passive, non-talkative players involved in the action. Ultimately, the game is very simple, but the way it manages to keep even the most well-oiled team just a step or two from complete catastrophe is brilliant, and that's what makes the game so enjoyable to play. It's basically a game of controlled chaos, where things can go wrong at any time – and it's that process of keeping everything in order that sucks everyone into the action and makes the game such a riot to play.
If you're lucky enough to have friends and family around who can take advantage of Overcooked's local-only multiplayer (there's no online component), you should definitely consider investing in the game. It's one of the best couch co-op games I've played in years. A simple, funny, and thoroughly enjoyable game that everybody can enjoy.
Overcooked nails local co-op multiplayer gaming perfectly. It's incredibly easy to pick up and play, yet coordinating its myriad of seemingly-mundane tasks requires its players to constantly communicate. What transpires is riotous and often hilarious gameplay that's simply great fun to play. Unfortunately, it's not quite as entertaining as a single-player experience, but if you have friends and family to play with, Overcooked is highly recommended.