2014 was a different time. It's the year that Finji revealed Overland; before low-poly art styles and the tactics genre became a trend in independently developed games. I remember being enamored by its pitch: a diorama-scaled post-apocalypse with some cosmic weirdness. Then the years went on. PlayStation-like low-poly caught on as a bigger trend, as did indie tactics games. Overland's early access period on itch.io quietly came and went. And now, Overland is finally out in the wild on a myriad of platforms.
It's been hard not to think of all this history as I sludge through the perilous highways of Overland. At the forefront of my mind has been a thought I can't push away: I probably would have loved this if it came out three years ago. Instead, it's 2019, and time hasn't been kind to Overland.
It's very simple for a tactics game. There are no pesky percentage chances dictating whether you can hit something. There is no overwatch or verticality to its levels. Characters have two actions per turn, and take two hits to die. Like a survival game, it's very resource-focused. You need fuel for your car to continue onward, and how much fuel you have determines where you can go next, from heading to a trader's post to barter for goods, to traveling to a dangerous gas station to fill up your vehicle. You need health packs if you're injured, and weapons to defend yourself—like a knife, or even just a stick. At night, it's good to have a source of light, be it a flashlight or something else.
What you see on the board is basically what you get. When you're next to an enemy and have a turn on your stamina meter, you can attack or kill it. You would think with so much care and consideration put into making it one of the most easy-to-read tactics games I've ever played, that it would match that in user-friendliness. Instead, it's also maybe one of the most challenging tactics games I've ever played. Period.
Above I mentioned how time hasn't been kind to Overland as it's been surpassed by other small-scale tactics games, but it's the game itself, too, that is unkind to its players. It feels like a trick: simple UI with easy-to-parse mechanics, unexpectedly coupled with procedurally generated environments that often just feel like a dice roll. It's unkind, I suppose, in the way a post-apocalypse is often depicted in books, movies and, yeah, video games.
Structurally, you could say Overland is something of a roguelite. It's not just the levels that change every time you enter a new game (or continue one), it's also the characters you play as and meet. At the start of each new game, you drive into a relatively unthreatening area (most of the time), rescue a person or a dog, and recruit them to your party. Every human or dog has a random name and a unique character trait, like a mechanic who can repair cars without expelling energy, or a dog who likes to bark a lot. Some traits I found were more useful than others—shouts out to my boy Reid with the bonus energy bar—while others had traits that left me groaning a little. Once I even ended up with two party members who were both bad at driving, meaning they both used more fuel whenever they were in the car. It led to expected disaster.
Even on my best runs, where I had cleared maybe close to two chapters with the same party, Overland could spiral downward in an instant. In one of my "good runs," I misjudged where a particular monster would travel on their turn, and since the monsters sometimes attack one another when they're in each other's way, it set off a domino effect. The monster attacked another bomb-like beast, which usually floats in the air and doesn't harm anyone, leading to a chain reaction, thereby wiping out two of my three party members who were loitering nearby.
If a fire extinguisher had been in my possession, I could have attempted to revive them, but I did not. It was basically game over for me. I wasn't even able to make it back to the car safely. In an instant, hours of careful progress were gone like that.
This is commonplace in Overland. I've made it to five of the seven total biomes, and I doubt I'll ever see it through to the end. And it's not like there's much story dragging me along in any case—just tidbits between characters here and there, and new monsters and environments to discover. Still, everytime I die, whether through my own stupidity or for what feels like a bad roll, I'm raring to go again—and luckily with each "chapter" cleared, you can jump in at the start of that again.
And it's not all bad. On my best runs, I often feel satisfied about how I'm able to game the monsters. Maybe I snake them around so that they're never too close to me, or maybe I make a molotov and explode a string of bomb monsters in the distance, taking out the more dangerous foes moving alongside them. There are moments of satisfaction that stack up with my favorite tactics games. There are neat surprises too, like seeing all the monsters sink into the ground for some mysterious reason. Overland is full of cool moments of mystery like that. Except, the more I've played, the less surprising those moments have become as they repeat again and again.
If Overland came out years ago, it probably would have astounded me, even with its frustrations. It's a shame that the result instead feels like it's stuck in a bubble, with its minimalistic design constantly at odds with its over-dialed difficulty. Overland may have impeccable art direction, personality, and UI, but that doesn't fix the fact that if I weren't reviewing it, I would have given up many vistas ago. And I think that will be the case with most players.
Overland is a strange mix of stellar art direction, smart and simple design matched with often arbitrary difficulty. Even when I felt like I was playing at my smartest, it was easy to slip up in a single move and ruin a whole run, no matter if I spent 20 minutes or over an hour on it. The more I played, the more bored I got with the procedurally generated cycle. Surprises grew commonplace; fuel gathering grew tedious rather than just tense. And yet, I still found myself driven to rev up the engine another time at the end of a run and give it another go. Overland is bound to be a probable cult favorite among tactics enthusiasts, but as for recommending it for other curious eyes, I can't say I fully can.