In a way that’s very appropriate for a cross-country road trip across an alien-infested United States, Overland is a harsh and unforgiving game. That’s especially true while you’re learning the rules of its turn-based tactics and tightly limited inventory management – none of which it tells you and many of which punish you severely for not knowing them. That learning experience is a big part of the charm and challenge of this style of roguelike adventure, though Overland has a habit of pushing things a little too far by presenting the illusion that you can recover when it’s really just wasting your time.
When you start out on the east coast – the first of seven zones – with two random characters, one of whom might be a dog, things seem relatively “normal” for a deserted urban area… except an endless horde of creatures that bursts up from the ground whenever you make noise. Things get way, way weirder the farther west you travel as things start to mysteriously float, and random noises and events give it a creeping feeling of doom. It’s as though we’re not actually in a post-apocalypse, but mid-apocalypse. The low-detail art style works surprisingly well for depicting these eerie scenes, and it’s also very effective at letting you easily read what kind of alien threat you’re up against at a glance.
What makes Overland stand out mechanically is that it isn’t actually about tactical combat; it’s about avoiding combat. Almost every time you kill an enemy, two more start to pop up out of the ground to take its place, so all you’re really doing is buying time when one gets too close to you or where you need to be. While the enemy’s movements aren’t explicitly telegraphed as they are in the similar Into the Breach, but the AI is extremely consistent and easy to predict: the enemy will virtually always move toward you and attack if possible. (Watch out, though: they know how to use explosives.)
Because there’s no defeating the enemy and no stealth, every map is a smash and grab operation: gather up survivors and as much gas and gear as you can and then hop into your car and make your escape before you’re inevitably overwhelmed. It’s an interesting approach that made me think differently about when to fight and when to flee than I do in most games.
There’s not a ton of story along the way, outside of a few special locations that you can choose to spend precious gas to visit on the basic overworld map. The interactions between your randomized party members that happen between stops are basic and repetitive recountings of what just happened (and when you’re down to one person they sometimes speak to themselves) so not much is revealed and there’s not much depth to help you get attached to anybody outside of a single sentence of backstory in their info box. Most of the story happens in your head.
It’s the random special abilities and perks that I got attached to, like when a character can make three moves per turn instead of two or can loot without spending an action point. Especially if you upgrade them with a backpack and some gear you find along the way, a good team is absolutely key to surviving in the later areas. Oh yes, that applies to dogs too! They can wear backpacks to let them carry more stuff and hats that do nothing. (Other dog limitations include being unable to drive or use weapons, but they’re still pretty handy.)
Other skills are less useful because they’re extremely situational, and some are negative traits, so those companions are the first to be left behind if I don’t have room in whatever car I have at the time. Those range from the two-person pickup to the five-passenger van, so your population cap is effectively randomized by what vehicles you happen to find, and that greatly impacts your playstyle. For one thing, the van has zero cargo space unless you find a roof rack upgrade, which is nonsensical, but if all five of your crew have backpacks you’re effectively carrying 10 items, which is a lot. If you’re driving the pickup truck with just two people (or one person and one dog) you can store four items in the bed along with four in your party’s inventory.
The forced choices you have to make can create some memorable moments if, for instance, an abandoned ally manages to acquire a car of their own and comes back for revenge later, complicating what might already be a tense situation. There are other fun surprises in here, too, and playing around with Overland’s systems, especially its fire propagation, provide interesting results. I also had a lot of fun with characters who can recruit “almost anybody” and convince them to join your party.
One thing that Overland gets very wrong about arbitrary killings, though, is how easy it is to have someone escape from a bad situation only to walk into an effectively no-win situation, which is a waste of everybody’s time. Picture this: after running into trouble on a map with roughly four enemies when you start, your car is destroyed and you flee on foot, possibly with one or more wounded party members who can only move one tile per turn. No big deal, because the next map you get to is guaranteed to have some wheels, right? Not so fast: it’s also guaranteed to have roughly eight enemies on it, and if you couldn’t handle the previous map at your best, your odds of surviving this one long enough to fuel up a car and escape probably aren’t great. They certainly weren’t for me – in the many, many times I found myself in that situation I don’t think I ever managed to recover a car and get away. That means I’d effectively lost the moment my car blew up, and that everything that comes after that is an exercise in futility and I should’ve just restarted.
My biggest issue with Overland, though, is the interface. There are issues with it taking too many clicks to do basic things, but it’s really bad at showing you who is selected when multiple people are close together and, most annoyingly, whether you’re going to walk or drive to where you click when in a car. When you get into a vehicle you have to switch between modes by clicking on the car and then selecting drive or walk, and while it’s very clear you’re in drive mode when you have an open path to the exit because the range extends far beyond where you could walk, when it’s obstructed and the movement range is short it’s all too easy to accidentally walk when you meant to drive. And because the undo move button only works in certain situations (you can’t game the darkness system by moving to extend your sight radius and then undoing, for instance), this was the number one cause of misclick-related deaths and rage in my roughly 30 hours playing Overland.
So let me tell you something that Overland doesn’t: you can enable the ability to restart almost any level at the cost of disabling certain achievements. Sure, it lowers the stakes dramatically, but unless you’re okay with learning everything the hard way on each first encounter, constantly being forced to try again from an early area as a result, you should definitely turn this on for your first few runs. In my experience, the early game doesn’t have enough variety to keep that part of it fun for a whole lot of restarts. You can start a new game from any of the seven regions you’ve reached thus far, but starting in one of the later levels with a basic car and no equipment is a good way to not live very long.