OVERWHELM

Out there, there’s a horrible hive of monsters. Growing. Evolving. It needs to be wiped out, no matter how many lives are wasted down there.

OVERWHELM is brought to us by Ruari O’ Sullivan, published by Alliance. It’s an action-platformer where you’re thrown into a labyrinth world to kill some boss monsters, presented through horror game framing.

The game initially seems straightforward. Okay, go through this maze, beat bosses in whatever order you want and grab their crystals, got it. Your skillset does not evolve beyond your gun, a melee attack and an uppercut double jump, so hey, you got everything down, right?

However, upon taking a hit, you’ll see that the game is surprisingly brutal. If you get hit, you’re knocked back to a previous room. If you get hit three times, the game ends, with your progress getting reset. The only way to heal in the game is getting a crystal or successfully delivering a crystal to the hub area; oh, and by the way, you also drop collected crystals when you get hit, so you’re going to have to take a detour for them upon respawning.

“Okay, lives are limited, but the map’s still small, I got this,” is what you may think. However, there’s one more caveat to defeating a boss and getting its crystal: power-ups. Unlike Mega Man or any other situation where you get upgrades from beating a boss, you don’t get the upgrades.

Instead, the hive power-ups, with enemies reflecting the bosses you defeated spawning in. Beat the Skullbat? There are new flying enemies that home in on you fast. Beat the Twin Lizards? The basic lizard-like enemies walking around are joined by a variant that can crawl on walls and ceilings. As you progress through the game, more enemies fill up the map. Tunnels grow to become claustrophobic as the world becomes more dangerous – and after a few bosses, the hub area and pre-boss corridors are broken into, so not even those places are safe.

Stylistically, OVERWHELM presents all this as a horror game. The increasingly hostile world combined with your limited chances creates an oppressive atmosphere, further illustrated by a color palette that makes the environment look like it’s covered in viscera; while you can change the color palette, the default art style feels more befitting of the game’s tone. Under limited lives, the game treats each death as an ominous countdown, dark fuzz increasingly taking over the edges of the screen and harsh noise playing over the game’s ambience on your last life. The game even makes taking a break feel off, because the pause screen will randomly insert an enemy onscreen that isn’t actually there.

As I’ve said multiple times on this site, I’m a huge baby about playing horror games. However, I really enjoyed the horror game stylings in OVERWHELM. There’s just enough horror to give the game an edge and personality, while not putting enough to turn off somebody as squeamish as me.

The bosses are the main draw of the game, all of them stepping up to the plate with unique gimmicks. Regarding character design, it’s hit-or-miss. The Bush Spider is a giant bug that blends in near perfectly with the background and it’s honestly terrifying to see it move around, while the Kraken is just kind of a giant squid. While they all fight differently, they all share the similar ability to zip around the battlefield via the screen flashing horror movie static. The effect allows the game to reset the boss’ position if you’re in too safe a place and to kinda screw with you by putting them right next to you jump scare style – though, sometimes the game puts them too close to the point that it’s impossible to react in time.

Personally, I’d suggest going for the Kraken in the bottom right of the map because the enemy type its death introduces only really appears in that quadrant of the map (one of the few failings of the game’s system, in my opinion) – it’s also my least favorite fight since it’s a water level, so may as well get this jerk out of the way first. I’d save the Skullbat in the top-left for last because the fast flies its death creates are kinda annoying and I prefer not to deal with them too much.

Now, there are some gameplay options to lighten the burden. You can adjust the game’s speed to be more in line with your own reaction time, which I think balances out the “enemy teleporting right next to you” thing and allows you to play at a pace you’re comfortable with. You can also turn on modifiers like giving you unlimited ammo and unlimited lives.

Now, sorry to dredge up the bi-yearly game difficulty discourse, but in this case, I sincerely consider OVERWHELM‘s difficulty to be a big part of its identity. Having limited lives adds to the oppressive tone that the game establishes and being able to effortlessly get back up after every loss really cheapens the threat everything poses. If you play this with unlimited lives like I eventually ended up doing after getting stuck on four boss kills, I do think the game’s worth revisiting with limited lives to get the intended experience.

Besides, it’s a really short game. A successful run can take around half an hour, so it’s definitely one of those games whose time value lies in mastery.

The game also has a new game plus mode that was added later on that I’m more ambivalent about. So, one of the core things is that you’re forced to fight bosses in a random order chosen every run. I think it’s a fair change because it counters your decision to leave the annoying new enemy spawns for last and forces players out of their comfort zone.

While the game uses a designed map, its enemy placement is randomized and this mode cranks it up even further. Plus, besides the game getting more wack with its enemy placement, they also act more aggressively from the get-go. So, what makes this annoying are the shield enemies. The shield enemies charge you down and deflect shots you fire at it, so the typical strategy for dealing with them is to either jump over them or back off. The problem is that in this mode, it’s possible for them to spawn in narrow hallways, and with the speed that they charge at you with in this mode, it can lead to some cheap deaths that can make a limited life run aggravating.

Otherwise? It’s just a standard hard mode, which I usually think is boring. The forced linear path is interesting, though that’s the only unique thing about this mode.

OVERWHELM is a short yet interesting action-platformer with cool horror stylings. Like, sure, the new game plus is whatever, but the core game is great enough. If you’re playing the game with limited lives, you’ve got an enjoyable uphill battle against an evolving hive.

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