Overlord II (Xbox 360)
In the game's first hour alone, I'd gotten into a fight with my Yeti, stolen the clothes off the backs of snowball-hurling schoolchildren, and clubbed about 50 baby seals to death.
Now that's how to make a first impression, people. Welcome to Overlord II, one of the oddest, most original videogames I've played in all my years.
The game opens in a snowy, Whoville-like village during the holidays. You take control of a nameless, faceless devil-boy whose only distinguishing physical traits are the wolf-like fur circling a pair of evil, yellow eyes.
The boy takes control of a half dozen minions -- wretched creatures that are two parts Gremlin and one part Gollum. The boy must use his minions to do battle with the aforementioned snowball-chucking children.
Like in the original Overlord, gameplay centers around ordering your minions to do your dirty work for you. You can point them toward a house with the right stick, and off they scurry. They head inside en masse and ransack the place. Once they've finished, you can call them back to your side with a press of the B button. A great, evil foghorn will sound, and they'll come running, carrying whatever spoils they've found inside, holding their treasures aloft while saying, "For youuuuuu."
Sound empowering? Oh, it is.
In one moment, my minions donned parkas stolen from the snowball-tossers, and the lot of us snuck through the town gates dressed like a group of innocent boys and girls. Minutes later, we were wreaking havoc on the village Christmas celebration. A few minutes after that, my ever-growing horde of minions was riding around on stray wolves it'd found. Soon we'd gotten a one-eyed Yeti to join our party. Then we were clubbing those baby seals to death, an act that upset our Yeti, who turned on me and started fighting me.
It's genuinely funny. And strange. And, at times, more than a little unsettling. Like the best comedy, Overlord II is bold and brave; it isn't afraid to offend or upset. Games are so costly to make, and are typically tempered by so many accountants and public-relations people, that this kind of unique originality -- regardless of whether you love it or hate it -- is far too rare in the medium.
By far the best aspect about Overlord II is the fact that the minions appear to have their own personalities. Look closely, and you'll see that one has found a pitchfork that he's now wielding. Another one still wears his snow hat from the previous level. Still others don't cooperate, and wander off on their own and need to be corralled. Others climb aboard stray wolves and begin riding them around.
At the center of it all, of course, is the Overlord, the grown-up version of the child from the game's opening level. He's a blank-faced, unspeaking cipher wielding a big stick that, honestly, doesn't do much damage. (CG Pro Tip: You'll be tempted to jump into battles and use your big ax. Don't do it. This will almost always end badly.) When the Overlord visits the Netherworld for the first time, he's shown to his throne, and he takes a seat on it in a slumped, world-weary way.
The game is a surprisingly sophisticated satire on politics, environmental issues, power, evil and even small-town life. From the paunchy soldiers to the hippie, peace-loving elves (who bear a striking resemblance to Link for some reason), the world of Overlord II is a world with attitude; it's a game with a very distinctive point of view. Very few games have either of those things.
The writing -- credited to Rhianna Pratchett -- is superb. There are hints of Dr. Seuss, Tim Burton, Tolkien and even Peter Molyneux's Fable to be found here. The writing is so dense, and the jokes fly at you at such an alarming rate, that many of them will sail right by you if you're not listening carefully. "The game isn't afraid to let the audience miss something," John Teti said to me during our discussion of the game. "That's so important in comedy."
Look closely, and you'll see one of your minions wearing a hat made from a baby seal's head. Man, I love these guys.
Overlord II is far more geographically expansive than the original. And there are more minion types to fool with, and a tacked-on multiplayer mode that no one will probably ever play. The control scheme has also been tweaked. The right stick controls the camera and the minions simultaneously. "Sweep" the stick forward to send in your minions. Or lean back on it to adjust the camera. This works well enough, except when things get more hectic later in the game, when a miscue on the stick results in the camera swinging around you wildly while your minions idle at your side.
What initially seems like an easy game -- send in your minions, stand back, wait for the results -- becomes more interesting and complicated during later battles. You'll need to send in the proper minion types to soften up certain enemies, waiting for them to expose weaknesses, then send in another minion type to finish the job. It feels a bit random at first, but once you get the hang of it, it's very gratifying.
Unfortunately, obscure objectives derail the game every 20 minutes or so, draining away whatever dramatic momentum the game might have had going for it. I got frustrated and nearly gave up on the game at several points. But I always figured it out. I always found my way. And I was always glad that I did, because there was always something interesting -- or hilarious, or poignant -- on the far side of every single one of these frustrating moments.
This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 game provided by the publisher. The game was tested on the PlayStation 3. No significant differences were noted.