It had been dark for hours. We had made multiple stops looking for supplies with no success. My friend “Arthos” wielded only a stick. I had the steering wheel. Our last-ditch effort to find gas brought us not far from the road but close to danger. It was find fuel here or continue on foot—a death sentence. We managed to siphon fuel out of an abandoned car, not without attracting unwanted attention. I jumped in the car and started it. Monsters were closing in around us, attracted to the unavoidable sound of the car’s engine sputtering to life. My friend Arthos came around the front of the car but he was too slow. They were closing in and we would both be dead if I didn’t do something. I did the only thing I could. I rammed Arthos with the car, attempting to barrel over the last obstacle to my escape. It was the last straw for the hatchback, which had barely been holding it together. The hood caught fire and I knew it was moments from going up in flames. I leapt out of the driver’s side and ran. It exploded behind me, taking the evidence of my betrayal with it. The monsters continued surrounding me. I wasn’t going to make it out.
Overland is merciless to those prone to sentiment. Everyone must be expendable if you plan to survive. Even then, you still may not escape. My first thought when encountering Overland was “I just bought Death Road to Canada last month”. It quickly became apparent that while they share some thematic similarities—randomly generated party members on a survival road trip out West during the apocalypse, everything else is wholly different. Overland is a tactical, turn-based survival game. At its heart, it is a dark game with a wry sense of humor. Each character comes with a short log-line style back story such as “Was married for three days. Appreciates the company” or “Has a prosthetic leg but nobody notices”. It’s a bleak outlook on the monster-infected end of the world that enables but never forgives doing what’s necessary to survive. In any other game, my hapless last party member would remain an immovable barrier to salvation. In Overland, I was enticed to run him over to save myself, only to find that my selfish attempt to escape had sealed my fate.
Overland has undergone a host of improvements and additions during its alpha program thus far. Since the earliest screenshots and demos, Finji Co has upgraded Overland with a slicker HUD, smoother gameplay interactions, and numerous player-requested features. The most notable in my book—not for its impact on the game but for what it says about the indie dev scene—is Twitch integration.
Overland is one of many indie game titles in recent history to include mechanics specifically targeting content creators and their audiences. In a recent update, Finji Co added the ability to link your Twitch account in-game. It grabs the username of everyone logged into chat on your channel and plugs those names in for the game to randomly assign names for its generated characters. Naturally, I took to my own Twitch channel to try it out. The story of my friend “Arthos” is not the only tragedy that arose from my experimentation.
Overland seems to have nailed this alpha phase player engagement with astute employment of the community-centered feature.
It’s telling that a common question for small developers right now is “how ‘streamable’ is my game?” For an indie title that needs all the publicity it can get, maintaining the right level of exposure and engagement from potential players during development and at release is a real sink-or-swim matter. A game that chooses to have a public alpha, whether free or paid, faces the real risk that all the hype will be spent before the game is fully released. If it’s announced too early and development drags on too long, all the interested players may have migrated to the Next Big Thing before Day 1 comes around. Many indie developers have begun including features like Twitch integration to ensure that any content creator who comes to the game, early in development or late, has the ability to engage additional players. Overland seems to have nailed this alpha phase player engagement with astute employment of the community-centered feature but is still missing a lot of potential for late-cycle engagement. I’m talking about replayability.
Overland currently lacks any internal restrictions on a player between runs. In procedural strategy games, the motivation to play usually ends when the player has beaten all the basic content available. Other games answer this problem with increased difficulty or with additional content locked behind the completion of trick runs. Dungeon of the Endless comes to mind immediately as a great example. It offers additional content to the player for completing runs after the game has altered the basic rules to shake up tactical decisions. I suspect that plenty of players will invent their own restrictions to add replay value—using only sticks as weapons, pacifist runs, dogs only—but even that will only last so long if the game itself fails to acknowledge the player’s achievements. The easy answer is cranking the difficulty up until just completing each area is the reward in itself. I don’t think I’d be alone in calling that solution unimaginative, although it has been done before. Even so, there will always be players for whom the difficulty is never grueling enough. Those self-styled “hardcore” players are going to need new challenges to overcome.
We don’t yet know what the end game really looks like. Unless Finji Co has some serious surprises up its sleeve, the lack of late-game motivation will remain an issue that demands solving. Fortunately, Twitch integration is currently masking the issue while development continues. The laughs and surprises I encountered with each new run, recruiting different friends and getting them into further messes, provided enough motivation for me to keep playing even after I’d completed all the areas available so far. Since there’s no authentication required, even a player who doesn’t stream could enter the username of a twitch broadcaster they watch and pull names from that broadcaster’s chatroom as a source of entertainment.
I’ve loved every minute of Overland I have played so far. The spectacular failures, the buzzer-beating saves, and the lovable pups have all captured my heart and given me more hours of playtime than I had anticipated. That being said, I recognize that Overland still has peaks to crest before it achieves the longevity it will need to succeed. As Finji Co closes in on a feature-complete version of the game, I’ll be looking for additional mechanics that will keep players attempting new runs beyond the basic road trip to the west coast that is currently planned.
This review was written using version #5978 (Overland First Access for Windows 64-Bit)