With Overlord on the Xbox 360, Codemasters and Triumph Studios have combined to create a fantasy videogame that could best be described as a violently humorous hack-and-slash, puzzle, real-time strategy hotchpotch that liberally borrows its aesthetic and gameplay inspiration from The Lord of the Rings and... Pikmin.
Lord of the Rings fans who've always wanted to assume the role of Sauron are duly handed a pseudo-opportunity from the outset in Overlord as the player's on-screen avatar even looks like the briefly glimpsed movie iteration of Tolkien's evil all-seeing Lord.
Striking out from a decrepit dark tower ransacked across the years by fattening and unchallenged heroes, the game's newly appointed Overlord first brings his modest horde of ever-willing minions to the village of Spree (Bree?), which just so happens to be under siege by filthy Halflings (Hobbits?). Ridding the villagers of the Halfling threat by assaulting them head on with bloodthirsty minions soon ends in a wobbly confrontation with an overweight hero and the resulting adoration and worship of a grateful Spree.
Of course, evil is the game's main selling point so basking in heroic glory can be quickly swapped for healthy fear and respect by arbitrarily murdering a few villagers and kidnapping a group of maidens for cleaning duties back at the dark tower. Granted, Overlord's narrative is a somewhat twisted and loose interpretation of the famous sprawling literary classic (without the banal trekking, eating and singing), but it's obvious that the game's creators are huge fans intent on delivering a more nefarious slant in which evil stands a very good chance of winning.
Regardless of the player's central position as the governing Overlord, the game's true stars are its unfailingly faithful minions. Available in four different colour and attribute varieties, the player builds their progressive minion forces by harvesting life force from any on-screen creature unlucky enough to incur the Overlord's wrath. Although the player can attempt to hack-and-slash through crowds of Halflings, zombies, firebugs, innocents... and sheep... it's often far more effective to merely issue intuitive and instant directions to the comically violent minions instead. This generally entails using the right analogue stick to sweep the trailing minions effectively around the screen wherever unwitting life force still dares to draw breath - though individual minions and separate breeds can be selected if so required. The minions also provide a quick-moving mass of weapon-wielding protection for the Overlord, who starts the game as a rather physically weak evil ruler prior to the gathering of tiered magical abilities, better armour and more deadly weaponry.
Resembling pesky goblins that scamper around the screen looking for murderous mischief, the minion breeds are: "Browns" which are expert fighters; "Reds" which can hurl and extinguish fire; "Greens" which are immune to poison and enjoy surprise attacks; and "Blues" which can safely traverse water obstacles. Once all four breeds have been secured (by locating their respective hives and returning them to the dark tower) Overlord's sizeable Pikmin influence becomes much more evident. Various puzzles connected to each in-game mission require the clever use of the minions and their particular skills, and it's down to accurate selection by the Overlord to ensure that the right minions are trailing, ready for action. Of course, gathered life force dictates how many minions can be summoned at any one time - as does the player's advancement - and the proliferation of each breed also requires life force matching its specific colour class. This means that the discerning Overlord would be wise to occasionally revisit well-travelled areas in order to cull some weak enemies and build an expansive backlog across the breeds for the game's progressively challenging missions.
The gameplay blend of almost effortless directorial destruction and patient puzzle-solving certainly complements Overlord's definite sense of humour and its appealingly pretty presentation. Indeed, "sweeping" minions into on-screen areas the Overlord himself cannot access, and then watching the little terrors wreak havoc on his behalf, is always satisfying, especially as the minions retrieve and equip abandoned weaponry and armour from downed foes. They also scavenge around for treasure, life force, magic power (Mana) and health "For the Overlord!" which they duly gather up and bring straight back "For the master!"
While it rarely pushes the next-gen graphical envelope, Overlord is never anything other than attractive, and its character and environmental design is convincingly fantastical without ever crossing the line into downright cheesy. The screen can be viewed from two camera perspectives - one low trailing the Overlord, and one that's close to being isometric but stops short of flattening the game world. Both work relatively well, although the higher option is preferable when battling many foes or working out obstacle puzzles. Animation is perhaps a little weak, especially on the Overlord himself, who tends to stomp about as though his armour has been overly starched back at the dark tower's laundry room. Again, however, the minions are the real stars of the show and their responsive dispersal across the screen is wonderfully energetic as they pilfer houses, hack through pumpkin patches, and gleefully smash their way through crates, chests, and boxes searching for useful goodies.
Game sound and music is befitting of Overlord's 'borrowed' source of inspiration, particularly from a Lord of the Rings angle, and the soundtrack ebbs and flows at all the right moments to paint a Hollywood-esque accompaniment to the on-screen action. NPC performances are well executed and character voices all arrive as regional (overtly tongue-in-cheek) UK English that smack a little of Lionhead's Fable in their easy delivery - which is a good thing.
All in all, swinging the sword of oppression as the evil Overlord and releasing a drooling pack of mayhem-hungry minions upon both the guilty and the innocent is a fun distraction that initially demands player attention and ably holds it. However, once the four minion breeds have been safely gathered, the game tends to lose its bite - as it were - falling more into environmental puzzles and life force back tracking rather than evolving the Overlord's more obvious power and might - which is not such a good thing. Other aspects do strive to keep the gameplay moving forward, such as locating stolen elements of the dark tower to help restore it to its former glory, adding smelting forges to the tower to widen the Overlord's weaponry and armour options, and even finding a good woman to watch over the tower in the Overlord's stead. Sadly though, the longevity of the game slips inexorably when its focus becomes more distinctly Pikmin and less Lord of the Rings, and no amount of secondary quests can prevent that from happening.
Ultimately, if it weren't for an oddly skewed sense of gameplay balance that offers two separate genre types (action and puzzle) rather than a comfortable mixture of both, Overlord would be a thoroughly impressive experience that delivers something a little off the beaten track. As it is, the game's detailed design, genuine humour, intuitive minion controls, and obvious source homage, can't quite combine to elevate it beyond the unfortunate bog of stagnancy it creates for itself by not quite knowing what it wants to be. 78%