It's not easy being an evil overlord. Sure, you'd think such a lofty position would give you the right to loaf about all day, pillaging villages and smiting innocents at your leisure. You might even think you'd wile away the hours sipping goblets of warm blood while slaves served you still-beating hearts on a golden platter.
But no. Want. Want. Want. Everyone wants something from you when you're totally, awesomely, evilly powerful.
Bring back our stolen food before we starve, Overlord.
Rescue our people from those horrible Halflings, Overlord.
Please don't set me on fire, Overlord.
Like I said, it's not easy being evil.
Though… I have to admit…it is an awful lot of fun.
"Overlord" – Codemaster's excellent new genre-blending game for the PC and Xbox 360 — asks you to walk a mile (or several hundred) in the metal boots of a Dark Lord resurrected to find his Dark Tower in shambles. Mixing elements of action, role-playing and real-time-strategy games, it also asks you to ponder just how evil you really are.
And apparently there's no time to waste. You wake to find that you're a wickedly busy Overlord-in-the-remaking. A few of the big items on your ever-growing list of chores: rebuild your tower, subjugate the surrounding villages, and destroy the dastardly "heroes" who wrecked your home.
Of course, as your sycophantic guide Gnarl explains, "Being the Overlord means never having to lift anything heavy." As it turns out, one of the perks of being a ruthless despot is the horde of loyal Minions who follow you about doing a whole lot of the hard work for you.
And controlling your Minions is where the dark and wickedly funny heart of this game lies. Here, you're given a gang of gremlin-like imps who will happily ransack what you want them to ransack, carry what you want them to carry and kill what you want them to kill.
All of this is terribly useful for an Overlord trying to rebuild his reputation and his kingdom. Sweep your Minions through a village and they'll tear it apart to bring you back gold and other treasures. Send them after a herd of sheep (or a village full of people) and they'll kill their victims and bring you the life force. When your health is flagging, they'll sacrifice themselves in a pit of blood to make you strong again.
Though you start the game with only a handful of these underlings to control, the number and variety grow as the game progresses. In addition to the brown fighter Minions you start with, you'll spawn and control red fire Minions, green assassin Minions and blue healer Minions. You'll need to use your Minions wisely, playing to each of their strengths to triumph over enemies and solve various puzzles.
As fun as this is, it's not original. Those of you who played Nintendo's flower-sweet "Pikmin" game, will remember that it put you in control of a swarm of various-colored big-eyed plant creatures who had to be used en masse in order to succeed. "Overlord" is a lot like "Pikmin" — if, say, the Pikmin were suddenly possessed by Satan.
But that's what makes "Overlord" so much fun — the Pikmin have been possessed by Satan and Satan has a really good sense of humor. As dastardly as they are, the Minions are hilarious to watch as they tear across hill and dale, wreaking havoc everywhere they go. Send them swarming over a table full of beer mugs and they'll get drunk and relieve themselves in public. Send them through a patch of pumpkins and they'll wear the pumpkins on their heads.
Meanwhile, "Overlord" has a lot of fun taking sly jabs at "The Lord of Rings." For example, in this game — and from your Overlordish perspective — the Halflings (read: Hobbits) are a plague of fat, nasty thieves who kidnap humans, steal food and have kitchens overrun with rats. You're encouraged to torch them with your fireball spell and send your underlings to slaughter them in their sleep. And yes, sending a marauding band of malicious Minions to ransack what looks a lot like Bilbo Baggins' Hobbit hole is awfully satisfying in this setting.
You see, in this game, "evil" is largely a matter of perspective. The seven "heroes" you have to vanquish aren't exactly heroic anymore. They've all been corrupted and now represent each of the seven deadly sins. So…just how "evil" are you for taking them down?
Meanwhile, just how wicked you are also is a matter of choice. The game puts this question to you: "Are you evil? Or really evil?"
To wit, you'll be given hard choices as Overlord — choices that force you to plumb your dark side. Sure, you can help the sniveling villagers if you like. Or, you can smite them where they stand and take their life force. You can bring food to the starving peasants. Or, you can keep it all for yourself. Even when it comes to choosing a mistress, your very evilness will be questioned — will you let the good(ish) girl or the bad girl be the queen of your pad? Ultimately, your choices affect the appearance of your Tower, the spells you earn and how people interact with you.
All in all, this is a clever game with some great characters and excellent writing. The voice acting is quite good, though some of the characters end up repeating their lines a lot and that can get annoying (I could stand it no more and had to kill one villager who kept asking me over and over if my Minions were for sale.) And while there's a lot going on here — from controlling Minions, to casting spells, and delivering melee attacks — the developers from Triumph Studios did a nice job making the controls pretty intuitive to use in both the PC and Xbox 360 versions.
I do have to say that exploring this fantasy world — which has been beautifully rendered — is a big part of the game and there were a few times when I got lost. It was in those frustrating moments, I found myself most tempted by the dark side. I admit, I wanted with all my malevolent being to smite the game makers for not including a map within the game.
After all, everyone knows that evil Overlords do NOT have time to stop and ask for directions.