Survival in an alien, post-apocalyptic wasteland is supposed to be difficult, but Overland’s trial and error gameplay revels in failure until you get it right.
I’ve never thought about the balance between gameplay tutorialization and the complete disregard for it quite like I did playing Overland. Released on PC, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and iOS last week, the game starts with a player in a car slowly making their way from the East Coast to the Western edge of a post-apocalyptic United States, stopping off in a randomly generated 9×9 grid map.
Once the car stops, you are completely on your own. With the exception of an alien and a potential partner you can rescue (companions come in human or dog form), it’s up to you to interact with your environment and figure out how the game works. You can click on an empty receptacle or a burnt-out car to search for survival materials, pick up sticks to use as weapons, or even siphon gas from cars to fuel your adventures throughout each chapter in the journey to the west.
In just a hundred words, I’ve already explained more about how Overland gameplay functions than the game will tell you itself. There’s nothing more punishing in a tactics-based survival game than the lack of information, and Finji made a conscious effort to tell the player as little as possible about how it functions.
In turn, chaos and misery become the lingering feelings that loom over first-time players. Everything you need to emerge victorious in Overland exists within the margins of expert strategy, but you need to learn the tools of the trade through hours of loss and dread. The characters that you meet on your first journey will likely die, and through the repeated pain of defeat over and over again can you hope to scrape by with one eventual victory.
You need gas to move between locations but gas can only be found in those specific maps that allow it. Other companions can only be found on certain maps. Weapons, tools and defensive measures are on their own map, while car upgrades (or new vehicles entirely) are at their own spots on the map. If you want to upgrade yourself, you’ll need to take your items to traders and hope they want what you have and have what you need.
What isn’t conveyed through learning those facts is the mistakes you’ll make as you learn them. Quickly can using up too much gas force you into an in-between map where too many alien enemies swarm around you, killing each character in two hits. Maybe you got into the car with your crew at night to end your turn only for aliens to attack your car, causing everyone to perish in a fiery explosion.
You need to be absolutely perfect if you hope for just one of a host of survivors to make it to the end of Overland, and even then, you’ll likely have to have sacrificed dozens upon dozens of others just to reach your stated goal. Each chapter’s final blockade will push your crew to the limits, throwing creature and physical barrier in your way with razor-thin margins for survival at each stage.
If that all sounds like a miserable experience, reminiscent of hitting your head against a brick wall, it certainly feels like it at times! There’s a deliberate decision made to not inform the player about the game’s functions, instead forcing them to die and fail over and over again to discover the strategies and learn the functions of game tools. It took me a dozen hours just to get one successful run.
That’s what made the 11th hour such a fascinating turn; everything snapped into place.
Suddenly, names on a screen became people I cared for. Amos may have not have been a good father, but he can use his natural skills as an expert driver to cut gas consumption in half. Cat, the dog, became the best boy, comforting me as the stragglers who got caught in the wilderness passed one by one.
Once you learn the optimal strategies like gas handoffs, knowing which items to take and how to properly adapt to every scenario, you have become an expert. It takes as much to succeed, which in turn empowers the slightly bereft character development throughout lost runs. It rationalizes the difficulty of the game and brings context to the hardships you go through.
In essence, Overland provides a meta-narrative to those who stick with, as its world and players, alike, need a ton of luck, perseverance and performing at the top skill level just for a chance to survive. For all your efforts, the payoff is decidedly not worth the journey, but such is the harsh realities of many things in life.
I can’t in good consciousness attribute malice to developer Finji’s efforts. I don’t think I can recommend picking up Overland, either. However, oddly enough, if you did happen to try the game, whether it be through subscription service or otherwise, I’d argue you should keep going. If you have a dozen or so hours and appreciate overcoming a difficult challenge in gaming, the denouement and the journey towards it captures a hauntingly brutal experience.
It takes a perfect set of circumstances to arrive at a perfect ending.
A copy of this game was provided to App Trigger for the purpose of this piece.