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a woman holding a tree branch and her dog, holding a dagger in its mouth, stand in front of their yellow car on a road through a desolate landscape in Overland Finji

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Overland’s apocalypse could be a little more welcoming

Learning through dying isn’t much fun

Russ Frushtick is the director of special projects, and he has been covering the world of video games and technology for over 15 years. He co-founded Polygon in 2012.

After the apocalypse, things can get a little ... bleak. Those who live may exhibit the worst elements of humanity, emphasizing survival above all else. Overland follows in the footsteps of other post-apocalyptic survival adventures, while bringing in a few unique elements of its own. But at its core it remains true to the tropes, with all of the moral degradation that comes along with being a wanderer in a broken world.

As a storytelling tool for conveying such a doomed journey, it’s pretty effective. It’s just that as a strategy game, it’s not a lot of fun.

Hitting the road

Overland is a turn-based tactical game wherein players control a band of survivors making their way across the wastes. It seems that America has been overrun by an underground species of monsters (more Tremors than C.H.U.D.s) that wiped out most of the populace. The heroes of this story are those that remain, a group of folks with a variety of skill sets.

Each campaign of Overland begins with one randomly generated survivor encountering another in an East Coast city. A fast friendship is soon made, and the pair begin their road trip together in a shared car, heading to the theoretical safety of the West Coast.

Each “level” takes place in a small, square area, usually filled with broken-down cars, barrels, and monsters. The survivors must search these places, hunting for gas, weapons, and medical supplies to make it through the journey in one piece. Unfortunately, the more they search, the more noise they make, which draws more monsters to the area. Every map becomes a balancing act between collecting enough supplies to continue traveling and ensuring you can still make it out alive.

searching a gas station for supplies in Overland Finji

All of this stuff is right up my alley. I adore tactical turn-based strategy games where careful planning leads to outright domination over your environment or enemies. But Overland never quite clicked for me; I’m surprised at how off-putting I found the final game.

Overland withholds too much valuable information, for starters. Turn-based games are usually very forthcoming about unit capabilities, both for your own units and those you may be fighting or running from. In Overland, it takes me several rounds of trial and error before learning that the monsters in the starting area can only move one space — I kept expecting their movement to speed up, and played accordingly — and new monster types are added in every new region. I’m given no indication of where these monsters might move on their next turns, or how much health they have. Gaining this basic knowledge required dying and starting over from the beginning of the area.

Using death as a teaching tool is a common mechanic in games, but even after a dozen or so runs, I still feel like I’m missing important information about where I can move and what actions I can take at any given moment, or what movement or attacks I might see from the enemy. Overland’s UI is minimalistic and pretty to look at, but if I want to know whether I can fill my gas tank and jump into my car in the same turn, the only way is to spend a turn trying it. And in a game so punishing, one small misstep like this could doom a run.

a yellow car drives through a red rock canyon in Overland Finji

Eventually, though, I’m able to make enough progress, crawling my way to the third area with the help of two loyal dogs who have joined my quest. They’re named Arfur and Four-Legs. Dogs are able to attack without needing a weapon — something I learn after a few more failed runs — but they can’t take more complex actions like filling gas tanks or driving cars. Some of this may seem obvious, but the game has bizarre rules about what humans can and can’t do (reversing cars is a no-no, for some reason?), so there was really no telling what the pups were capable of. Logic doesn’t always seem to apply, and planning ahead is next to impossible since the game rarely gives me any information about what any particular unit may do.

My dogs grow strong, acting as a defensive wall as my human makes his way around the map, collecting gas for our car. This strategy proves effective, keeping the monster hordes at bay with teeth and tails. But at one point we arrive at a gas station to find another person, one who doesn’t seem interested in joining our merry band. He is far more preoccupied with stealing all the gas in the area. Gas is crucial in Overland; without it, I have to walk until I find another car, which is usually a death sentence after a map or two. It’s here that I’m forced to make a terrible choice: Drive on and risk running out of fuel in a dangerous area or ... well, I won’t hold you in suspense — I have Arfur and Four-Legs rip him to shreds before I steal his gas can.

Overland begins to hum at moments like this. These micro-stories develop through short, procedurally generated dialogue within levels like “we really need to find a gas station” or “I can’t believe you killed someone, Four-Legs!” It’s enough to fill in the blanks without needing complex cutscenes or voice-over, and it makes me feel way more attached to my survivor group than I had been in any previous run. I was forced to make a hard choice, valuing my own survival over the rights of someone else to live as well, and I was all but forced to add to the bleakness of the in-game world. That’s compelling stuff, and it happened naturally through the game’s systems.

searching a barren forested area along a road in Overland Finji

Two maps later, I approach a roadblock (the boss levels of Overland). There is literally no way through with my car, just immovable barriers on the road. I’m an hour into this run and I’ve developed a connection with my pups, but my only choice is to leave Arfur to die to a horde of monsters while Four-Legs and I try to escape on foot. The next map has a replacement car, but it’s literally surrounded by monsters, with no clear route to success; we’re dead in seconds.

This isn’t a hard choice forced upon me by the setting, but a frustration that results from not understanding what I can or can’t do. The thought of starting up another run while hoping I learn a little bit more about my abilities or options feels like asking someone to punch me in the stomach again. I’m not up for it, frankly.

It’s clear that Overland is trying to tell impactful, if randomly generated, stories about survival in a post-apocalyptic world. And there are absolutely times when it accomplishes this mission.

But it also feels like the actual gameplay has not gotten the same love and attention, and difficulty comes from opacity instead of design. Perhaps shoving players into the wilderness without guidance is a way to mimic the perils of the apocalypse, but dying without knowing why you failed or where you messed up feels downright depressing. RIP, Four-Legs and Arfur.

Overland will be released Sept. 19 on iOS, Linux, Mac, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One. The game was played on Switch using a final “retail” download code provided by Finji. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.