It can be difficult to find time to finish a video game, especially if you only have a few hours a week to play. In our biweekly column Short Play we suggest video games that can be started and finished in a weekend.
In Overwhelm, you control a lone soldier who has been sent to wipe out a hive of monsters. You’re armed only with a gun with a limited amount of ammo, and a melee attack that rockets you forward a short distance. The melee attack also acts as a double jump of sorts, letting you get additional height to traverse the Metroidvania-like hive layout. However, unlike a Metroidvania, these actions are the only things you do in the game; there are no power-ups for your character to find as you explore the hive, but there are for the hive’s inhabitants.
True to its name, the game is about making you feel overwhelmed. From the visual design to the audio to the gameplay, each part of the game is designed to make the challenge presented to you feel overwhelming. And yet it does so in a way that doesn’t feel frustrating or unfair, while also not removing the challenge or weakening the game’s horror.
While making your way around the hive you encounter five boss monsters, each protecting a gem needed in order to destroy the hive. But each time one is defeated it changes the hive itself, infusing an aspect of the boss into the normal enemies of the hive. Initially, you’ll mostly encounter Alien-esque facehuggers that jump at you and scurry along the ground, but as you defeat more bosses, they gain abilities like being able to walk along any surface or spit poison at you from afar. They also begin appearing more frequently and in areas that were once safe. It creates a sense of the hive as a living thing, one that’s trying to fight off the threat you represent like a body’s immune system.
Despite the oppressive nature of the game, it does several things that not only make the whole experience more palatable, but without taking away from the challenge or horror of the game. When starting up the game, you are presented with a minimalist map with only the central location where you entered selectable for your starting point. The other five unselectable locations are where the bosses are, but after defeating a boss, that location becomes a place you can start future playthroughs from.
This not only incentivizes you to unlock all the starting locations and learn all the bosses, but it turns the start of each new playthrough into a something of a Mega Man stage select puzzle. Do you fight the lizard boss first to avoid dealing with more enemies in the platforming section leading up to it? Or do you start with the underwater boss who adds a new underwater enemy when it’s defeated, but is the only underwater part of the hive?
This starting-location selection is a small thing, but like many of the design decisions in the game, it goes a long way to making the game feel less frustrating as it respect syour time. Another is how it handles lives. You have three of to start, but when you defeat a boss or get a gem to the central location, they reset. So if you lose two fighting a boss, you then don’t have just one life to get the gem back to the center, instead you have all three for the return trip. The most important thing this does is extend the length of each playthrough, and since this is a game that relies on skill and your knowledge of the hive to progress, the longer you spend there, the more time they is acquire both.
Overwhelm manages to find a great balance where, as you’re playing, things feel challenging and oppressive like you’re in the middle of a horror movie, but between playthroughs you’re always compelled to come back for more. Either because you know how to do better, or you want to try to execute it better next time. So it never feels like a game that’s trying to beat you down, but instead one that’s building you up.