Overland has been in development for a long time now. Developer Finji – which began life back in 2006 when it was founded by Adam and Rebekah Saltsman – has been involved in several major releases over the years, including (deep breath) Canabalt, Gravity Hook, Hundreds, Feist, Panoramical, Runaway Toad and Night in the Woods. In recent times, they’ve made headlines for games like Wilmot’s Warehouse and Tunic. Yet all the while, Overland remained in the background, tinkered, toiled, and iterated. It became a highlighted game for Apple Arcade, it laboured into almost 600 development builds (according to their Twitter), and after five calendar years, it’s finally putting all pre-release builds in the rearview mirror. Here it finally is: Overland 1.0.
It’s worth a mention that during that long stretch of development time, the themes and pieces that make up Overland are far more commonplace in the gaming industry: its a post-apocalyptic, gridded strategy game, which we’ve seen plenty of recently. But hey, you can definitely pet the dog, at the cost of an action point, but with no benefit other than a warm, fuzzy feeling. “We thought it was fun to offer our First Access Players last year, so we added the mechanic in,” explains Rebekah Saltsman. “The Twitter account did make us laugh when it turned up earlier this year.”
It’s clear that this is quite an epic undertaking on Finji’s part. “Overland is a procedurally-generated strategy game, turn-based, and set in a post-apocalyptic version of North America,” adds Rebekah. “It is also a response to movies like Stalker, the book A Roadside Picnic, and collaborative game playing experiences like Pandemic. The sound-based enemy mechanic is not something we have seen in games before. The dialogue is responsive to what is happening on-screen; the stories and dialogue are also procedurally generated – and the game is located into like 14 languages. The game includes a new UI design interface which has stripped down the standards of the strategy genre while maintaining the ability for both hardcore strategy players and those new to the genre to engage and learn with appropriate feedback. It contains story-generating design hooks that encourage the players to create their own story. We broke most strategy game rules.”
It’s shaping up to be something special, then. What Overland really has going for it – and this is clear in even just half an hour with the game – is fantastic production values and gameplay that’s been heavily user-tested. You like your X-COM baddies looking sharp and with a dash of character? Do your procedurally generated games feel a little too random, not methodical enough? From the second you pick up the controller, Overland feels crisp, well written, and difficult – but fair.
Here’s all Overland wants you to do: get to the west coast of the United States any way you can. The problem is that you start off on the east coast, moments after hijacking a stray car and zooming away from your friend who gave his life to afford you a few extra seconds to escape an attack. Enter: the map.
Having a car is the (mostly) mandatory bit of the game, as it helps you to travel from grid to grid. You stay on each grid as long as you want (or can), with an exit available on the map’s edge, provided you can get to it. Your vehicle has a gas meter, and the further up and down the map you want to travel to, the more gas it’ll take. Each node along your path gives minimally two options with hints to what’s hidden there, again, provided you have enough gas to get to them.
Explore the unknown at your own risk, because running out of gas drops you in an enemy-infested grid with gas canisters scattered everywhere, but with hardly any options open to you but brute force.
The other mandatory win condition is that you must have at least one living party member at all times (yep, even a dog counts). Each person you find along the way comes with their own written backstory, skills, and all kinds of potential. We quickly met a girl with a flashlight, which definitely helped. Why? Well, time is a thing in Overland, and it gets dark, which drastically affects your field of view. Turns out, being able to see is important in a turn-based strategy game.
To that end, items like the aforementioned flashlight are the other things you’ll discover besides gas; useful items are tucked away in alleyways, dumpsters, boxes, near explosive generators, and much more. We found a big, wooden plank, which we strapped to one of our character’s backs and it absorbed two hits from one of those gross monster things. We dropped a teddy bear because we could only hold one item, despite its promise as a good thing to barter later on. A stick as a weapon was also in our path, which we picked up in order to avoid the pyrrhic victory we’d get from chasing the sturdier axe in the corner that was guarded by way too many bad guys.
That’s how Overland bills itself: a game of “hard choices”. And it’s true. In this way, permadeath isn’t a thing to avoid as much as it’s Overland’s currency. Who will you sacrifice to get at least one person through the grid? Given how valuable each item is, how critical gasoline is, and how detailed all the characters are, this game wants to give you an aneurysm. But a good one, if such a thing can exist.
At least the grids where you’ll be making all these tough decisions are beautiful. The game allows you to rotate each screen ever-so-slightly, but you’re mostly confined to an isometric view of wasteland America, displayed by Polly Pocket-slices of dilapidated towns, scary wooded areas, and rural, destroyed countryside. Everything in this game is made out of large polygons, giving the destruction a sleek, “video-game-y” feel, but the colour palettes are warm and muted to keep things bleak. It’s a nice way to take in the end of the world.
The levels are randomly generated, but there is a narrative story. Finji tells us you can beat the entire game in about four hours… but you won’t. “Our very best playtester, who has been playing the game for years, can play it in 4 hours but he also has like 300+ hours on record,” explains Rebekah Saltsman. “A normal player who is just trying to do their first run through could finish it in 8 hours, so long as they don’t die. The game has seven regions – five full 60-90 minute regions and two ‘half’ regions. All of this has heavy caveats on your death rate.”
That is, Overland is tough as nails. It takes a few, quick play-throughs to get your bearings, some more to build up strategy, then a few more on top of that to get lucky. A game over screen features a post-mortem and stats for every member of your party that went along for the ride, and works as motivation to get back up and try again. If there weren’t so many pre-booked appointments at PAX, we might have even tried again after our party perished.
If you’re a fan of FTL and Into the Breach, or other similarly-minded stat-driven, hard choice strategy games, Overland will absolutely keep your attention. If anything else, it might be the first video game ever made where players actually choose to sacrifice the dog. Listen, it’s the only way.