Finji’s survival strategy title turns tension into apocalyptic adventure
Occasionally, Overland has a bit of an interface problem. Our van is filled with fuel, our four party members hunting for supplies across a gridded area. Monsters slowly surround us. A huge one thumps our van, causing smoke to start pouring from it. No problem – we’ve stored a toolbox on top of it. But click, curse and try as we might, we can’t get Bennie to use it. The vehicle blows up, two of our party die, and the other two stagger on to their death in the next area. It hardly seems fair.
Then again, the cruelty of it is fitting, given this turn-based survival strategy game’s premise. An unknown event has triggered a disaster, and neon-quilled man-eaters have infested America. Each individual, procedurally generated level has your survivors scavenging, fighting and making friends on a dangerous road trip out west. Every encounter is teeth- grindingly tense: actions per turn are limited, forcing you to constantly balance risk against reward. Dense 6x6 grids, scant resources, limited personal inventories and two-hit kills ensure your group’s level of safety ranges from ‘moderate peril’ to ‘imminent death’.
Difficulty is key, says Adam Saltsman, developer and Finji co-founder. “I was playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown on Ironman mode: when you play on the easier setting, you miss out. It felt like learning a new sport or something.” It was Adam’s experiences with XCOM and turn-based title 868-Hack that inspired Overland: “One was a colossal, squadbased game with huge possibilities, and the other this compact, minimalist, ‘every step is life or death’ type of game. We said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we could have some of the best parts of an XCOM experience in five minutes, instead of an hour?’”
“We started it four years ago in a world that seemed a little less pre-apocalyptic”
And, toolbox fumblings aside, it’s close to that lofty goal. A stylish, simplified UI belies a systemic depth that creates unique scenarios out of incremental decisions. The longer you stay in one area, or the more noise you make, the more monsters sprout from beneath the earth to attack. “We try to build the risk/ reward decisions for drama and close calls,” Saltsman says. “Abilities and monsters are balanced around giving players cool opportunities to escape.” Indeed, sending the wounded Ellis a step too far for a medkit in one stage almost leaves him stranded when he runs out of action points – until we realise we can use someone in the car to pull him in.
When it all works, it’s slicker than most interfaces in the genre. But following our explosive undoing, we worry Overland’s minimal UI might work against us at critical moments. An ‘undo’ button lets you reverse a misclick, but the issue here is more complex. “We didn’t realise until partway into making the game that strategy games are all user interface,” Saltsman says. “About 50 percent of our work has gone into just trying to figure out where the buttons go and what they do.” Around half of Overland’s ‘first access’ players have experienced the toolbox disaster, says Saltsman: it’s not obvious in what order items and squares should be clicked to fix your ride. The right kind of stress is a thrill, and
Overland has plenty of it so far. In fact, players are crying out for more opportunities for quietude. Finji is listening, softening Overland at points: when it’s raining, creatures won’t call reinforcements, and remote hoarder camps will offer a place to regroup and resupply, provided you can save enough fuel to get there. “More players than I expected found earlier versions to be relentless,” Saltsman says.
A game so clever at punishing errors with the death of a beanie-wearing optimist or a beloved dog perhaps isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. No doubt keen strategists will be up to the challenge, but there’s plenty here for the braver, more narratively driven: daring escapes and meaningful sacrifices. As clumsy as its UI can be, Overland’s communications of human nature are eerily accurate. But as development has rolled on, Saltsman has struggled with the game’s dark premise. “It’s a little weird to work on now, because we started it almost four years ago in a world that seemed a little less [immediately] pre-apocalyptic,” he says. “It was very much intended as an escapist thing, like, ‘Oh, imagine if real folks were having to contemplate the end of the world.’
“Back then, that was something that wasn’t part of my life. I was born too late: the impact of the Cold War was background radiation, but not constantly there. And now…” He pauses. “I don’t know. I feel like if I was starting a new game design right now, it’d probably be a little different.”
Abandoned cars can help you evade danger in unexpected ways. Sliding through its seats in one turn both gets you away from a pursuer and puts an obstacle between them and you
ABOVE Dumpsters hold useful loot – there’s something you don’t hear every day – but they can also block your vehicle’s escape route. You’ll need to tell a party member to drag it out of the way before the creatures arrive
TOP LEFT Petrol stations offer a chance to fill your fuel reserves to the top, but they’re usually crawling with monsters. A full party of four struggles to find safety.
ABOVE As you might expect, it’s wise to exercise caution when moving gas canisters around near flaming barrels. Then again, setting a party member on fire makes for a useful distraction in a pinch, if you’ve the stomach for it
LEFT Your canine party members can also attack monsters, search containers and carry an item in their mouths. Unsurprisingly, they can’t use said items – or operate a motor vehicle
You’ll have to greet other stranded survivors before you can add them to your party and control their movements. They’re often carrying handy items, too