I don’t cover a great number of TBS games, but of the TBS games I’ve covered, Overland is by far the most enjoyable one I’ve played. It’s been a long time since I’ve played a game as strategically fulfilling as Overland. You wanna know how I can tell Overland is an amazing game with stunning complexity? Because I spend almost the entirety of this 1500+ word article just discussing game design and mechanics. And I still feel like there was stuff that I left out.
The first thing I should praise about Overland is its approach. Every facet of the game is decidedly minimalistic. There’s no lengthy introduction here. There’s no lengthy tutorial. Characters do not launch into any lengthy soliloquys. Overland’s minimalism allows the most important aspect of the game to shine: the gameplay.
Overland’s gameplay can accurately be labeled a cross between turn-based strategy and Oregon Trail, set to a post-apocalyptic backdrop. (I guess a more apt comparison would be Organ Trail, not Oregon Trail.) Your overarching goal is to drive across America, starting on the East Coast and eventually making your way to California. Along the way, you’ll travel through six different biomes: city, woodlands, grasslands, mountains, desert, and basin.
Within each biome, there are several different locations, such as abandoned gas stations, abandoned pharmacies, trading posts, and rest stops. Every playthrough is procedurally-generated, meaning that every biome’s map will look different every time you replay the game. Because of this element of randomization, you can’t rely on rote memorization (or mindless grinding) to cruise through the game; rather, you’ll need to think on your feet and master Overland’s strategic fundamentals in order to seize victory.
This is what strategy games are all about, and I love it.
There are countless factors to consider while playing Overland. Perhaps the most important one is your car. The game forbids you from progressing until you’ve found one – if your car gets destroyed, it’ll force you into a procedurally-generated encounter where you can find another car. And if you fail to secure that car, then the game will give you another procedurally-generated encounter with another possible car. Rinse and repeat.
Throughout my numerous playthroughs, I found that the van was the best vehicle. It has enough space for 5 characters and can also be outfitted with a luggage rack for 2 item slots. SUVs are very good too, since they fit 4 characters and can have 4 storage slots. The worst are trucks: they can only fit 2 characters and have a maximum of 4 storage slots. They’re decent earlygame if you have a small party, but as you get further into the game, you’ll definitely want more storage spaces and additional characters. Having extra characters is such a huge perk that you really can’t pass it up.
You start the game with one character and can gradually recruit more. Characters start with randomly generated abilities and each have 2 actions per turn (in Normal difficulty, it’s 3 actions per turn). Every time a character moves, attacks something, gets into a car, gets out of a car, or does pretty much anything, that will consume an action. The one exception is trading items, which can be done infinitely.
Oh and yes, you can recruit dogs, too.
Inventory management is of major importance in Overland. Each character only has 1 inventory slot by default, but this can be increased to 2 if you find backpacks for them. Most items are consumed upon use, or can break, so you’ll need to scavenge around and actively be on the hunt for new items at all times.
The thing I really enjoy about this system is how every item is useful. Maybe in some situations, you don’t want a fire extinguisher and would rather have a knife, but if you’re smart, you’ll still be able to find a use for that fire extinguisher. Overland is all about extemporaneous thinking and resourcefulness.
I don’t think I’ve done a single playthrough which wasn’t winnable; surely, I’ve gotten my share of game overs when playing on Expert Mode, but in every single case, this was squarely my own fault.
This is the mark of a great strategy game. I’m not losing because of some bullshit being thrown at me from left field. I’m not losing due to my refusal to grind, as is the case in several badly-designed SRPGs I’ve played. Rather, I’m losing because I failed to utilize the resources I was given. With Overland, even if I fail repeatedly, I will never be annoyed with it. Indie developers, take note: this is how a well-designed strategy game should feel.
Another thing you’ll want to consider is the day-night cycle. There are four times of day in Overland: dawn, afternoon, sunset, and night. During the night, your field of vision is severely restricted, a la Fire Emblem fog of war. On Expert Mode, you’re also unable to take back your actions during nighttime. Thus, it becomes very dangerous to do much of anything during the night, even with limited light sources. What I often did was go to a rest stop or trading post (where there were no monsters) during the night, so that I could resume my voyage during the day.
Of course, such strategies get thrown out the window if you decide to play on the “Endless Night” mode, where nighttime never ends. Personally, I’m not nearly skilled enough to play through that mode on Expert. I can handle any other mode, but Endless Night is beyond my capabilities.
Overland’s gameplay is ridiculously complex in all the right ways. I haven’t even mentioned any of the in-battle tactics yet.
Monsters are attracted to noise, so you can use this to your advantage by using one of your dogs to howl, or turning on a radio to lure the monsters elsewhere. You can also take the more traditional route of killing the monsters, but this creates noise, which then attracts more monsters. Often, the better approach is to “shove” enemies. Only certain characters have the ability to “shove” innately; all others must equip a wooden shield in order to do so.
Killing your enemies is never your main goal, however. Overland is rather uncommon among strategy games in that your goal is to survive and escape each map. I’d draw comparisons to Into the Breach or Thracia 776 for this reason. This shift in emphasis will radically alter the way you approach Overland; instead of being on the offensive, you will constantly be the one defending and running. It’s fresh, it’s different, and I love it.
Once I beat the game on Normal, I knew that I had to replay it over and over. Fortunately, not only does the game have infinite replay value due to procedural generation, but it has higher difficulty modes as well – quite a few of them, actually. I chose Hard Mode for my second playthrough. In Hard Mode, monsters can attack your cars, and your characters have fewer actions per turn. This actually wasn’t too challenging.
Expert Mode is where I began to struggle. Expert Mode makes two simple, yet extremely punishing changes: 1) you can’t take back actions at night and 2) you can never retry maps if you fail. Rule 2 means that every Expert Mode playthrough is essentially an ironman run. Every decision is that much more consequential, every mistake will hinder you that much more, and every successful playthrough will be that much more fulfilling.
The fun doesn’t stop there, though. Far from it! Here are some other extra modes, alongside their explanations:
- All Dogs Mode. To my knowledge, this is merely aesthetic. Dogs in this mode can drive, siphon gas, use weapons, and otherwise perform all the functions that humans can in a normal playthrough.
- Countdown Mode. Every turn gives you 15-20 seconds to take your actions. Once this countdown finishes, the game automatically ends your turn.
- Extra Creatures. Self-explanatory: the game spawns extra creatures, although I’m not sure what the exact modifier is.
- Endless Night. Self-explanatory. Probably the hardest mode in the game.
- No Revives. Characters cannot be revived if they fall. Normally, they can be resuscitated indefinitely.
- No Stuns. Monsters cannot be stunned by any means. They will not be stunned by loud noises and, in the case of bulky monsters, dealing one damage to them will not incapacitate them. This is an understated change which actually makes a big difference.
In addition to all this, you can create some self-imposed challenges, like a solo run, where you run through the entire game with one character and never recruit anyone. Or a “low day” run, in which you try to clear the game in as few in-game days as possible. The possibilities are endless!
The Ultimate Overland Challenge ™ would probably be an ENRECCMENNS run: Expert, No Revives, Extra Creatures, Countdown Mode, Endless Night, No Stuns. And yes, I did spend about 5 minutes trying to put together that acronym in a way that’s somewhat pronounceable.
I can’t even handle the Endless Night mode, so I doubt I would get very far at all in an ENRECCMENNS run. My best achievement so far has been doing an Expert No Revives, Extra Creatures run (ENREC; footage and commentary should be uploaded to Utreon soon). And even though I feel pretty good about having done so, I still could play this game over and over again.
That’s how good it is. Overland is a masterpiece.
Console: PC, Mac, Switch, PS4, Xbox One
Overland’s website: https://www.overland-game.com