Version tested: Wii
When we played Overlord: Dark Legend a month ago, everything suggested that Climax had pulled off a spot-on interpretation of Triumph Studios' minion-meddling gameplay for the Wii. Blessed by a fluid point-and-click control system that lends itself perfectly to this deliciously evil brand of action strategy, the only lingering doubt was whether it offered enough depth and challenge behind the evident accessibility.
For those of you confused by the proliferation of Overlord titles hitting the shelves later this week, here's the deal. Instead of trying to shoehorn Overlord II into platforms ill suited to the level design, Codemasters instead took the altogether more sensible decision to tailor a specific version to each platform. In the Wii's case, we get a prequel rather than a sequel, and travel back to the days when the Overlord had just turned 16 and become aware of his all-conquering evil powers.
Under the guidance of the perennially amusing Minion Master, Gnarl, the young Overlord is left to his own devices in Castle Gromgard, where inevitable mischief ensues. As with all the Overlord games to date, things play out as part third-person adventure, part real-time strategy, where you get to 'sweep' minions around the screen to do your evil bidding, as well as directly control the nefarious Overlord and indulge in some hackandslash antics when you feel so inclined.
Initial progression feels a little more refined and better-explained than previously, with the game's in-game Mincyclopedia helping to explain each and every element far better than the parent games ever managed. The controls, too, work superbly well, with the point-and-click process of sweeping minions to their destination both accurate and intuitive. And for those who cursed Triumph for not including a mini-map in the original, fear not - you now get a permanent overview of your surroundings and next destination in the bottom-left corner, or can flick to a detailed full-screen version by pressing the '2' button. There's never a point where it isn't obvious where you're going.
To kick off with, you get the regulation five brown minions to get used to the whole process of pointing the Wii remote where you want them to go, and clicking the B button to send them scuttling off. Once you've gotten used to the basics, you'll spend the first few sections simply beating up anything in your path, and smashing up anything that looks like it might contain some loot. Eventually, you'll go through the process of capturing the red minion's hive, perhaps face off against a boss, and then get used to the more advanced process of splitting up your burgeoning army (by setting up guard markers with the '-' button), and cycling through each minion type with the d-pad. It really feels like Codemasters has listened to the feedback and worked hard to ensure the basics make a seamless transition to a more casual audience.
The importance of the minions and how you direct them grows as you go along. After a completely stress-free first few hours, you eventually build up a diverse roster of minions, comprised of the melee specialist browns, fire-resistant and fireball-lobbing reds, the water-resistant healing specialist blues, and finally the stealthy and poison gas-resistant greens. As you progress, the maximum number of minions in your army increases up to a cap of 25. That's half as many as the PC/PS3/Xbox 360 maximum, but while the smaller army size may well be influenced by the technical restrictions of the Wii, it also helps ensure the game never feels overwhelming, with encounters less about the weight of numbers and more about using your resources wisely. Battles tend to feel more focused and close-up as a result.
To build up your army reserves, the general idea is to stomp through the land of Greenvale slaying everything in your path, by whatever means necessary, picking up permanent power-ups and solving simple environmental puzzles that activate doors or lower bridges. Whenever an enemy dies, you can harvest its soul and therefore add it to your bank of minions and allow you to replenish your army at nearby minion gates whenever you need to do so.
One notable change from the original is that the souls you harvest now count towards a global stock of minions, rather than each enemy's soul being specifically colour-coded to correspond with each of the four minion types. This simple design decision instantly makes the game a far more accessible and less frustrating affair, because you no longer have to worry about running out of specific minion soul types as is always the case in Overlord 1 (and II, actually). This generally ensures that no matter what, you'll always have enough minions for the task at hand - especially as the game is generous with the number of souls it spits out of dead enemies compared to Triumph's original take. Towards the conclusion of Overlord: Dark Legend, it's not uncommon to have several hundreds of minions in stock - something that would take an awful lot of hard work to achieve in the other console versions.
But while smaller, focused battles and the simplicity of minion-harvesting makes for a pleasantly meandering Overlord experience, you're always wondering when the game is going to crank up the challenge a bit. You rattle through quests in no time, and the thinking required is limited to placing red minions on a vantage point to rain down fireballs on enemies below, or using the blues to wade through a stream and turn a crank or push a block, and things like that. Compared to the uniformly excellent action-strategy blend in the parent titles, this is lightweight. Admittedly Codies is aiming for a slightly different audience, but some of the other tweaks it made to the harvesting system and the generous checkpointing ought to have given Climax license to be a little more taxing with its level design - at least after the first hour or so.
As it is, Overlord: Dark Legend resolutely refuses to provide a stern test at any point during its 8-10 hour long quest, and additional new features such as the ability to throttle minions and use them as bombs only comes into play a couple of times, while the growing roster of spells that the Overlord accrues can pretty much be ignored altogether, unless you fancy turning enemies into sheep. Likewise, the ability to level up your armour, weapons and minions feels a bit underplayed. Money becomes so plentiful so early on that you can basically max out everything in no time, neutering the challenge even further.
In addition to being served up a more lightweight challenge, Overlord: Dark Legend also suffers a notch in the technical stakes, with the gloriously detailed environments of the originals not quite making the transition to the Wii's 480p. While some of the levels you visit fare better than others, the engine tends to struggle when rendering lush foliage, and can end up looking garish and blocky, with accompanying frame-rate struggles. At best, the Greenvale fantasyland still looks gorgeous and inviting - indeed, the character and level design can be outstanding. Tackling evil gingerbread men is one highlight, as you smash through the candy-striped world of an evil witch, but it's an uneven experience on the whole. In addition, the largely useful automatic camera system can freak out if you happen to stumble into a corner of the level that it doesn't like, somewhat adding to the impression that the game could have benefitted from a little extra polish here and there.
As an introduction to the Overlord brand, there's no doubt that Overlord: Dark Legend does a fine job. With its joyfully evil brand of warm humour enlivening every encounter, it's a game that makes you feel good about being bad. And with slick controls and a satisfying blend of action and strategy, it's a game that's never less than enjoyable to play. But while it provides superior controls and less frustration than Overlord II, it regrettably falls down by failing to offer enough of a concerted challenge. There's a wealth of promise here, but maybe we'll have to wait for the next Wii version to see it live up to that.
7 / 10