With my all-conquering horde of faithful goblin servants at my heels, carrying with them the spoils of their recent pillaging rampage through a nearby halfling village, I have returned to the idyllic hamlet of Spree. Despite my terrifying visage, replete with spiky helmet, giant axe, flowing blood-red cloak and aforementioned horde of goblin minions, the villagers appear to have seen fit to lock me - me, the very embodiment of evil in the land! - out of the town.
Nothing for it; with my minions gibbering with glee at the mayhem to come, I turn around and march to an unguarded gate at the other side of town, and stride through the streets until I find the town's mayor (who sounds surprisingly and disturbingly like Barry White). He starts to say something jovial, clearly not noticing that I'm feeling even more evil than usual today, and is interrupted by my iron-clad fist in his mouth. Smash. He goes down like a sack of spuds, and I idly flick a fireball spell his way. He burns very well, and screams even better.
The villagers, previously in awe of their new lord and master - although clearly not quite enough awe - don't take it well. They turn on my minions and I, wielding pitchforks and hoping to evict us from their sickeningly pastoral, peaceful abode - but their rebellion is short-lived. I let my goblin slaves off the leash and they leap upon the enraged villagers with yelps of pure, evil, pleasure. A few swings of the dark steel on my axe, a few dead villagers, and it is done; the village is defeated. Heads hang, and formerly brave men and women cower away from my fearsome presence as I stride through the lanes and alleyways of their pathetic hamlet.
I lead my minions on a lap of honour around the town, smirking as I watch the smash up market stalls, guiding them into homes and listening to the smashing from inside, waiting for smoke to belch from their doorways as my bright-eyed servants return with treasure for their beloved dark master. I notice that they take special interest in one of the town's maidens - a pretty young specimen, albeit with a rather uncouth mouth on her - and on a whim, I instruct my minions to carry her off, kicking and screaming, back to my black tower. A tower always needs new servants, after all.
The lesson learned by the villagers of Spree is straightforward, and they won't forget it for a while. Don't screw with the dark Overlord. He'll screw you twice as hard in return - and he'll enjoy every minute.
Because my god, this is fun.
The Margarine of Evil
Overlord is developer Triumph Studios' attempt at creating a universal remedy for over-exposure to fantasy works, a common malady in our post-Lord of the Rings, post-Harry Potter world. It ruthlessly pillories every fantasy staple ingredient - your first opponents will be out-of-control halflings under the command of a grossly obese former hobbit hero, and you'll find yourself tearing a swathe of destruction through halfling-burrows which look suspiciously like those we're used to seeing in Lord of the Rings.
Later, you'll encounter an incredibly forceful woman who installs herself in your tower and insists on redecorating, while chiding you for mistreating your "cherubs", as she affectionately describes your goblin minions. Villagers will talk to you in a variety of British and American regional accents, to great comic effect - on one notable occasion, a maiden I was about to drag back to my tower suggested that I should leave her alone because she's recently been very itchy. Cripes. Another objected to being described as a maiden at all, reasoning that she "isn't called Haystack Harriet for nothing!".
The mad fantasy-gone-wrong world of the game is executed with the sort of broad, imaginative brushstrokes which any fan of twisted fairytale purveyors like Neil Gaiman will undoubtedly appreciate. It certainly lacks Gaiman's subtlety, but that's partially the point; in the twisted forest outside Spree, the shades of Oberon's elves drift around the forest blathering bad emo poetry that would embarrass a My Chemical Romance fan and generally acting like the campest elves in the long and distinguished history of camp elves. Subtle it ain't; very, very funny it is.
Given the theme of the game, it would be very easy to label Overlord as a spiritual successor to Bullfrog's fantastic Dungeon Keeper, and in a terms of the storyline and the world which the game evokes, that's quite an accurate comparison. In gameplay terms, however, the two titles couldn't be further apart - which marks Overlord out as something quite a lot more interesting than a mere effort to ape Bullfrog's success.
For a start, Overlord deals almost entirely with the world outside your tower; you venture forth into the land to subjugate the people and deal with the various "heroes" who killed your predecessor and destroyed your tower (the game begins with you being awakened in a ruined tower, with only a handful of minions at your beck and call). Those heroes have, over time, been corrupted by their own success and fame, and each of them must now be defeated to earn your place as the supreme overlord of the land.
At first glance, the game feels like a standard third-person action title - and indeed, you can throw your own fireballs and cast various other spells, as well as upgrading your weapons and armour as you progress through the game and acquire various smelting facilities to bring back to your tower forge. However, you won't get very far with this approach - because Overlord, despite the title, isn't really about the Overlord. It's about the minions.
Minion, Minion, On the Wall
In fact, the single most relevant comparison to be made between Overlord and any other game on the market isn't with Dungeon Keeper at all - it's with Nintendo's Pikmin. As with that game, your minions follow you around the world as you move, and you can then direct them to a specific target (by locking on to the target with the L-trigger and then flinging minions at it with the R-trigger), or simply guide them around in a massive group by steering them with the right stick.
Like Pikmin, too, the game builds up its puzzles by introducing new types of minion, each of which has its own abilities. Brown minions are powerful fighters; red minions have a ranged attack, and can absorb fire, allowing you to pass through burning obstacles. Green minions are good stealth attackers, and can absorb poison clouds. Blue minions can pass over water, and although they can't fight very well, they can resurrect their kin. Each type can be selected and controlled independently, or as a single mixed-colour group.
A further comparison with Pikmin comes from your interactions with objects; to carry something back to base, you simply throw minions at it until there are enough of them there to pick it up. The same approach also works for destroying barriers and turning levers; you rarely interact with anything in the world yourself. The game is a simple joy to control; largely speaking, you move your character with one stick and your horde with the other, and that's about it.
If you're going to pick a game to imitate, something as finely implemented (and as infrequently copied) as Pikmin is a damn good choice - and by building the framework of that game onto a title with a radically different setting and visual style, Overlord avoids any allegations of being a straight copy. Rather than accusing the team of being light fingered with Nintendo's ideas, we're more tempted to conclude that this is the sincerest form of flattery.
Visually, the game couldn't be further from Pikmin - but Dungeon Keeper isn't an obvious influence here either. In fact, the game it's closest to is probably Fable, as it boasts a similar approach to the design of its various forests, villages and cities - but as you'd expect from an Xbox 360 title, the whole world is far more expansive and detailed than it was in Fable. It's still not up to the standards of some 360 titles we've seen, however, because the team has wisely chosen to throw graphics power at rendering dozens of minions and other characters, rather than going all-out on the environments.
Your minions, after all, are the stars of the show. They have tons of animation, plenty of amusing Gollum-esque speech, and best of all, they steal items from dead enemies and smashed scenery to use as weapons, shields and helmets. Leading a party of 20 minions away from an encounter with a graveyard full of zombies, all armed with skeletal zombie forearms and wearing a motley assortment of old helmets and the occasional skull as headgear is enough to raise a grin on the lips of even the most cynical old gamer.
The version of the game we have played is extremely polished already, as you'd expect with the release date only a few weeks off. Fantastic voice acting, good music, an extremely solid frame-rate and a "hub" throne-room which can be upgraded with your spoils of war as you progress top off a very slick package, and once the last few bugs are knocked out and the load delays fixed (at present loading is very slow, but we're assured that this will be different in the final version), the whole package looks set to be very appealing.
Besides which - it's always been more fun to be the bad guy. Those villagers won't be trying anything on with me again for a long, long time...