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Horror-shooter OVERWHELM earns its capital letters

Ugh. In a good way.

OVERWHELM is a tricky game, sure, but it is mostly just incredibly oppressive. It is too close to your face, somehow. Its breath smells wrong, and you can smell its breath because it is too close to your face. Its worlds are drawn in an unloveable internal-organ palette of reds and purples, so cone fatigue plays a certain role in its queasy success. You finish a game and feel like you've emerged from something, like you've been swallowed and have spent an age fighting your way out. How long was I in there? Oh. Five minutes. But what minutes they were.

My mum has a word for things like OVERWHELM. The word is "horrid". Horrid is one of the lonely Everests of her vocabulary, the word that stands at the uppermost peak of how a given thing might be. If something isn't nasty, if it isn't even wretched or ghastly, mum will say it's horrid and you know - jeepers! - that whatever she's talking about wasn't screwing around.

Horrid, by its sheer power, is almost a compliment in a way. Well done at being so committed to unpleasantness. And so it is with OVERWHELM. OVERWHELM is a pixelly action blaster side-scroller thing in which you drop down into a Hive - listen up, Anthem, this is the effect of the right fictional word in the right fictional place - to reclaim a series of crystals. The crystals are, of course, blood red, and they are, of course, guarded by bosses. You can see their location on the map, but to see the map itself you have to fill it in through exploration.


There are beasts to shoot, and because this is pixel art of the chunkiest kind, your mind works its worst wonders with the detailing. A long splodge of white becomes a bleached subterranean stick insect, but a giant one to me. Its red tip is not an eye but an exposed brain-thing. No eyes at all, because it seeks you out through smell, as I have it. No eyes, but markings on its horrible carapace that look like eyes.

You have 99 bullets to start with and a wonderfully chunky blaster. You can also punch, jump, and do a sort of jump-punch uppercut, and all this stuff is mapped to the triggers and bumpers rather than face buttons so you feel marvellously twitchy and panicky and over-extended just by virtue of the controller layout. Each direction you set out in has its own tweaks and twists. But the game's best twist is this: with each boss you take down, the Hive evolves. You don't evolve - the Hive does. You don't get a new skill, the Hive's creatures do. I emerged from my first boss fight and was ready to cart the crystal home when I was informed that the creatures I would be facing again on the way back had now learned to climb. I did not get the crystal home.

Two more things that OVERWHELM does that are brilliant. The more lives you lose, the more the screen irises in with an unstable darkness surrounding your vision. Eventually, you will die almost too often and be told LAST...CHANCE... At which point a horrible C90 screeching will accompany the irising of the screen. Other thing? Oh yes, as you run out of ammo, your ammo meter starts to make a beep...beep...beep sound, like one of those heart machines in a hospital drama - or in a hospital full-stop, I guess. This beeping, cor, it makes it hard to focus on the enemies ahead. What a fantastic, wretched, ghastly thing. How horrid this is.