For all the vast and far-reaching open worlds out there – of which there are plenty on Nintendo Switch alone – there’s something acutely intense about exploring something on a far smaller scale. Without being burdened with the chore of filling a large virtual land mass with ‘stuff’, even the smallest design decision can have a huge impact on how a game plays out. Every new grid of Overland possesses this very same ethos. Its diorama-like levels are tiny, but only a handful of actions available per turn, even something as simple as choosing to leave the safety of your car to seek medical supplies or fuel can bring untold disaster.
Which is fitting for a game set in the aftermath of an apocalypse. Civilisation is crumbling, so your only choice is to salvage a car, jump in, hope it starts and somehow make your way across the United States from the East Coast to the West. Survival is the central objective that keeps you going. How long until the car breaks down or runs out of fuel? Where can I find more petrol? How far can I go with this injury? Should I follow those rumours of supplies? Will I survive the effort it will take to find these dwindling resources? You might spend time building a band of survivors, only to abandon them when faced with an impossible scenario.
Every decision is a calculated risk. As a top-down, turn-based tactical roguelike of sorts, you’ll need to decide whether a person or item is worth the effort to acquire it. Each new area is small in size, but you can only travel a certain distance each turn, and the distance you can travel is radically reduced if you’re also performing actions (such as searching abandoned cars for supplies or attacking a mutant or barricade).
Each grid is like a procedurally generated puzzle, so there’s no real strategy until you see the lay of the land each time you enter a new area. That reliance on procedural generation does bring a familiar and often frustrating sense of unpredictability. Sometimes you’ll use your last drop of fuel to reach the promise of more, only to find a mostly barren plot of land, or enter a street so dense with crystalline bugs – the monsters that have kicked off the aforementioned apocalypse – that no tactic will see you escape unscathed.
You begin each new run with a random avatar, a small sentence in the bottom right-hand-side of the screen summing up their background at a glance. It’s a small detail, but one that imbues each character you meet just enough personality to make you invest in their survival. Your survivor might not be long for this world, but you’ll care enough about their welfare before they leave it. You start alone, with a car in relatively good shape and a decent amount of fuel in the tank. Driving to each new area costs a certain amount of petrol, so you’ll need to constantly scavenge for more. And while you can complete an entire run alone – it is, after all, easier to focus on keeping one person alive than a group – there’s plenty of benefits to growing your party of survivors.
Once you meet a new survivor – be they human or canine (the latter being the most memorable, and also the most unpredictable) – you’ll need to stand next to them and actively invite them to join you. Each character has a small amount of health each, and although they’re mostly weak and vulnerable, they’re strong enough to kill most enemies in a hit or two. A character serves as a life of sorts for your run, so having a larger party means you have a greater chance of surviving for longer on your road trip to potential salvation. Not every person you meet wants to join your ragtag group, however, and you might find your supplies stolen and your ride hijacked instead. It’s a neat twist that makes even potential new alliances as much of a danger as the monsters you encounter.
Talking of monsters, there’s some combat to be had – what with all the sound-attracted bugs that emerge from the ground at random intervals – but it’s usually a secondary tactic used to clear the way rather than dominate the battlefield. Using sound to distract them – such as throwing a glass bottle – offers some interesting options, as does damaging a generator that explodes one turn later. However, it’s very easy to become swamped, especially with Overland’s often unpredictable and usually unfair procedural generation. Combined with a purposefully threadbare inventory system – which we’ll get to shortly – and you’re left with a survival roguelike that’s often a little too frustrating for its own good.
However, you do have a lot of tactics at your disposal, and years in Early Access have really helped flesh these out for the final version. For instance, whenever you pour petrol into your car – or siphon it from another – it leaves a patch of fluid on the ground. This can then be lit, if one of your characters has a randomly-placed lighter in their limited inventory. You can even use items such as wooden pallets as makeshift shields, giving your brittle survivors a little more health when facing unavoidable combat. The odds are often stacked against you, but if the random nature of the game blesses you with the right items, a run can be far more enjoyable and creative.
In between each map, you’ll move to the relative safety of a nearby parking lot, where your survivors will gather around a burning barrel and discuss their current situation. From here you can check your map to where next to visit on your travels. Along your route, you’ll come across rumours of supplies or survivors, each with their own fuel cost. Those locations with the greater chance of reward often come with a far greater chance of running into those blind, sound-sensitive crystalline mutants.
Overland takes a spartan approach to almost every facet of its design, and that extends to its inventory as well. Which, in a game all about survival, can be something of an issue. You characters are very limited in the items they can carry. Some can carry up to two items, but a great deal can only hold one. Considering how common it is to take damage, that doesn’t leave a lot of room to store medical supplies. And while some items found in the world can be used for more than one creative use, you’re always having to utilise items in the short term while managing the longer-term goal of searching for fuel. The fact you can’t even share resources at the rest stops between grids seems like a missed opportunity.
Visually, the game is a treat, with a distinct diorama-like art style that – while quite brown – is unique and pleasing to the eye. In terms of overall presentation, it’s a package that’s hard to fault, and it looks and plays great on Switch – regardless of whether you choose to game docked or in handheld mode.
The post-apocalypse schtick was worn out long ago, so any game using it as a thematic backdrop is always going to have an uphill struggle, but Overland attempts to set itself apart with its diorama-style maps and its McCarthy-esque road trip. While it lacks the more focused combat and systems of the very similar Into the Breach, there’s a lot to like about its bleak combination of fellowship and sacrifice. But with a procedural generation setup that doesn’t always play in its favour and a shallow inventory, its take on Armageddon can be more frustrating than fun.