Overlord: Dark Legend
When playing a videogame with the goal of ultimately conveying your opinion to an audience, it’s usually fruitful to consider what game developers make of the consumers who play their product. When attention to the most minor of details reveals a palpable love of the craft, or when series in-jokes uncover that rarest of gaming treats, some genuine wit, it restores some much-needed faith in the relationship between game creator and game player. When established franchises think nothing of trotting their wares out year upon year with no more than minor graphical updates and roster refreshes (often to considerable commercial success), said faith is vigorously shaken.
What to make, then, of Climax Studios and Overlord: Dark Legend?
It doesn’t look great. By applying the well-worn Wii formatting trick of liberating much of the grandeur and personality from a game series to make way for some arbitrary remote-wiggling interaction, the English developers have apparently designated their target market as the sort of immature sadists who believe pulling wings from insects constitutes a pastime.
Other games in the Overlord canon owe large swathes of their quality to some comfortably dark humour and sensible smattering of puzzling sections. Dark Legend treats these crucial factors as unnecessary secondary features, supposing instead that the singular crux of the game is its function as an enabler of the egomaniac. Thus, much is made of the minion’s unquestioning desire to please, but the same can’t be said of the challenges facing our protagonist. Young Lord Gromgard is able to achieve his goal of reclaiming the land that is his birthright with almost negligible resistance, and it’s not unlikely for some to finish the game outright without any major difficulties at all. By the time I considered most of the challenges facing me, the solution had already presented itself. Moreover, this seems to take even the game itself by surprise – holding you stubbornly by the hand throughout, Dark Legend asserts its doubts about your abilities through the irritating duo of the game’s narrator and Gnarl, the eldest of your minions. Both are fond of needlessly detailed explanations of simple tasks and both would quickly overstay their welcome were it not for the typical high quality of the voice acting on offer.
The rest of the minions involved in the title have no such luck, their repertoire of expressions reduced to a handful of reverential mumblings and, when you inevitably revert to slapping the incompetence out of them (and there is plenty to be observed: your foot soldiers generally seem more interested in running mindlessly into fences and shrubbery than observing your plans), pained grunts.
Not that there isn’t enjoyment to be found in exacting such punishment: the slapstick value of making an example of your unfortunate underlings is undeniable, and the Wii’s input methods allow for a more hands-on approach to micromanagement, encouraging players to vigorously shake their controller in order to turn minions into mobile explosives. It’s simple, involving fun.
The problem is that there’s little to no connection: life and death amongst these creatures becomes for you a matter of mathematics, as you regenerate them easily from numerous sources around the game world. Dark Legend’s concept of personification amounts to the occasional minion trying on a sun hat, and thus becoming distinct from the rest of the pack. It’s easy to criticise when actually the gesture towards individuality is commendable, but Climax have stopped short of providing any motive to care about one over another – do we prefer the sun hat-donning character to any other? Do we empathise with its on-the-fly fashion statement? More credible is the possibility that it simply becomes a milestone in minion death, sent off to its explosive doom headwear and all.
If you don’t care about your mindless servants, however, you might just care about the game world. The aesthetics are of a consistently high standard, serving up a Lilliputian world well worth discovering. Be it resplendent forest or dank cavern, every in-game environment is brought into line with Dark Legend’s visual style and exploration is made worthwhile almost single-handedly by the game’s pleasant backdrops.
The reality is that Climax have created a game with an overly generous learning curve and a typically unthreatening front end – that’s no great departure from most studios’ strategies in bringing a franchise to the Wii, nor is it anything less than a sensible business model given the target market of the console. For those of us who are open to innovation and who appreciate the fantastical, immersive experiences the craft can throw up, Overlord: Dark Legend is destined to feel like something of a wasted opportunity. The result of taking a winning formula to the uncharted territory of Nintendo’s platform could’ve been something quite beautiful. Instead, we’ll have to settle for something quite marketable.