"Overlord II" Gets Away With Murder

Triumph Studios' sequel clubs seals, elves, and fantasy stereotypes

Actualizing evil is a concept rarely touched upon in gaming. Considering its core demographic of venom-spewing pre-adolescent Halo devotees and socially maladjusted basement-dwelling morlocks perpetually one D&D session away from ritually sacrificing the neighbor's cat, it seems like a natural fit—but surprisingly enough, evil in gaming largely remains something to be thwarted instead of embraced.

It doesn't help that gaming remains fettered by the limitations inherent to the form. Despite the continual advances in gaming technology, plot line is a feature uniquely immune to Moore's Law. A story written now takes the same amount of effort to properly program as it would have 10 years ago; the results are just prettier.

Given that, the tendency for developers to flock to the well-trod path of the standard-issue protagonist is quite understandable, and equally understandable is the resultant lack of antagonist-centered games.

So it is that the good get the market share and the evil get left behind. Antiheroes are a dime a dozen, but interactive villainy in the mold of Dungeon Keeper or Evil Genius is still an untapped market, with the exception of a few games that promise freedom of morality but rarely deliver more than heroism with a few kicked puppies thrown in.

But even the most barren of grounds can occasionally support a tenacious weed. Overlord from 2007 was one of these. Merely passable on technical terms, Overlord drew in praise by making of itself a snarky one-liner in a world of high fantasy and epic self-importance.

Success inevitably breeds iteration. A couple of ports and expansions later, Triumph Studios has seen fit to bestow upon Overlord a sequel, one so true to form that it should be sold with a one-item questionnaire. "Did you like Overlord?" it would ask. Only affirmative responders would be allowed to purchase Overlord II.

Often described as a twisted analogue to Nintendo's Pikmin (Shiny's Sacrifice did it first, you ingrates), Overlord II and its prequels utilize one of the better forms of evil-doing: allowing dozens of one's underlings to prove their devotion by blunting the enemies' swords with their faces.

The gameplay remains consistent, with the Sauronian Overlord leading an army of multicolored minions through various fantasy standby locations in an attempt to crush his enemies, see them driven before him, and hear the lamentations of their women.

It's best to think of Overlord II not as a sequel but as an upgrade to the Overlord OS. Bugs are squashed, camera issues are addressed (if not fully corrected), minions are given more reasons to live, and the overall experience is made more enjoyable by a trend toward streamlining and eliminating Overlord's headaches—but playing through Overlord II mostly feels like more of the same. The first game wasn't broken and it served its master unquestioningly, so Overlord II apparently saw no reason to fix it.

Having long since exhausted its stable of medieval fantasy-based tropes to subvert, Overlord II shifts its timeline both forward and back, exchanging peasant villages and bloodthirsty hobbits for Romanesque Imperials and seafaring elves reminiscent of both Warhammer's Sea Elves and Greenpeace's Sea Humans.

A change of scenery and theme involving more than a palette swap and a prayer that nobody notices is a welcome one, and bringing returning scribe Rhianna Pratchett along for the ride helps maintain Overlord II's irreverently humorous take on the fantasy genre.

However, Pratchett's dedication to subverting the genre (no doubt inherited from her father, author Terry Pratchett) is both a blessing and a curse, one which causes her protagonistic antagonists to occasionally delve into caricatures as wince-inducing as those of her antagonistic protagonists.

Evil doesn't spring fully-formed from a desire to corrupt and pervert the pure and noble. From Milton's Lucifer to Lucas' Darth Vader, the Western concept of evil at its best is defined by the rebellion against what it sees as the naivety and shortsightedness of good.

This strength is not exemplified by, for instance, narration through a telepathic goblinoid who constantly yammers on about how EEEVIL the last objective was and how EEEVIL the next one will be.

The stupidity of hippie elves and quasi-Roman gluttons is self-evident, and I will suffer it in my interactive entertainment as long as I am allowed to put them to the sword. Insufferable is the inability to deliver the same fate to equally distasteful members of my own tribe. Sure, I can throw them to the yetis, but they don't learn anything from that.

Without the central bit of tragic self-delusion through which evil denies its own nature, it reverts back to the days of mustache-twirling landowners that spend their time terrorizing orphans and tying damsels to railroad tracks. The literature of our ancestors didn't walk nine miles to school every morning so that the games of today could repeat its mistakes.

But don't let that stop you. Revel in its sin, delight in its iniquities, and remind yourself that while the good guys might get most of the good games, they're stuck with all the bad ones, too.