Announced and launched in one fell swoop at E3's PC Gamer Show, Overwhelm is like a snack shooter. It has a bitesize map, five bosses, and (as far as I can tell) one gun. The price is right too, currently £5.75 on Steam, but what distinguishes this is a combination of stripped-back enemy designs, escalation, and utterly brutal one-shot-kills-you difficulty. In fact, it delivers on the title almost completely.
The concept is neat: you don't get better, but the enemies do. What this means in practice is that, after defeating one of five bosses, the entire 'hive' you're in gets new enemies or upgrades the standard ones. The bosses are located at five extremities of the map, and each holds a crystal that needs lugging back to the centre. So for a complete playthrough, you've got five runs to make, after each of which the whole hive gets deadlier, and three lives for each run.
The basic enemies are great because they're so simple, predictable, and yet somehow in these environments will snag you again and again. At first they're just trying to make contact with your knight but later their abilities become more terrifying, and the way they layer up as you take down bosses can be terrifying. Defeat the skullbat boss and you'll get hornet-type things turning up everywhere, their telltale buzz giving you a few seconds of buttock-clenching time to prepare. In isolation they're not a big deal. But when you're two crystals down, and all of a sudden they're joined by wall-climbing scorpions that can spit acid, or charging enemies that are invulnerable from the front, the escapes become ever-harder to make.
In combination with the aesthetic, a scarlet-tinted lo-fi pixel style that emphasises darkness at the screen's edges and often obscures your vision with effects, Overwhelm ends up creating an atmosphere quite unlike the usual 'super tough' platformer offerings. Once you've seen things escalate a few times, and have beaten most of the bosses on a run, you've got a much better idea of an optimal approach and - because it's so easy to die - you start playing slowly, cautiously. At first I was racing through Overwhelm, and to be fair I still rush to the first boss on any given run. After that, though, I start treading more carefully.
There's a lot of ingenious stuff going into creating this feeling. The placement of enemies is random, but the environments are fixed layouts. After a couple of games you'll pretty much know the map's broad outlines, but you can never switch off while moving through them. The basic enemy types not only improve but, as the hive acquires more types, prove irritatingly adept at surprising complacent players. It feels like you're being gradually overpowered, even as you land counter blow after counter blow. There's a touch of Mega Man here, too, as you plot which of the boss after-effects you'd rather deal with from the start, and which you'd rather leave till last.
The original approach to lives is another way Overwhelm encapsulates the theme. One hit kills your knight, you have three lives, and the counter resets when you successfully defeat a boss. When you die and are on your second life, however, things get tougher: the ambient hive noises lift in volume, while the screen's edges (and your in-game vision) are obscured by an encroaching black circle.
On your last life, the effects are dialled-up even more. This is an oppressive element that gives your final throw a feeling of hopelessness, as the effect in-game is you can't see far and enemies have more opportunity to surprise you. Some players might be affronted at the idea of a game deliberately making itself harder as you get closer to failure, but here the clue's in the title. This is exactly the vibe Overwhelm wants. It's bad enough early on. When you've got three crystals in the bank, you're on your last life, and are inching forwards peering into the gloom... this feels more like survival horror than an indie shooter.
There are a few aspects of Overwhelm that, sadly, pull it down a little. Your gun's ammo has to be replenished, but when stocks get low the game incessantly beeps. This is absolutely maddening when you're trying to focus through all the visual tricks anyway, and feels like a sensory overload too far. This goes for a couple of Overwhelm's visual filters too, which seem to mainly create the atmospheric effect of 'slowdown.'
The game is more seriously let down by a recurring issue with bosses that needs patching. I've fought all five of the bosses, and two of them glitched out and stopped moving during the fight. I could still blow them away, but if you're going to make a minimalist game with only a few big-ticket enemies... then they'd better work. The below video shows the Tunnel Worm boss simply getting stuck in a corner (after around 20 seconds), which comes complete with a weird floating glitch for my knight, and then to top it all off the same thing happens again shortly afterwards.
There are other elements of Overwhelm I dislike, but they're matters of taste. The player character's punch has a cooldown, meaning that if you double-jump (which is an uppercut) and land next to an enemy, you can't then punch them on the ground straightaway. This irked me no end because it feels like a disruptive element in what is otherwise a simple-but-fluid movement and combat system. When things get more intense, this quirk gets much more annoying.
One would hope that the boss issue gets fixed sooner than later because, outside of this, Overwhelm does its own thing with élan. A big part of the fun is seeing how much the design wrings out of a small selection of lo-fi enemies, behaviours, and environments, and how the hive's escalation creates an atmosphere that caught me completely off-guard.
It's not your first run. It's quite a few in, once you know how this place works, and how things will escalate. I remember dragging my second crystal back to the map's centre, dying twice along the way, and feeling I'd pressed too far too fast - that I'd hit the bosses in the wrong order and the hive was just too powerful. I couldn't make out anything in the gloom. I moved in tiny increments then waited, listening, peering forwards. I wasn't dead yet, but I could just sense something out there was gonna get me.
Eventually, It did.