I expected Overwhelm to be hard. It's a 2D action platformer rendered almost entirely in black and red (and it's out today on Steam (opens in new tab) and Itch (opens in new tab)). Of course it's hard. It's hard as hell. What I didn't expect is for it to be so unnerving, for it to get under my skin the way it does. It does this primarily with sound. Overwhelm's 8-bit art is effective and uses some cool visual tricks, but what really set the hook for me was the punchy sound effects, the macabre noises, the creepy music and, perhaps most importantly, the suspenseful patches of silence between it all.
Not an inch of Overwhelm is wasted. Your goals and rules are clearly and immediately defined: you are a knight sent by a nameless group to fight an alien hive. You need to kill the five bosses in the far reaches of the game's sizable, seamless map, collect the crystals they drop, and bring them back to the device at the heart of the map. Collecting all five crystals does… something. Probably something cool. Whatever 'unlocking the map' means. It could expand the level, it could take you to a new level, hell, it could beat the game. Look, I haven't killed all five bosses yet, all right? I told you: this game's hard.
It is hard, but it's also fair. Overwhelm's simple controls are sharp and responsive. Running, jumping, punching and shooting feels good and precise, which is especially important in a game this challenging. I've died dozens of times, but every death was a learning experience, and I was always motivated to do better next time. And trust me: there's gonna be a lot of next times.
If you get hit once, you die, no matter what hits you. Every enemy is a threat, so you're constantly on edge. Because you've also only got three lives. You guessed it: if you die three times, you have to start all over. Plus if you die while carrying a crystal, you have to retrieve it from wherever you died. The good news is that, once you beat a boss, you can spawn next to that boss' arena whenever you start a new run, rather than at the center of the map. You still have to beat that boss again, but at least you save some time.
That being said, you absolutely do not want to die. I mean, of course, right? Well, here's the thing: every time you die, your field of view gets smaller—a black circle encroaches on your screen. This makes it harder to see enemies coming and, consequently, easier to die. You can probably imagine the vicious spiral this creates. But again, there's a silver lining: beating a boss puts you back up to three lives, restoring your vision.
The kicker is that, when you're on your last life, not only is your field of view much smaller, you're also constantly assaulted by this horrifying screeching. It sounds like 10,000 rusty nails were put in a giant haunted machine filled with chalkboards and bricks. It's not necessarily an annoying sound, it's just overpowering. It's loud and ominous and genuinely scary. It reminds me of the emergency sirens in Dead Space. It doesn't sound like them, but it does the same thing: conceal the sounds enemies make. And listening for enemies is vital in Overwhelm.
Overwhelm's sound effects are so piercing and well-defined that you can reliably locate and shoot enemies just by listening. Which is good since your field of view only gets smaller, and isn't all that big to begin with. You're often going to hear enemies before you see them, and you have to react quickly based on what you hear. If you aren't already trained on the direction a flying enemy is coming from, by the time it enters your field of view, you'll likely struggle to get out of the way or kill it in time.
It took me about 20 minutes to get acclimated. After that, I was reflexively killing enemies I couldn't even see with speed and precision I didn't know I had, which felt great. It feels a lot like Devil Daggers, come to think of it. I'd hear a buzz coming from the upper-right corner, whip my cursor around, fire a shot into the void, and watch with glee as blood dripped down the screen, confirming that I'd hit my mark. And because I was listening for enemies so intently, I was also able to appreciate the world's atmosphere. Different areas of the map have their own distinct soundscapes, from the whipping winds of the northwest to the reverberating caverns of the southeast, and they all sound great.
Every last sound cracks and ripples and fades just right, which is why the last-life screech is so jarring, and so effective. It creates cold sweat, do-or-die moments. I want to play cautiously because I can't see or hear a damn thing, but at the same time I desperately want that screeching to stop, so I want to get a move on and beat the next boss to get my lives and my vision back. It's hectic and tense and exhilarating.
I said earlier that I haven't beaten all five bosses yet. What I meant was that I haven't killed them all in the same run, because each time you kill a boss, enemies gain special abilities. The bats start to fly faster, the scorpions can climb walls and shoot poison, now you have to deal with shielded enemies that can only be damaged from behind. With this in mind, you need to plan a route. Which boss will I defeat first? What special ability do I hate the least? Who do I want to save for last? This adds a little strategy to the mix and gives you greater control over the outcome of each run.
Naturally, the bosses aren't easy to take down, either. They're a bit too similar for my taste—most of them can be beaten by kiting them around their arena, though that's easier said than done—but they do enough differently to keep you on your toes. One thing they all share is the ability to teleport. No matter what boss you're fighting, the screen will periodically cut to black for a split-second, and all of the sudden the boss will be somewhere else. All bosses also have secondary forms which are more difficult to deal with.
Layered difficulty is central to Overwhelm. It's everywhere: the shrinking field of view, the evolving enemies, the information-smothering screeching that only starts when you're on your last leg. You're always playing the same level, but it never feels the same because you're always in a different situation. Enemies will spawn in different places, they'll have different special abilities based on the bosses you've killed, and you'll approach them differently based on how many lives and how much ammo you have left. Overwhelm gets harder the further you progress, and it gets better the more you play it.
Below: Untitled Publisher's show reel from the PC Gaming Show.