While most genre-bending games are content to dissemble just one convention, Overlord takes on two. Not only does it attempt to subvert how you perceive Tolkien-esque high fantasy by essentially putting you in the role of the dark lord Sauron, but the game also plays like a real-time strategy game masquerading as a third-person action RPG. It's all very promising, since real-time strategy games can be such slaves to convention; and it's rare for a game to focus so exclusively on encouraging you to explore your darker impulses. Though the game's controls take some getting used to, and its exploration of evil could use a little more bite, it's generally pretty successful.
As the titular overlord, you begin the game having just been resurrected by your minions, and your dark kingdom is in shambles. Your dark tower is a ruinous mess, you've got but a handful of subservient followers, and the local villagers are cowering in fear of forces other than yourself. This simply will not do. Powerful practitioner of might and magic that you are, you could go the hands-on route in rebuilding your tower and crushing the wills of the peasants; but then, what's the point of being the overlord if you've got to do everything yourself?
This is why you have minions, the scampering, mischievous little gremlins that are the heart and soul of Overlord. Though the game presents itself as a third-person action RPG where you control the overlord, it's more of a real-time strategy game. Either way, it's a very good-looking game, with the kinds of soft lighting and quaint high-fantasy settings that characterized Fable, though once you get past the aesthetics, it proves to have more in common with Nintendo's Pikmin games for the GameCube. Though you can perform some basic magic and melee attacks as the overlord, it's your minions that will be doing all your heavy lifting. The control scheme for Overlord is a little unusual, since you'll be controlling the overlord's movement as well as the minions'. The PC version offers both mouse-and-keyboard and dual-analog gamepad control schemes, and they're both totally useable, but they've both got their fair share of quirks.
Thankfully, the minions are generally pretty smart. They'll follow you around diligently, and if you take a route that they're unable to follow you on, they'll either stop in their tracks rather than commit hara-kiri, or find an alternate route. You can control your minions' movement directly by sweeping them around using either the right analog stick or the mouse, depending on which control scheme you've chosen. Alternately, you can lock onto certain objects, or simply point in a general direction, and your minions will head over there and perform the appropriate action. If the object can be smashed, they'll smash it. If it's an enemy, they'll attack it. If it's something they can use, such as a weapon or a piece of armor, they'll equip it. If it's gold, or a potion that restores health or mana, they'll bring it back to you. You'll also find lots of quest-specific items that require a team of minions to carry to specific locations, as well as various path-blocking obstacles. You can also command your minions to stay in a specific position, effectively guarding it.
Death doesn't even seem to bother them too much--nor should it, since they're pretty easy to replace. Every time you kill something in Overlord, be it man or beast, it leaves behind a little piece of life essence, which you can collect and store. For every piece of life essence you have, you can summon another minion, though there's a limit to the number of minions you can have at your command at one time. Simply watching the minions carry out your will can be fun, because you get the sense that they really love their job. They scream and cackle gleefully as they latch onto an enemy, and they beam with pride when they return to you with found treasure. Though you'll hear many of the same exclamations from your minions over and over again, the voice work brings a lot of personality to your swarming horde, and to the game in general. Watching your minions wreak havoc can be so satisfying that it makes up for a lot of the problems that the game develops.
Overlord starts out strong, and the first few hours offer some light and easy fun as you sweep your horde of minions across the countryside, slaughtering sheep and peasants and pillaging anything that appears even remotely pillageable. There are some RPG trappings to the game, in that you can upgrade or buy new weapons and armor, learn new spells, and increase your capacity for health and mana, as well as the number of minions that you can control at once. Still, the story is pretty linear. You might have more than one quest available to you at a time, but usually you'll find that one of those quests cannot actually be started until you finish another quest. As the shadow you cast over the land continues to grow, you'll face halflings, elves, bloodthirsty unicorns, an undead horde, dwarves, and more. In addition to the all-purpose brown minions you start off with, you'll earn the ability to summon more specialized types of minions. Red minions are fire adept, green minions are impervious to poison and have some minor stealth abilities, and blue minions can travel through water, are strong against magical enemies, and can revive fallen minions.
The game takes its time introducing the different types of minions, and you'll be several hours into the game before the strategy elements of the game start getting complicated. The tightly designed environments of Overlord are very deliberate in their layout, often requiring you to direct a single type of minion. It's not difficult to alternate between controlling one type of minion and another when you're not under the gun, but there are certainly moments where it'll feel like you're struggling against the controls as you're juggling multiple groups of minions and trying to issue a series of specific commands. Luckily it's not hard to toggle the camera from a behind-the-back third-person perspective to a pulled-back overhead perspective, both of which prove useful in different situations. It's certainly satisfying when you're able to get past one of the game's involved boss fights, even if it's partially out of relief that you won't have to deal with that again.
As much as the game likes to cast your character as a ruthless and malevolent overlord who cares for nothing but power and chaos, your capacity for true, genuine evil feels a little limited. Motivations aside, the nature of the quests you take on aren't that different from what a high-fantasy hero would be up to. Yes, you can choose whether certain characters live or die, and there are situations that can be resolved with varying degrees of bloodshed, but the choices you make have little impact on the course of the game. Good and evil are subjective concepts, and if there are no real negative consequences, there's no way to determine if your actions qualify.
Overlord is an enjoyably mischievous experience that blends real-time strategy and RPG elements to unique ends. The satisfaction of running amok with your legion of wickedly enthusiastic minions is what makes Overlord worth playing, and it's plenty compensation for controls that you'll occasionally struggle against and the limitations on just how evil you can really be.
Editor's note 06/28/07: GameSpot learned after this review was originally posted that the version of Overlord for the PC sent to us by Codemasters for review purposes was not actually the final version of the game. After testing the retail version of the game, we found that certain statements in the original review regarding the camera control were not accurate. The review was then updated and the score adjusted accordingly. GameSpot regrets the error.