PC, Mac

Woo, this is a great game! I play a lot of rubbish when trying to find something to cover for Buried Treasure, but if there’s one genre I never need to worry about, it’s twin-stick arcade games. Why? Because I have magic powers, and can spot a good one based on a single screenshot. I’ve never missed, it’s just a power I was born with, and it’s worked again with Overwhelmed. This is an absolutely magnificent spin on the genre, that is in some senses, six magnificent spins on the genre.

A fun game to play to upset old people is to pretend that this sort of twin-stick arcade game began with Geometry Wars in 2003. “Robotron who, sorry?” So it is in this spirit that I describe Overwhelmed as a game made in the Geometry Wars ilk, that faux-polygonal design, warping backgrounds, and glowy colours. The first time you play it, you’ll have access to one game, in which you control a circular cyan ship in a world of magenta aliens and lasers, and it straight away feels like a solid arcade-me-do.

The game has fifteen levels, in which a set number of alien types will attack, over a set pattern of laser walls, moving laser beams, and enormous deadly waves of energy. Your weapons need to be used carefully, because if just held down will quickly overheat, meaning much is about judicious decisions over when to just rip, and when to play dodge – a vital dash ability that lets you cross lasers or avoid enemies. You start with five lives, and should you get to the fifteenth level, you’ll face a boss fight which will prove a substantially tougher challenge. That’s the core of it. But win or lose, you’ll be graded on your game, based on “Wave Reached”, “Run Time”, and “Lives Lost”, and awarded points accordingly, and this is where it gets more interesting. Said points can then be spent on unlocking new games to play, or buying skills that apply to all games.

There are a total of six different versions of the game, and I use this phrasing deliberately, rather than simply calling them different levels. The reason being, each has its own ship, its own colour scheme, enemy types, number of starting lives, and unique way of being played. That starting version – The Adventurer – has a ship that fires broad volleys of blasts, and overheats very quickly. But the second – The Strategist – is enormously different. This time your ship fires timed explosives, mines of a sort, entirely changing how you approach combat. You also have only four lives, and a completely different bonus ability when your ship overheats. The third – The Drifter – is a blue triangle that fires a rapid linear stream of smaller blue triangles, and zips about at crazy speeds. And so on.

However, add in the Skills and it gets another layer of depth. Here you can decide your preferred approach by which you focus on early on, perhaps adding extra abilities and advantages to overheating your weapon, or making your dash more deadly. There’s Vital Essence, which at first will give a 2% chance that a killed enemy will drop a life point, and can eventually be raised to 10%. Or Invincibility boosts the time you can’t receive damage after taking a hit in 5% increments. With 12 to choose from, and each having five levels at increasing cost, it’s a good while before you’ll start adding points to those that strike you as less important, but can make surprising changes to how you play.

I’ve done another one of those reviews where I just describe what you do in the game at painful length, haven’t I? But it feels important to communicate it, to really underline the subtle depth in this breezy arcade shooter. Let me finally get around to the important part of saying if it does it all well. Yes. Very. There, good.

This is tremendous fun, and I’ve been playing it for far longer than I needed to before writing this review. I just keep wanting another turn, another try at that game’s boss fight, determined that I can avoid that stupid mistake this time. Or just a few rounds of farming it for points, so I can upgrade a bunch of skills, and then take on that much tougher stage again.

Overwhelmed‘s presentation is great, feeling very slick and modern, yet with ingenious nods to the genre’s history through its colour choices and ship designs. (And yes, I mean the real history, the one preceding a hidden bonus game in 2003’s Project Gotham Racing.) This absolutely doesn’t have the life-changing profundity of Geometry Wars, but not is it trying to. Instead, this is six brilliant little arcade vignettes, each compelling and compulsive, that form an excellent cohesive whole. And all the work of one guy – Paul Giovannini – but for the music by Mathieu “Richie” Dubois. My magical powers remain unchallenged.

  • Blukulélé / Paul Giovannini
  • Steam, Itch
  • £4/$5

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