I’m not a horror junkie. I find most of it to be more insipid than frightening. On film, the reliance on gore and gimmicks has left my interest in them in the same twisted heap Jason Voorhees would leave a high school couple having sex in the woods. In games, the jump scare has replaced any true establishment of dread that you can interact with. Very few horror games really succeed at making you genuinely afraid of opening the next door.
Many of the best games that cause tension and dread do so without having to dip too heavily in the actual genre. The Soulsborne games aren’t captured in the same horror tropes as Resident Evil, but the fear of what’s around the corner is very real. Maybe not of what grotesque, twisted beast will fuel your nightmares, but of the loss of all your progress in the face of such horrors. First playthroughs of these games are some of the most stressful experiences you can have in video games.
To me, that sense of paranoia is key to horror. Bizarre hellbeasts and psycho killers should be a means to that end, not simply the mascot for the box. It’s been a while since I played a game that recognized that the same way I do. Even then, Rauri O’ Sullivan’s Overwhelm goes far above and beyond expectations in its quest to become the most pure anxiety simulator money can buy.
You play a questing techno knight with one mission: turn on a generator in an underground hive and exterminate its denizens. While exploring you must collect 5 gems, each guarded by a boss in a far corner of the map. In this very bare-bones description, it probably doesn’t even sound that easy, but I’m here to tell you that it’s somehow even harder than you’re imagining it.
As a simple, 2D side-scrolling shooter, it straddles the line of pure nostalgic shout-out to the old days, and modern retelling of the classics. It is Metroid or Castlevania, as told by the App Store generation. One run can last 10 seconds, or 10 minutes, and every second is tense and gripping. There’s typical back tracking involved, but not nearly to the extent of your standard metroidvania. You can see every inch of any one of the 5 different zones in mere minutes, without having to find keys and unlock doors.
This creates an interesting gameplay loop that feels brand new to the popular subgenre. The key isn’t to plod through a 2D labyrinth at your pace to eventually make it to the end. Instead, Overwhelm asks you to go through all 5 locations, wrestle the gems from each boss, and bring them all back to the generator in one shot.
When only one hit can kill you, this is a tall order. Any manner of flying bug or jumping spider can derail a solid run out of nowhere. You have three lives total, but even after you respawn at well-placed checkpoints, you don’t come back in the same state you were in the run before. You’ll notice the music has changed, almost to a disorienting buzz. And darkness begins to scrape away at the sides of the screen. Die one more time and the game warns you that this is your last chance. This buzz is a now a full cacophony of madness, and the darkness has stunted your field of vision dramatically. Even removed from the bad guys trying to run you over, the game’s UI is one of your most persistent enemies.
Mixed with the hideous bosses, they make a terrifying tag team. Bosses themselves have pretty easy to learn attack patterns. It won’t take too many attempts to learn how to get them to their demise. But as they take damage, and their attack patterns change, your perception of them also changes. One minute, you’re standing over a huge kraken, shooting at it’s eyeball from a relatively safe spot up on a platform it can’t get around. Then the music skips. Then the screen blinks. He’s gone? The screen blinks again. Suddenly he’s charging at you from a completely different, way more frightening angle.
It’s cheating, and it’s proud of it.
Killing bosses isn’t even where things get hardest, enemy wise. After slaying a big baddie and taking their gem, they send a signal to the rest of the hive. This signal mutates, changing the abilities of some enemy types out in the world. Spiders that couldn’t jump or climb now can. Bees now fly twice as fast. In some instances, it adds completely new enemies, like armored beetles that can’t be damaged from the front.
When you get more than one of these gems, the real Overwhelm begins. That’s when the white knuckle joy-con gripping sweats begin. This game has lots of small concepts that layer on top of one another to create such an intense, short burst experience. One that folds in tactical decision making and speed-running elements that make for something you’ve never really played before. It sounds like a game built just to demoralize you.
Overwhelm bullies you a bit. Everything can kill you in one hit, but the enemies can take many more. They transform and get more dangerous when you do well. Bosses just straight up cheat. The game gets physically harder to play when you die. But because you can see how all of the pieces fit together to create this difficulty, your compelled to solve the puzzle of getting all five gems. “You know what I can do” you can almost hear it say “so what are you gonna do about it?”
I guess we’ll find out, huh?