Overwhelm Review: A Brutally Difficult Retro Sidescrolling Shooter

Ruari O'Sullivan's Overwhelm is a tough-as-nails retro shooter that's strangely addictive but only for the most dedicated and sadistic gamers.

Overwhelm lives up to its title in every sense of the word. Developed by one man, Ruari O'Sullivan, Overwhelm is an attempt to create an 8-bit sidescrolling shooter for the current generation of gaming. The title first released in June 2018 on Steam and has been ported over to the Nintendo Switch. While Nintendo's new console and handheld hybrid doesn't lack for indie games Overwhelm is still molded quite nicely to the unique platform. This isn't just because Overwhelm is clearly inspired by games of Nintendo's past from the NES era but because of the merits of the game itself.

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Overwhelm is brutally difficult and polarizing. The satisfaction that comes with victory can easily be overtaken by the frustration of seeing seemingly endless "Game Over" screens. For those who tough it out Overwhelm is gratifying and oddly addictive retro experience.

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Overwhelm does have a story but it's sparse and boils down to one point; kill everything in sight. Overwhelm puts players in control of a genderless explorer as they dive into alien depths that are inhabited by creatures known as the hive. There is a central area to the caverns where the game begins and several branching paths off of that hub. Each of those paths come to five "dead ends" where a boss battle awaits. Overwhelm is over once all five of those bosses are defeated, in one run, without dying more than three times.

If that didn't sound difficult enough Overwhelm adds modifiers to its difficulty that make it even more extreme. Overwhlem is one-hit KO. You get damaged you lose a life. Furthermore, every time one of the bosses is killed it'll give the baseline enemies of the hive a power-up. So while Overwhelm starts with dinky adversaries those foes will grow stronger and more deadly with each boss that is vanquished. Making matters worse each of the three deaths will add a fisheye effect to the screen that cuts off part of the map, the effect getting increasingly distracting with each subsequent death.

If this makes Overwhelm sound like an anxiety attack contained in a Nintendo joy-con that's because it is one. Overwhelm is always nerve-racking and often frustrating. There are occasionally deaths that feel more attributed to bad game design than any fault of the player. The fisheye death penalty is a little too cruel and enemies can even jump from off screen at the player resulting in an instant death. Overwhelm teeters on the knife's edge of tantalizing challenge and teeth-grinding exasperation.

Yet the longer Overwhelm plays out the more compelling it becomes. The controls are so tight on the whole and shooting has such a nice crunch to it that victory always feels just out of reach. Overwhelm seems initially impossible but practice does make perfect. Each death is a learning experience and presents a future mistake to avoid. Overwhelm is harsh but fair and it creates an addicting gameplay loop of trial and error. Overwhelm doesn't just demand better skill, it encourages it.

The Nintendo Switch version of Overwhelm only arrives with one new feature over the original PC game. Co-op has been added to Overwhelm to allow gamers to suffer with a friend. Co-op works well enough and there are times when an ally can help lessen the extreme challenge of the game. Yet Overwhelm feels more effective as a solo adventure. Learning the ins and out of enemy patterns and stressing over the minuscule pool of lives simply isn't as intense with a partner.

Speaking of lowering the intensity it is possible to change the difficulty setting of Overwhelm by giving yourself infinite lives and ammo. This does allow a break for those who want it but it also robs Overwhelm of some of its charm. A successful run of Overwhelm is only about 3 hours which is a perfect length when death is possibly around every corner. It's disappointingly shallow when you're made invincible. Overwhelm works as a difficult game but as a breezy one, it's hollow.

Overwhelm isn't a title that every Nintendo Switch owner needs to try. The game does an excellent job of wanting to make the player better but it also requires a lot of patience for its steep learning curve to succeed. Overwhelm is tough as nails and while players can adjust the difficulty it's more interesting to plug away at that obstacle. There are few gaming feelings as exhilarating as triumphing over a title as demanding as Overwhelm but that can still make the experience feel more like a chore than a game.

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Overwhelm is available now for $9.99 on Nintendo Switch and Steam. Screen Rant was provided a Switch copy for review.

Our Rating:

3.5 out of 5 (Very Good)
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