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Overlord: Raising Hell (PlayStation 3) artwork

Overlord: Raising Hell (PlayStation 3) review

"Because everything is so familiar, the few twists are completely memorable. In Overlord: Raising Hell, you don't play the halfling hero. You kill him. And when a noble paladin enters the picture—Sir William the Black, they call him—you aren't there to offer a wedding toast. Your goal instead is to slaughter him like a pig. Human and sea serpent, halfling and sheep... all fall to your blade, spear, ax and sorcery."

Admit it: sometime during the course of watching “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” you wondered just how far Frodo would fly if someone hit him with a solid uppercut. Perhaps you pictured him slowly sailing through the air as the camera panned around his surprised face and paused for a second so that you could see what he looks like without his favored expressions of martyrdom and anguish. Or maybe that's just me, but I don't think so. Why else would Overlord: Raising Hell exist?

Self-righteous heroes such as Frodo Baggins aren't the focus of the game, but they might as well be. You'll encounter plenty of irritating do-gooders during your 20 or 30-hour journey through a warped reflection of Middle Earth. Halfling broods dwell in cottages carved from grass-covered hillsides. Ethereal elves can't seem to utter a syllable without it sounding melodic. Humans struggle for survival. Wizards scheme. Dwarves drink a lot and sport bushy beards. On the surface, it's all as generic as a sex-starved succubus. Somehow, though, that's exactly what makes everything work.

Because everything is so familiar, the few twists are completely memorable. In Overlord: Raising Hell, you don't play the halfling hero. You kill him. And when a noble paladin enters the picture--Sir William the Black, they call him--you aren't there to offer a wedding toast. Your goal instead is to slaughter him like a pig. Human and sea serpent, halfling and sheep... all fall to your blade, spear, ax and sorcery. Your agenda is dark, it's devious and it just might make for the most refreshing game premise you see this year.

The adventure begins as you are woken from your slumber by an impish lackey who hauls you off to a meadow so that you can get your bearings. Briefly, he outlines recent events. Your predecessor was big, bad and deadly. Then some heroes came along and killed him, ransacked his prized tower and left to bask in the accolades of the people that they saved from eternal torment at the hands of a harsh dictator. Now it's time to turn the tables again. You're the reincarnation of the slain menace and you plan to rebuild the evil empire you controlled in a former life. Wicked!

From your menacing tower--which you can restore to its distinguished former self by investing in glowering chimera statues, horned thrones and so forth--you can initially warp to a relatively peaceful countryside where the human village of Spree is being overrun by ambitious halflings. This starting area gradually expands as you explore. You'll be able venture into volcanic craters, foreboding forests, crumbling ruins and just about any other fantasy cliché that springs to mind. These areas are held together by an assortment of twisting paths and streams that in Metroid-like fashion prevent you from progressing too far until certain conditions are met.

Frequently, the variety and number of minions you possess limits your potential progress. These malformed creatures are your lackeys and they look the part: shriveled heads, loincloths, glittering fangs and malevolent eyes. There are four varieties, handily distinguishable by color. Each hue possesses a different skill set. The yellowish guys are your grunts, capable of giving and receiving a fair amount of damage in combat before buckling under the pressure. Red critters are immune to fire--and can extinguish it--and attack with that element. The blue ones can wade through pools and revive fallen comrades, while the green folk absorb poison and use stealthy backstabbing attacks to deal severe damage to unsuspecting adversaries. Controlling them all together or as individual groups is surprisingly intuitive, with segmentation handled by the controller's face buttons. It's a sweet system, but there's a hitch: you begin your quest with only the yellow guys.

For the first ten hours or so, you'll focus on changing that fact. The world around you is filled with closed doors, poisonous vapors, burning rubbish heaps and shallow but lethal streams. You'll encounter obstacles at each turn, which means a lot of backtracking. Another problem is that you can only bring along so many troops, even once you can choose from the entire gamut. The handful you can initially command does evolve into a decent-sized crew, but that's hours down the road. You'll wonder for a long time how the weakling you control will ever manage to plunge the world into darkness and despair while demolishing humanity's hopes and dreams.

If not for the fun that comes from building that peon into a brute, you might give up almost immediately. The limitations seem too severe and there's too much backtracking. Not only that, but sometimes your objectives--always visible at the press of a button--are confusing. For example, I was only a short distance into my quest when I was ordered to kill Oberon, the slumbering hero of the elves. However, he was out of my reach for another 10 or 15 hours of play. The incomplete objective taunted me for half the campaign and made me think that I must be missing something as I ran into one dead end after another. Eventually I defeated him, but that happened long after I stopped caring if I toppled him or not. There were definitely times where the game's artificially non-linear style wreaked havoc with my sanity.

Even when I was at my most frustrated, though, I kept playing because there was always the promise of something exciting just around the corner. There are some neat monsters to conquer and there are even places where your actions can affect your character alignment, plus you can find a mistress for your tower and there are several weapons to forge and customize (not to mention offensive and defensive spells secreted throughout the land). Those are nice touches and add a lot to the game, but even many of the most mundane elements are amusing. I never get tired of sweeping my minions forward to turn sheep into mutton and trolls into corpses. Your followers are decidedly one-dimensional creatures, yet there's something irresistible about the way they screech “treasure” when returning with a bobble they've found in a broken vase or after they've banded together to slay a blood-thirsty unicorn.

Overlord: Raising Hell is defined by moments like that and the result is a triple mixture of real-time strategy, action and puzzle games that feels surprisingly balanced. When you add in the warped sense of humor, it becomes much simpler to overlook those confusing first few hours and some of the repetition that is inherent in the overall design. Players who passed on the original version get added value, since several new dungeons and multi-player arenas add value to what was already a fair-sized package (though they mostly just apply assets that were already in place). Whether you're new to the series or returning for another go around, there's a lot to like. Gamers may never get the chance to punch Frodo in the mouth, but subjugating his people and razing their village will do in a pinch!

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Staff review by Jason Venter (July 01, 2008)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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