“At my last job, the tools had no Ctrl-Z, so I learned to be perfect on first try.” —Aubrey Serr, Wolfire Team
Set after the events of Lagaru, Overgrowth follows Turner after he defeated the alpha wolf and the corrupt monarch, Hickory, avenging the death of his family. Since then, he has wandered Lugaru seeking a new purpose. After bandits begin ravaging the island, Turner decides to investigate and help dispossessed find a new home in a mythical island in the sky. Turner reluctantly help those in need, finding himself entangled in a much deeper conflict involving slavery. Fighting his way through frigid glaciers and distant swamps, Turner is captured by the cats and proves his combat prowess in the arena, before killing off the leader of the cats. Turner eventually reaches the island and after ascending its sheer walls, reaches the top, where he kills its leaders. No longer denied homes, the rabbits aiding Turner find a new home, and Turner himself sets off, continuing to seek his purpose. This is Overgrowth‘s main campaign; clocking in at around four hours, it’s concise and accompanied by a remastered version of Lagaru, Overgrowth‘s predecessor. The game’s defining feature is that its development started around a decade ago, and in its finished form, the title very much feels like a demonstration of Wolfire’s Phoenix Engine, which is a technically impressive system; the main campaign showcases the different physics aspects available in Overgrowth, as well as a highly-evolved combat system. However, with only a pair of short campaigns and a few modes beyond this, Overgrowth comes across as being much more limited in content.
Overall, the combat and parkour system in Overgrowth are the game’s greatest strengths. The context-based fighting system is quick to learn but has a remarkably high skill ceiling: like Receiver, Overgrowth is very punishing. As Turner, players are able to hold their own on skill, but brute force will quickly result in death. Overgrowth‘s campaign rewards players who strategically make use of the environment to survive, as well as those who’ve taken the time to learn the fighting system. Consequently, every successful kill in the campaign is a satisfying one, and the game reinforces this by slowing things down on each kill. It is incredibly satisfying to survive a fight against large groups of opponents, whether they be other rabbits, rats, dogs, cats or the nigh-unstoppable wolves. Each of the different opponent types require a unique approach: Turner can stand toe-to-toe with other rabbits and rats, but cats, dogs and wolves involve strategy in order for Turner to survive. Turner can also make use of weapons to bolster his survivability in a fight, and against superior opponents, the terrain becomes an ally, as well – I’ve won most fights against wolves simply by kicking them off ledges. Similarly, Overgrowth has a particular emphasis on navigating vertical landscape features to reach a destination. While the controls are a bit challenging, once mastered, players can scale sheer walls and jump across vast distances. It is as satisfying to climb to the top of a structure as it is to survive a fight, and on both counts, Overgrowth‘s central features are well-implemented. With a narrative tying things together, it was superbly enjoyable to see the game exit the beta stage and become a full-fledged, if somewhat short, title that could form the basis for a much more content-rich game: it’s clear that the Phoenix Engine is quite powerful, and with the basics finished, I would like to see Wolfire use this engine to its full potential with a game that has a more detailed story.
Screenshots and Commentary
- It’s been just a little less than four years since I bought Overgrowth during a Steam Sale while the game was still in its alpha stages: I experimented with the game only briefly and did not have too much to say about it, but now that Overgrowth is technically finished, with two campaigns, the game’s worth returning to, and returning for the first time since 2014, I’m impressed with the lighting effects and visuals.
- While Overgrowth‘s textures are a bit dated and the lower polygon count is visible, the lighting effects and sense of scale in the maps have seen considerable improvements since the early days of the alpha. Missions in Overgrowth‘s campaign are usually broken up into two types: ascension and combat. Ascension missions involve parkour to reach the top of a map, and combat missions entail fighting a large number of enemy combatants.
- As a rabbit, Turner can jump great distances, an ability that is useful for both parkour and combat as a defensive tactic; being able to escape swarms of enemies is especially important, since Overgrowth lacks a HUD: Turner will go down every quickly to large numbers of enemies, and against certain kinds of enemies, will die in a single blow. Thus, a large part of the gameplay is picking one’s engagements wisely and making use of the environment to assist in combat.
- In conjunction with punches, kicks and blocks, Turner can silently dispatch enemies by means of stealth take downs to avoid alerting nearby enemies. The AI in Overgrowth has been meticulously designed and will begin investigating if players are not careful in their approach: once combat breaks out, all stealth goes out the window, and fighting multiple opponents simultaneously is difficult, so like most stealth games, if one can commit to not being spotted, missions in Overgrowth become much more straightforwards to complete.
- Weapons in Overgrowth come in two varieties: two handed weapons that deal massive damage at the expense of mobility, and one-handed weapons that can be employed very quickly. Weapons can be thrown, although the AI will pick up any missed weapons and use them against Turner, block them with weapons of their own or even throw them back. When used properly, weapons can one-shot most opponents.
- A Chinese-style junk is visible at this port city: Turner visits a vast range of locations in his travels, and while Overgrowth‘s narrative is constrained by a lack of cohesiveness, it does allow players to see a variety of locations. Wolfire only has four employees, all of whom have backgrounds in programming, development and 3D modelling: Overgrowth is by far their largest title, and so, it is understandable that Overgrowth does not have a more powerful story or voice acting.
- Water effects in Overgrowth are impressive, but there’s no opportunity to go swimming in Overgrowth: if Turner falls into deep water, he will die instantly. Overgrowth states that rabbits cannot swim to explain this mechanic: while rabbits can in fact swim to escape dangers, this is an action they are absolutely not fond of, since they become waterlogged very quickly. The resulting cold and panic can lead to drowning, and since rabbits can be literally scared to death by a shocking change in conditions (by the way, this is the correct way of using ‘literally’ in a sentence), rabbits avoid swimming where possible.
- With a pair of swords in hand, I effortlessly decimate all of the crew on board the junk, including the boss that comes out. Blood effects and ragdolls in Overgrowth are fun, adding satisfaction to finishing each fight. Besides swords and knives, spears and staffs are also available. Weapons can be sheathed when not in use, and there are occasions where it’s better not to have weapons drawn, since they can be knocked from one’s hands during the heat of combat.
- Besides other rabbits and mice, Turner will also encounter dogs, cats and wolves in Overgrowth. Having weapons allows Turner to even the odds out somewhat, but Wolves, being the most powerful animal in the game, can absolutely tear Turner apart. Getting up here from the ocean was no cakewalk, involving all of my resourcefulness to find spots on the shear walls to parkour up. I ended up beating the wolf by using the jump kick, an overpowered move that propels enemies back, and kicked it off a ledge.
- The jump kick is a fantastic move for creating space and dealing massive damage to enemies, but because it propels Turner back a large distance, as well, there are risks to using it. Wolfire has since patched Overgrowth so that AI will respond more effectively towards jump kicks by evading: it proved incredibly effective against wolves, who could be insta-killed if they were kicked over ledges and fell great distances.
- I spent a portion of Christmas Day and Boxing Day playing Overgrowth; the cold, snowy environments perfectly capture the feel of a frigid Canadian winter, and I recall the many attempts it took to sneak past the dogs and lure them into single combat. I eventually managed to best them, and savoured the victory: if there’s anything Overgrowth excels at, it’s creating a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment with each fight won.
- Like Receiver, Overgrowth is very unforgiving with its gameplay, and this is compounded by the lack of a UI; to counteract this, Overgrowth allows for near-instant respawns that put players right back into the things. This feature allows one to experiment with different approaches towards a problem until a solution is found.
- I recall a six-on-one fight in one of the glacier missions where the ability to instantly respawn proved to be superbly useful: guards travel in pairs in this mission, and taking one out while the other is not looking is not possible. I ended up using stealth to take one out before going loud with a weapon with the other. The combat system in Overgrowth is very complex, and while easy to learn, mastering the controls is another story.
- Turner goes from fighting in the cold glaciers to fighting in a fetid swamp. While lacking the steep drops of the glacier missions, the swamp is a dreary place that is quite easy to get lost in, and the lack of a HUD forces players to keep an eye on visual cues in the environment in order to figure out where to go next. They can be subtle, especially under low light conditions, and so, players might be forced to backtrack and explore.
- Fighting rats in the swamps turned out to be relatively straightforwards: rats aren’t particularly challenging as a foe. Looking back, Overgrowth‘s development timeline was probably the biggest impediment the game had during its developer cycle. People wondered if the game would ever exit the alpha stage, and while the developers were constantly pushing updates, the game remained in alpha and beta stages for a few years.
- One aspect of Overgrowth that sees very little discussion elsewhere is the game’s soundtrack. Composed by Mikko Tarmia, the music of Overgrowth is majestic, brooding and fits the game’s setting of a post-apocalyptic world. I would absolutely love to see a soundtrack, which, unfortunately, is not available for purchase at the time of writing. I recall listening to the game’s main theme frequently while writing Objective-C code, and because of our lab’s yearly excursions to Canmore, the soundtrack also reminds me of the mountains and valleys on the way leading into Banff National Park.
- It attests to how much time has passed, now that Objective-C is being phased out in favour of Swift; when I began my time as an undergraduate researcher seven summers ago, I was a volunteer. My initial applications for funding were unsuccessful, but I decided to stick it out, since my goal was to learn, and two months in, I managed to build a simple model of blood oxygenation and deoxygenation in the lab’s custom game engine. Impressed, my supervisor switched me over to a funded programme, and I began work on a fluid flow model using agent-based approaches.
- The mission to climb to the top of a tree and reach that glowing bucket proved to be an exercise in patience, and like the ascent to the top of a snow-covered mountain, it was immensely rewarding to actually reach the top and finish the objective. This is probably the “sense of pride and accomplishment” that all game developers want their players to experience; while the way to the top is marked by bioluminescent fungus, Overgrowth offers few other cues and suggestions, leaving players to work out how to get to the top.
- By my second year, I managed to win the OCSS, a small scholarship for students enrolled in the Health Sciences program to do summer research. That summer, I continued on with my flow model after implementing a selectively permeable membrane system. Work on the flow model proceeded into June, and after spending many summer days tuning it, I was surprised to see my entities moving in a convoluted vessel without being stuck in the walls. I subsequently tried the algorithm out on a nephron model that we had, and it proved successful, so I spent the remainder of the summer trying to mimic renal flow and reabsorption, making use of the selectively permeable membranes in the process.
- The camp in the swamp is such a visually impressive level with its lighting effects, and while quite difficult to nagivate, it was worth exploring every corner of this map to find the exit after all enemies had been eliminated. During this level, the intense fighting meant that I lost my weapons, but Overgrowth‘s jump kicks are overpowered to the point where they can be used if one lacks weapons. On a map with no ledges, this tactic is not a particularly dangerous one.
- During my third summer in my undergraduate program, I did not return to the lab until August, having been entangled with the MCAT, but once that finished, I helped get a paper submission off the ground. By my fourth year, my old work with the nephrons eventually led me to build a multi-scale renal model in our lab’s in-house game engine, and I returned to this project that summer with an NSERC USRP award, building a distributed model that allowed different computers to share information with one another. In this implementation, I had one computer handle the renal calculations and the other handle cardiac functions. As they shared data, their visualisations, run locally, would be updated.
- As we reach the end of Overgrowth‘s campaign, the levels become much more ominous in nature, featuring lavafalls and hellish environments. I fight in an arena here against increasingly difficult opponents, until at last, wolves are introduced. Wolves are terrifyingly powerful – Turner is no match for one in a straight-up fight, so I utilised hit-and-fade techniques, making use of distance to my advantage and waiting for the right moment to jump-kick a wolf into the lava below, which is an instant death. There was an occasion where I mis-timed one of my jumps and took myself out, but in the end, I managed to secure the win.
- Turner is tasked with retrieving something whose value I cannot quite remember, but what I do remember of this mission is that it involves ascending ever-higher. It was quite the achievement to reach the top of the map and make my way back down: the way down was actually quite tricky, and even with the bioluminiscent markers helping, there were a few occasions where I overestimated how much falling damage that Turner could take.
- Turner is later pitted against opponents of varying difficulty in another arena, and it was here that limitations in the pathfinding for some of the AI became visible. I exploited these limitations to win all of my matches, and during one match, managed to wrench a weapon from an opponent and turned things around instantly. While the organisers of the match are impressed, Turner will have none of this and proceeds to masacre all within the arena, including the cats running the event.
- After killing off everything in sight, Turner must escape the cat’s desert city. The streets are unusually quiet, and it’s a good idea to hold onto any weapons one may have for the upcoming fight ahead: a number of cats stand between Turner and freedom, but compared to the fight in the arena, this one is relatively straightforward in nature.
- Unlike the Wolfire Team, who continued to develop their Phoenix Engine until its reached the level of sophistication that it’s at today, our lab slowly phased out the in-house game engine once Unity made their engine freely available. While our own engine was robust, powerful and extensible, its biggest constraint was that it was not optimised; even simple simulations only ran at around 30 FPS, and more complex simulations would drop down to 10 FPS. This coincided with the arrival of The Giant Walkthrough Brain, and when I managed to build a functional prototype within two weeks, Jay Ingram and my supervisor were impressed with the engine’s capabilities. Since then, my old lab has used both Unity and Unreal.
- While I’ve remarked that Overgrowth reminds me of Canmore and its surroundings, one should not expect to find such a structure in Canmore. This is the legendary country in the sky that was being referred to throughout Overgrowth. This is the culmination of all of the parkour and ascension skills that players have accumulated over the course of Overgrowth, and even then, climbing up here is no walk in the park. There are long jumps and tricky catches to make: any mistake will send Turner falling many metres into the water below, resulting in an instant death.
- With the Phoenix Engine in a good state, one wonders if the Wolfire team will hire script writers and voice actors for any titles they might choose to make in the future. Since Overgrowth, I’ve not heard any news that the Wolfire team will be moving onto new projects, and from the looks of things, they will continue improving Overgrowth. In the time since I completed this game, two patches have come out to improve the AI and game performance.
- I stop for a few moments to admire the scenery up here before continuing on. Once reaching the top, a brief fight awaits Turner. Beating down the tower’s leaders will bring an end to Overgrowth, and while the campaign was very short lived, it was quite entertaining. The fights are easily the best aspect of Overgrowth, especially with respect to how things slow down when a zone is cleared.
- Overall, while I cannot say I recommend Overgrowth as a game, I can say that the game is a very pleasant reminder of my days as a university student. I bought the game mainly as a token of thanks for the Wolfire team, whose efforts and updates motivated me to delve further into the world of biological visualisations. With this being said, if people do not mind the shorter campaign and somewhat unoptimised performance, and they have a greater interest in all of the map tools than I did, then Overgrowth is not a particularly bad purchase, especially if on a sale; there are a host of worse ways of spending 33 CAD.
Having been in development since 2008, Overgrowth definitely feels dated with respect to its visuals, but the Wolfire team’s efforts have resulted in a superbly mature game engine that handles Overgrowth‘s fighting and parkour system well. The campaign is quite short, and it appears that the flexibility of Overgrowth‘s game engine stems from a desire for the community to create their own content. Work on this engine is why Overgrowth‘s development has spanned the greater part of a decade: I learned of Overgrowth during my first summer as an undergraduate researcher – my old research lab had developed its own game engine in-house to provide a 3D space in which to model and visualise biological systems. The lead developer on this project drew inspiration from Overgrowth‘s map editor, especially the transformation, rotation and scaling tools, to make it easier for objects to be placed in 3D space. This in-house game engine powered my thesis, and while it’s been replaced by commercially-available game engines like Unity, it formed the basis for the work that I would end up doing for my Master’s Thesis. Consequently, while Overgrowth might not be an impressive title from an entertainment perspective, there are features in Overgrowth that directly inspired the work at our lab. Improvements to our in-house game engine’s ease-of-use and navigation eventually led me to build a visualisation of the renal system at different scales, complete with a mathematical model to depict responses of my virtual renal system to various stimuli, for my undergraduate thesis. I watched the map editor demonstration and its accompanying humour eight years ago and found it deeply inspiring for my work; I ended up buying Overgrowth in its early access stage to support the development as a bit of thanks in 2013, after I had successfully defended my undergraduate thesis.