“Animals don’t behave like men,” said Richard Adams in his rabbit-hero saga Watership Down. “They don’t sit down and set their wits to work to devise ways of spoiling other creatures’ lives and hurting them.”
I’d love to know what Adams would have thought about the 3D action game Overgrowth, which centers on an anthropomorphic kung-fu rabbit that hops around the world dealing pain to the cats, dogs, wolves, and traitorous rabbits that would keep his people enslaved. Or maybe Orwell would have been more fascinated; hints abound that Overgrowth wants to be an Animal Farm-styled allegory tackling racism, classism, and a host of other-isms, and sometimes it comes close. But the whole game reminds me of the main character himself, who often falls short of reaching the distant ledges he jumps toward.
Overgrowth too often feels underdeveloped; like an outline rather than a final draft. And yet, at the same time, it both feels and looks old; its The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion-era textures serving as a strong reminder of how stylized landscapes often age better than more realistic art like we see here. It’s short, too, as the main campaign only takes around four or five hours to complete. And the second campaign, which is a remake of developer Wolfire Games’ 2005 Lugaru and provides a little of the protagonist’s backstory? On the hardest difficulty, I completed its 21 chapters within a mere 45 minutes.
Our hero, by the way, is “Turner” a prosaic name for someone who flies across the screen as though he were Jet Li or Donnie Yen. Turner’s a badass bunny, no doubt, but he’s also kind of a punk. Time and time again, the rabbits he’s freeing offer to help him out, but he only chatters back with angsty JRPG-caliber lines like “I don’t trust anyone with my back, not anymore.” He’s never really given much depth at all. All we ever learn is that he wants to retire to a place called White Flags conveniently named so Turner can quip about the residents’ willingness to surrender and that he gets pulled into a butt-kicking mission that takes him all the way to the (literal) cats at the top.
As Turner says himself, it’s what he’s best at. By extension, it’s what Overgrowth is best at. Turner’s about as hardy as a scrap of paper, but as a rabbit, he can leap across distances like Neo hopscotching skyscrapers in The Matrix and then land feet-first into the face of hateful Labrador Retrievers in samurai armor. That’s pretty cool, when it works.
Once on the ground, he can perform timed parries that send the ruffians tumbling on their backs, sometimes nabbing their spears, swords, or daggers for himself in the process. Press shift, and he dodges attacks with swords that could kill him in one shot. (Surprisingly, Overgrowth is much more fun and intuitive with a keyboard and mouse rather than a gamepad.) Press Q and he fires off spears into the backs of dastardly dogs. Subtlety more your thring? Just send Turner into sneaking into camp and slash the throats of the pernicious pooches before they can even whimper. In its best moments, Overgrowth captures the exhilaration of wuxia films in a way few other games manage.
Part of the problem with Overgrowth is that you’re never really sure when these best moments will happen, and far too often luck triumphs over skill. In one battle Turner might shrug off six slashes from a rat’s knife, while in another a single swipe might send his ragdoll corpse flying across the screen. And it goes both ways: sometimes I might have to use every last scrap of my wits to dodge an angry dog’s attacks while landing my own repeated blows, and at other times I’ll kill one of Overgrowth’s main bosses with a single slash milliseconds into the fight. Nowhere does Overgrowth give you any kind of clue of the circumstances that led to either outcome and it’s alternatingly frustrating and anticlimactic.
One move, in particular, is godly to a fault. Whenever I’d find myself in a tough spot, I’d fall back on Turner’s flying kick move that requires nothing more than a jump and a left mouse click to kick an enemy in the face. That one move works almost every time. To its credit, it’s satisfying to watch. But it’s so effective that it kind of feels like cheesing Overgrowth’s combat system, but considering there’s really no rhyme or reason to the way it works, breaking it doesn’t seem like much of a crime.
But the problems of learning what works and what doesn’t are never so annoying as they are in Overgrowth’s frequent platforming segments. These levels are fun in concept, or at least when the action remains limited to jumping from ledge to ledge rather than trying to mimic wall runs from Prince of Persia. Platforming itself is rarely precise: in some cases, Turner will land on what seems like a spot for a handhold, but nevertheless plummets to his death. Jump again toward the same spot, though, and he’ll make it. The landings are worse. Overgrowth is full of distant jumps that look impossible but end up being safe in the end, but it’s also full of shorter jumps that weirdly leave him crushing his poor bunny legs upon landing. Like so much of Overgrowth, there’s little consistency in terms of what makes one approach work and one fail.
So fail you will, and fail often. This would be more maddening if checkpoints weren’t frequent and load times for retries weren’t rapid. But Overgrowth is stuffed with other design problems, such as the way I frequently found myself unable to trigger cutscenes because I didn’t approach some NPCs from the precise direction I was “supposed” to. And this is to say nothing of the times when I needed to restart the level because I inadvertently bounded Turner into places he was never meant to go, thereby trapping myself between invisible walls. Maybe this wouldn’t have happened if Overgrowth’s objectives were more clearly stated; as it is, I usually only got a few clues from the conversations in the cutscenes that precede each level. Worse, these essential hints often aren’t mentioned again in the truncated cutscenes you watch on a retry.
Overgrowth simply isn’t where it needs to be right now. Developer Wolfire Games seems to hope players will fill in the content gaps with mods, but I wouldn’t get my hopes up based on what’s currently available. Two of the most popular ones currently just let Turner kick doggie butt in zone that looks like a small American city and another that makes all the dogs look and sound like Gabe from the bork-bork memes.
You can’t accuse Overgrowth of being derivative. There aren’t many games out there that star brutal martial-arts bunnies as their hero, much less any that capture the thrill of being in a Jet Li martial arts flick. It’s wild. On the other hand, you can’t accuse it of being a consistent or polished game, either. And that’s a shame.