Splashes of vivid colour and whirling imagination run through the heart of Overlight, adding countless twists and turns to the standard fantasy RPG set-up. For all its artistic flair, however, the game itself sometimes struggles to find substance amidst the generous heapings of style.
The quirky side of Overlight begins with its setting, a dreamlike world built from seven floating continents stacked up like one a gravity-defying pebble-towers left on the side of a mountain path. Weird creatures roam the endless skies and dense forests, while the player characters are mystically compelled to travel the land by the same force that grants them magical powers, seeking adventure and danger along the way.
If that last sentence didn’t make it quite clear enough, the game isn’t afraid to lean on the tropes that make up the heart of fantasy roleplaying – magic, destiny, heroism, etc. – but it deliberately angles itself away from the typical European styles that we tend to associate with the genre. This means that while the gameplay still revolves around fighting terrible foes, chatting to NPCs and exploring the world, it’s all viewed through a kaleidoscopic, almost psychedelic lens.
Rather than setting out to slay a fire-breathing dragon lurking in a cave, you might take on a shimmering cloud serpent that has made its home amidst a crystal glen. And then, once your quest is complete you won’t be reporting to a boring old elf or dwarf, but rather a magical bird-person or grumpy rodent with the mystical power to shape wood.
On top of this, a strong theme of spiritualism runs through the entire game. Monks and mystics feature heavily among player characters and the story tone places a heavy emphasis being put on enlightenment and inner strength. This doesn’t just apply to the fiction, either. In fact, the spiritual side of things is hard-wired into the system from the ground up.
Perhaps the best example of this can be found in the seven core attributes that are used to determine characters’ innate abilities. Many other games work along similar lines, but where most go for a roughly even split between physical and mental attributes Overlight instead devotes five to the mind and only two – Might and Vigour – to the body.
This is thematic and helps players to create characters that fit in with the world, but it does produce some weird holes. The absence of anything resembling a dexterity or cunning stat makes it tough to work out what kind of roll is needed for sneaking past a guard, picking a pocket or anything else on the shady side of adventuring. At the same time, the rulebook suggest that lying to people sits somewhere between Performance and Persuasion, but it’s hard to tell which would apply in a given situation.
Of course, this may well be intentional. The martial arts tropes it draws from don’t often make much of a distinction between strength and speed, after all, and the tone of the game doesn’t really fit in with crooks and cheats. However, even if this is the case it feels like it still runs into Overlight’s biggest issue for me – a feeling that the commitment to the theme and the style sometimes gets in the way of the game itself.
The list of magical abilities, or Chroma, is a good example. There are dozens of powers to choose from, and while each one is written with style the sheer volume of text means that most of them cover at least half a page. Sometime the mechanical, practical aspects of a Chroma are pulled out from the text, sometimes they’re mixed into the description – in any case, checking what they do at a glance is incredibly tricky.
This can all sound very petty, but the process of sitting down at a table and playing Overlight feels a little more awkward and arcane than it should. The game is imaginative, creative and a true breath of fresh air in a genre that all too often plays it safe, but even with all that in its flavour it’s hard to recommend over D&D, Genesys or a half-dozen other more mainstream fantasy RPGs.