Overclocked: A History of Violence review
Adventure Gamers Awards
A heavy storm rages overhead; dark clouds blot out the sky while people scurry about the city streets trying to conduct their daily lives and cars rush past to get to their destinations. Rain cascades against the buildings as a woman, stripped to her underwear, walks into the road. Screaming, she fires a gun multiple times into the sky as the downpour falls against her body and washes away stains of blood… This dramatic introduction sets the stage for a unique adventure to come, and while the rest of the game never quite lives up to the excitement of its opening, Overclocked: A History of Violence does prove to be a fascinating title for those who enjoy a good story.
In the latest adventure from House of Tales, David McNamara is a forensic psychiatrist employed to investigate the cases of five young men and women who were found scattered across New York City, all carrying guns but with no memory of what happened and how they got there. Playing as David, it is the player's role to delve into their minds through the use of hypnosis to unravel the secrets behind their psychotic behaviour. Yet David himself is a troubled individual, plagued by disturbing dreams and experiencing erratic bursts of violent behaviour. With his relationship with friends at a breaking point, his career seemingly a shadow of its former self and a marriage on the rocks, David has to fight his own demons as well as discover the root cause of his mentally unstable patients' problems.
Overclocked is a third-person, point-and-click adventure which uses a simple system for exploring the world and interacting with objects or other people. The mouse cursor changes when something can be looked at in more detail, with other possible actions becoming apparent in context, and your inventory is always visible at the bottom of the screen for easy access. Topics of conversation are represented by icons, meaning none of the dialogue tree complications that plagued the studio's previous effort, The Moment of Silence, are present. Bizarrely, early on in the game your character will receive a map, yet it serves little purpose other than allowing him to leave the current area, and it would have been nice to use as an interactive item. However, walking around the locations is very straightforward, with auto-exits and the ability to run moving things along.
What is immediately apparent upon leaving David's hotel is the attention to detail that has been lavished on the environment. The stormy weather is very impressive, proving to be incredibly realistic, particularly when the rain is seen splashing in the puddles. There are reflections in windows and even marble surfaces have a mirrored sheen. But while the locations are well realised and reflect the gloomy nature of the game, the animations could have been improved. All characters have a slightly unnatural way of walking, with running proving more comical than effective. And although close-ups of faces are reasonably detailed, lip syncing rarely matches the dialogue and the characters at times have forced expressions that don't seem natural. The cutscenes, of which there are plenty scattered throughout the game, are cinematic and well constructed, adding to the atmosphere and immersing you more into the world. The one criticism is that there is a substantial loading time before each one, which can break the illusion of exploring another world just when the story is building dramatic momentum.
After gathering David's belongings, it's time to travel by ferry to Staten Island, where the mental hospital housing the patients awaits. It is here you'll meet the first two main characters of the game, the presiding doctor and his assistant, who are less than welcoming towards David and prove a hindrance throughout the investigation. Upon meeting the patients, it becomes imperative to unlock some of the patients' memories with narrative triggers, which is done with either inventory items or clever use of the PDA. David's PDA, which also has the ability to make phone calls and receive messages, primarily acts as a voice recorder for his patients' sessions, and replaying the appropriate recording is frequently necessary to trigger new memories in other patients. To begin with, it's hard to know what might be important, as it is an unusual approach to puzzle solving, but once you get your head around this game mechanic, it becomes second nature. After a while, you really get into the role of the psychiatrist and feel that you are delving into the minds of others.
Triggering memories is only the first part of the challenge, however, and it's the rest that really separates Overclocked from most adventures. Once a memory has been accessed, the screen blurs, splits in two, and goes briefly black and white before focusing entirely on the patient. It is at this point that you take on the role of the actual patient reliving his or her own memory. Since the memories occur only in small fragments, these are very linear gameplay segments, only ever comprising a few rooms and just as many items, so there is little scope for deviation from the game's script. This may disappoint those who look for more freedom in their adventures, but it continually adds to the intrigue, keeping you guessing as to the patient's motivations, what's really going on, and how it fits into the overall plot, as it soon becomes clear that the backgrounds of the patients are directly connected.
What makes the story far more complex is that the memory fragments work backwards chronologically, at first focusing on each patient's arrival into the city, then extending back through the events that led them there, until eventually piecing together the reasons for their abnormal and violent behavior. While it sounds complicated, the process is actually quite simple and rarely leaves you feeling confused as to what is going on at any given time. Thankfully, each recollection is stored on your PDA in an organised manner: dated, split into sections (morning, afternoon, evening) and in accordance with each cell number.
There are puzzles in Overclocked, but they are fairly easy, consisting mainly of picking up items during the flashbacks and using them on other objects (though not necessarily in the same memory), with only three code locks proving to be any real challenge. Those who favour puzzles as the most important part of an adventure will find this game distinctly lacking, but otherwise it's an acceptable tradeoff. There are also a few instances where the game is so linear in its train of thought that you have to perform tasks in the exact order the developers want, even if you've mentally solved the puzzle already. There are only a handful of such problems throughout the game, but they can be irritating.
As you would expect of a story-intensive game, there is a lot of dialogue, but unlike some games, the balance has been struck well so that the conversations rarely drag on yet still reveal enough information to flesh out the story. If you start to lose track of events, being able to replay the sessions of each patient is also a helpful recap of what's happened in the game so far without having to plod through a written journal. The voice acting varies in quality: while David is well-voiced and believable, some of the supporting characters, particularly the nurse and the female patients, are painful to listen to.
Throughout the game, you'll only ever visit and revisit a handful of locations, including the hospital, hotel and a local bar as David, and the few key places shared by the patients which I won't disclose here, yet the pacing of the storyline means that you'll rarely feel limited by your environment. It's a hard balance to combine just a small number of characters and locations into one main storyline without making a game feel dull or lacking, yet the developers have managed to pull it off. While the early part of the game is quite slow paced, the story really takes hold after each patient becomes accessible, and seeing the detoriation of David McNamara's own state of mind gives added incentive to see what happens next.
Atmosphere is something that is abundant in Overclocked, in no small part thanks to the great use of sound effects and sparing use of music. In some games, the lack of music can be a detriment, but in this instance it works, making the environments feel more true to life. Any more music would have ruined the gloomy, apprehensive air that already exists. The main theme is only ever played at important points of the game, while at times the only sound is the echoing of footsteps or the constant pitter patter of rain drops. It's subtle, proving that sometimes less is indeed more. At all times, the game feels tense, as if anything could happen at any given moment, and while the adventure never gets truly frightening, there are moments that can put you on edge and the anticipation of what 'might' happen is at the forefront. Some scenes, which I played late at night, really felt unnerving, and there are a couple (of a more sinister nature) later on in the game which came completely by surprise.
Unfortunately, the conclusion of the game is something of a letdown, feeling tacked on and never really resolving much. After having done an excellent job throughout the adventure of teasing you with nuggets of information and tidbits slowly uncovered, it's disappointing to discover that the source of the problems is all rather predictable. And although it explains why these events have taken place, several issues are left unaddressed, and it all seems a little contrived. The underlying theme of violence is never fully tackled either, remaining more of an intriguing backdrop than an in-depth exploration of the topic.
I can easily recommend Overclocked, but in doing so I will reiterate that the game will not be for everyone. It is, first and foremost, a game that has a story to tell, and it's this tale that takes precedence over the whole adventure. As a result, the puzzles are one of the weakest areas of the game, giving way to abundant atmosphere, plot and characterisation as the central focus, delivered mainly through a refreshing narrative style. While the complex multi-character, reverse-chronology structure dictates an incredibly linear approach as a result, the game remains compelling once it builds momentum. So although at times it's the victim of its own ambition (and between 8-10 – hours in length, not the longest of tales), Overclocked: A History of Violence is a worthy pursuit for anyone who likes an interesting story well told.