Last month, I was introduced to Overcooked, a small game from a two-person team at Ghost Town Games. Published by Team 17, the premise is simultaneously both incredibly simple and incredibly complicated. Up to four players work together to cook meals for “customers” before they decide to go elsewhere (or destroy the world). The idea makes sense and is simple enough for any player to understand, regardless of experience, but the complexity comes from figuring out the perfect strategy in order to successfully create meals within the time limit as each kitchen only has a certain number of plates, chopping boards, ingredient stations, sinks and cookers.
The various orders you need to fulfil appear in the top left corner with a simple-to-understand coloured bar, which slowly shrinks and turns from green to red, showing you how much time you have left. Whilst most levels generally deal with a single kind of food, you find small variations; in a soup level, you have different flavours, and in a burger level you could be asked for varying degrees of salad. Most meals require only a single element of actual cooking; frying the burger or cooking the soup for example; but as the game progresses more elements are added; like the requirement to cook both rice and meat and put them together in a Burrito.
This can get absolutely crazy. A level that springs to mind comes late in the game; you are in a lava field with four islands in a square formation, each with different things you’ll need to use, scattered around on them. You’re making Burritos, so each meal requires a plate, a wrap, cooked rice and chopped and cooked meat. Four islands are connected by three very narrow bridges, so that you can’t directly cross between two of the islands meaning you have to go all the way around if you need to get from one to the other. In addition, there bridges change every 20 seconds or so, with one dropping and one rising from the depths. So you’re running around like headless chickens with plates and pans and chickens, and you find that you have to cross one of the bridges just at the same time as another player. Without careful co-ordination and patience, you WILL knock the other player off accidentally; I mean, my girlfriend struggled to cross them on her own without me trying to run past. Then comes the delegation of jobs, when you find out you’re both preparing the same variation when actually you need one chicken burrito and one beef burrito or that you have six rice prepared but no chicken or plates.
It’s constantly challenging and frustratingly fun, containing a good selection of varied kitchens and recipes to play. Occasionally the game mixes up the formula by adding a new gimmick, keeping the gameplay fresh and unique; such as cooking on two moving trucks and having to move between the two as they race down the road, or sending an air-locked pod between two cooking areas so that your partner can serve and collect ingredients. Because of this you constantly need to stay on the ball, shouting to your partners in increasing tones. There’s a huge element of co-op frustration, but it’s good natured on the whole. We found that the most effective way to play was to have a designated “Head Chef” to delegate tasks and ensure that the players were co-ordinated with each other.
Games with such an element of frustration as you find in Overcooked live or die by how fair your “failures” feel. Dark Souls for example, is beloved by many because even though you die a lot, your deaths usually feel fair, leaving you knowing that it was YOUR fault, and not the fault of the game mechanics or controls. Overcooked straddles this line; MOST of the time you feel fairly treated, but there are some distinct issues with the controls which can sometimes make you feel hard-done to. The main issue is that there seems to be the odd issue with the angle or distance you need to be at in order to use a specific cooking station, with some allowing interaction from a strange angle and other requiring you to be fully facing the station.
Controls are probably my biggest issue with Overcooked, especially bearing in mind the fact that things haven’t changed from the release version regarding keyboard and non-Xbox controller button prompts. I STILL can’t find key rebinding or an explanation of keys, making the game very difficult to get to grips with if you got own an Xbox One controller. The game recognises it’s a PS4 controller and they’re releasing on PS4, so why don’t the button prompts change?
Despite that, once the controls have been translated by a friend, it also seems really accessible for inexperienced gamers, with my partner picking up the controls and strategies quickly even if she did call me a few choice names during gameplay! It does feel a lot harder in single-player, so I’d definitely say it’s the most fun with friends.
The main campaign mode is where you’ll find the most meat. The King of the Onion Kingdom; finding his kingdom besieged by a giant meatball monster, tasks your small team with going back in time and becoming professional chefs in order to satisfy the beast’s hunger. What ensues is a whistle-stop tour of the kingdom and around 28 levels of increasing difficulty, through fields, cities, the arctic, haunted houses and even into space. As far as plots go it’s not the most engaging, but it merely serves as a backdrop to the fun of the gameplay, and I’m absolutely fine with that. It’s clear they were just looking for an excuse to tie the levels together and as that it works more than fine. One thing which will either be a boon or an issue depending on perspective is the star grading system. Dependant on performance during each level you will be rewarded with 0, 1, 2 or 3 stars. The problem is that you need a certain number of stars to progress. Whilst it was a good way to force my co-op team to go back and improve on previous levels, leading to increased completion, I could see it seriously frustration single-players who may already be finding the game difficult.
The most impressive aspect of the game is its overall presentation. Whilst it doesn’t measure up to AAA titles in fidelity, it just has a naturally charming cartoony aesthetic which appeals to everyone. There’s load of distinct colour and varied environments which make you want to jump into the joyous, if threatened Onion Kingdom. There is a good variety of playable, unlockable characters, including a disabled racoon and a grumpy cat, and a designated swear button which makes even your frustration somewhat charming. The star of the show is definitely the music and the sound design, with a thematically perfect mix of French and electronic themes throughout. I’d go so far as to say I’d just listen to the music if I could find a soundtrack for it, with the superb title theme making the whole game tie together. Yes, I’m humming it right now!
Honestly, we love Overcooked. It takes a bunch of different ideas and ingredients from different sources and refines them into a distinct and polished recipe. It’s concentrated frustration, but in a good way, with only a few control niggles spoiling the broth. It’s one of my favourite co-op games so far this year and I’m sure it’s one we’ll be going back to again and again, even if I don’t know if I’d play it on my own by choice.
Regardless, if you have a player two, I suggest you should pick this up on August 3rd on PC, PS4 or Xbox One.