Overcrowd: A Commute 'Em Up - Early Access Review

It's been a while, but we're back, and what a game to be back with!  Way back when I wrote a preview article for this game based on press kits and devblogs (you can read it here), the game launched in Steam Early Access way back in June of 2019 and has seen some great, continued development since then.  I'd like to thank Al from the developer for the copy.  
Developed by Squareplay Games, a UK indie team consisting of one programmer and one artist, Overcrowd lets you "Design and build the most effective metro stations known to man!"

The Campaign level selection screen
The first things to note are that, despite its cute pixelart style, the game is more hardware intense than you may expect due to this artwork being in high resolution, requiring a discrete GPU.  If you do feel the game appears sluggish the developer has included a couple of options, in addition to the usual graphics options you would expect, which may help to combat that.  The first of these is an option presented to you when you first load the game to cap the frame rate to 30FPS and the other is that you can adjust the available zoom levels as closer zooms will perform better due to less happening on the screen and needing rendered.  The artwork is beautiful and has all been 'hand drawn' in Photoshop.  I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised with the graphic quality as, despite being pixel art style, the art is all of a high quality and resolution.

The 'meat' of the game comes from the campaign game mode.  This sees you managing the tube stations of the fictional Lubdon Town, starting in the suburbs at zone 5, and working towards zone 1 in the heart of the city.  A nice touch for the replayability of the game is that this campaign, whilst only 5 levels long, is proceedurally generated using map seeds.  This allows limitless combinations of levels, but also allows you to share your seed with friends to see how you each fare.

Procurement screen showing unlocked items (yellow),
available items (blue), and locked items (beige)
The game has a decent amount of tech to unlock as you progress through, with some tech being gated by zone.  This means that you still have new things to discover as you progress as your unlocks are global across the campaign.  This also means that it's not possible to complete all of your optional objectives on the first playthrough, but will need to revisit earlier stations after unlocking new tech.  An example is that on your first station an optional goal is to build a second platform, however this technology is not available until the second station.  To unlock new technologies, you need to spend bonds in the procurement menu which are awarded by the mayor for reaching specific milestones of number of commuters moved.  As you gain more bonds you will also unlock higher tiers of tech, such as bins with a higher capacity or more efficient power supplies.  There are also new techs which have recently been implemented such as improved turnstiles and garbage compactor, and also more planned such as elevators (which have recently been added to the public beta branch on Steam).

Staff job prioritisation
When you first load into a map you are presented with a few things you will need to think about whilst planning your station.  You will see some track blueprints, which determine where your platforms go, some pavements around the edge, which determine where your entrances go, and some indestructible tiles.  These include rocks, water, clay and some pre-placed concourse flooring.  These may also be on different levels and, due to the game engine and a deliberate design choice, may cause some issues if you don't plan your initial layout.  This is because you can't construct on multiple floors within the same grid cell, due to the 2.5D isometric design of the game, and also due to fixed tiles.  These include water, dirt, rock and pre-placed concourse.  Currently there is no way to remove these obstacles, but the developer has mentioned that they hope to add tools to help with these in the future. There is something extremely satisfying about managing to successfully plan your expansions, but equally frustrating when you find you have built yourself into a corner.  There are a few things you can do to help with the planning.  On each new level you start in a planning phase where purchasing and selling flooring or objects is cost neutral so I strongly recommend taking your time here.  You are also able to construct whilst paused, which is another handy way to plan your next expansion without worrying about the day to day running of the station.

Humble beginnings with a simple, single platform station

For that day to day running, where would a good station manager be without his staff?  An interesting mechanic with staff is that once hired, they remain with you throughout the campaign, moving with you from station to station. This means that when get to the later stations you can buy some extra items, and not worry about having enough cash to hire a new staff member.  Each member of staff comes with their own skills and attributes, and as they gain experience will level up and get skill points you can allocate to improve them, for example increasing their strength will allow them to carry more tools at once, and increasing their perception will increase their field of view to determine tasks which need carried out.

Unlike many similar games where you hire staff with specific roles, the staff in Overcrowd are multi-disciplinary and their role is determined by what tools they are equipped with.  Equip a staff member with a jerry can and a toolkit and you have a mechanic, a mop and a litter picker gives you a janitor and caution tool and a taser and you have a security guard, you get the idea.  This can be useful if you only have a couple of members of staff - equip someone with a litter picker and a megaphone and they will keep your commuters moving and keep your station clean and tidy.  Along with the usual litter picking, plant watering and mending, your staff will also need to deal with rat infestations, violent commuters and various sicknesses such as gastric flu.

Gradually expanding with a second platform.
Note the staff member dealing with a rat problem in the lower right
Whilst your staff are there to look after your commuters, you will need to look after the needs of your staff.  You will need to make sure there is a space for them to take a break to rest, eat and drink.  Failing to do this can result in adverse effects on the health of your staff.  You can either do the control of their breaks manually, or set them to automatically go for a break at a threshold of energy levels, there are pros and cons to both.  You also need to make sure that you have enough money to pay your staff.  If staff are on shift and you can't pay them, they will go on strike near the entrances of your station.  To preserve your funds, you can set up shifts and send staff home.  For example you might want 5 or 6 staff during the day to keep everything running, but only 2 staff overnight to empty bins, water plants etc.

In addition to the campaign the game also features a sandbox mode with a large amount of customisation ranging from the number of levels, entrances and platforms available, to whether tech needs to be unlocked or whether finance mechanics are enabled.  Currently this doesn't allow for free placement of entrances and platforms so there are still some restrictions with how you can build, however the developer has again said this is something they want to address in early access.  There is also a "Commute of the Day" mode which gives every player the same map which changes daily.

Getting the hang of things as the station expands
Throughout the early access so far the developer has been extremely receptive to player feedback, for example implementing the staff AI system making the management easier and involving less tedium, added a number of new items, including turnstiles taking up a single cell, allowing ceiling lights to be placed in the same cell as floor items and advertising billboards to be placed on the interior walls formed by building rooms.  He is also extremely active on the official Discord discussing the game and feedback with the community and is updating the public beta branch (you can opt into this via the game preferences in your Steam Library) on a regular basis, addressing any bugs introduced with updates often the same day.

It's been a pleasure to play this game and see it grow over the course of early access, it's definitely refreshing to see a developer take on player feedback and implementing this as far as possible.  I have no doubts that this game, which is already extremely good and was solid at the start of early access, will be excellent by the time full release comes round.  It is definitely a great example of what can be achieved by a single developer and shows the potential of the Game Maker engine and is without question definitely a recommended purchase.

Overcrowd is available from the Steam Store priced at £12.99/€13.99/$16.99.

Disclaimer: I have been fortunate enough to be assisting the developer with some community moderation however this has not influenced this review.
Overcrowd: A Commute 'Em Up - Early Access Review Overcrowd: A Commute 'Em Up - Early Access Review Reviewed by Parcival on April 06, 2020 Rating: 5

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