Video games are best with somebody at your side. The first people to stand side-by-side at a Pong cabinet in 1972 would’ve testified to that, and yet, easy-to-play, local multiplayer games have become all too rare in 2016. Decent both-butts-on-the-same-couch co-op is even scarcer. What’s a person who doesn’t enjoy being annihilated by 14-year-olds online to do?
Enter Overcooked, a new co-op kitchen management game looking to fill the void left by once-great local multiplayer series like Bomberman and Mario Party. Will you want to make a standing reservation with Overcooked, or does this dish need to be send back to the kitchen?
Overcooked (PC, Xbox One & PS4)
Has there ever been a great cooking game? Sure, titles like Cooking Mama and Order Up! had their charms, but there’s something inherently unsatisfying about whipping up virtual food you can’t actually eat. Thankfully, Overcooked succeeds where other kitchen-based games have faltered by not really being about cooking. Yes, you’re chopping and frying up ingredients, but the process is simplified to the point of abstraction. Overcooked is a cooking game in the same way BurgerTime is. It’s an arcade action game that just so happens to involve food and characters in chef hats.
The action in Overcooked unfolds across 30 stages, each of which takes place in a different kitchen. Orders file in across the top of the screen, but otherwise you don’t interact with the diners -- it’s just you and up to three other chefs against the clock. Each completed meal garners you a set number of points and a bonus tip if you’re speedy, while taking too long will result in a penalty. There’s no way to “fail” a stage, although high scores earn you stars, which are needed to unlock further stages.
Overcooked reduces chefery to five basics actions – chopping/preparing ingredients, cooking, assembling, serving and washing plates. Each of these actions is made as simple as possible. Preparing an ingredient requires you to take it to the cutting board and push the “chop” button. This is the same whether you’re chopping a tomato, making a burger patty or rolling pizza dough. Assembling a dish is a simple matter of dropping all the properly cooked and prepared components on a clean plate. Most players will have a firm grasp on the fundamentals after the first stage.
It’s the design of its many kitchen that gives Overcooked its challenge and appeal. Early stages keep it straightforward with awkward bottlenecks and minor obstructions, but things quickly get more fanciful. You may find your kitchen split between two trucks speeding down the highway, rearranged by ghostly forces, or divided amongst the modules of an orbiting space station. The variety on display is impressive, and every one of Overcooked’s kitchens is smartly designed to encourage cooperation. You’ll constantly find yourself divided from, or, alternatively, tripping over your fellow players, and will rapidly discover that constant verbal communication and having a plan going in is essential. This a far cry from most co-op games, which usually don’t require much strategy beyond “everybody shoot at everything and things will probably work out.”
Of course, some of you are likely wondering how all this works when you’re playing on your own. The answer is, not super well. Two or three players is the Overcooked sweet spot. Four can be just a bit too frantic, and the game simply isn’t designed for single player. You can go it alone if you want, but you’ll have to control two chefs at the same time, which is a recipe for headaches. A similar issue afflicts Overcooked’s limited competitive multiplayer – the mode is two-on-two, and if you have anything less than four players, somebody will have to control two chefs at once. If this were a full-price game, I’d take it to task for its underfed single player and competitive options, but I’m more forgiving of its narrow co-op focus given its $15 dollar price tag.
Overcooked’s presentation is as simple and appealing as its gameplay. The game utilizes an overhead view reminiscent of Bomberman, or a foodie Legend of Zelda, and characters have a cuddly, Muppet-like look to them. The visuals are complimented by a surprisingly varied soundtrack, and satisfying sound effects. Whether chopping an onion, grilling a burger, or dropping a basket of potatoes in the fryer, everything sounds just right. The game even has affably dorky framing story, in which a mustachioed onion-headed king sends you on a mission to gain the skills needed to defeat a giant spaghetti monster. Atmosphere is an essential element of any successful restaurant, and Overcooked gets it right.
Worldbuilding – Cute characters, charming visuals and evocative audio makes for an appetizing dish.
Innovation – This is far from the first game to put players in a chef’s apron, but smart design and endlessly inventive levels set Overcooked apart.
Playability – Almost everybody can play and appreciate Overcooked, thanks to its simple controls and universal theme. The definition of “easy to learn, difficult to master.”
Durability – It will take you a solid 12 to 15 hours to unlock and complete Overcooked’s 30 stages, and you’ll want to go back to gun for high scores. This is also a great group game, and may well become a regular at parties and family gatherings. Don’t expect the same kind of longevity if you’re playing alone.
Demerits – Overcooked currently has two DLC packs. One costs five dollars, while the other is free, despite them offering a similar amount of content, which is somewhat confusing. That aside, Overcooked offers little to take issue with.
Overcooked is a small game, with a narrow focus, but it does what it does very well. The game loses something when played alone, but it’s one of the most ingenious co-op experiences I’ve ever played, and stands shoulder-to-shoulder with other recent local multiplayer indie hits like Rocket League and TowerFall. Gather some friends and family, and expand your multiplayer palate with Overcooked.
This review was based on the PS4 version of Overcooked purchased by the writer.