To make it absolutely clear that Overcooked isn’t your traditional cooking game, developer Ghost Town Games opens mid-apocalypse. A giant, ravenous beast—imagine the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man made of spaghetti and meatballs—threatens to consume your rooftop kitchen. The Onion King, cheering from the sidelines, implores you to fend him off by hastily preparing a soothing selection of salads; after you’ve failed, he transports you back through time, so that you can be a more seasoned chef next time. The subsequent missions, then, are less about tapping out increasingly complex orders, as with Cooking Dash and its ilk, or the exquisite, Zen-like Cook, Serve, Delicious. Instead, Overcooked keeps the recipes simple and the kitchens about as unconventionally chaotic as they come.
A standard dish generally consists of two or three foods, some of which may need to be chopped or fried before being combined for service. But this emphatically cooperative game (even the single-player mode requires players to swap between allied chefs) rarely puts ingredients close to their prep stations. Instead, players often have to navigate perilous obstacles as they attempt to get orders out in time. One fish-and-chips-centric level requires players to transport deep fryers across slippery ice floes; a soup-specific mission set on moving flatbed trucks is best completed by flinging ingredients back and forth across the highway. Even simple levels have unexpected twists: a San Francisco-based kitchen keeps turning into a split-level building each time fault lines shift; an innocent-looking pizzeria turns out to be quite unexpectedly haunted, counters floating every which way.
These are some disastrous kitchens, filled with food-stealing rats and comically inexplicable design choices, such as the Times Square-evoking eatery that has a sidewalk running through the middle, or a pirate ship on which the barrel-mounted counters keep rolling from side to side. By contrast, the game’s three-button control scheme is delightfully straightforward, which helps players to focus on the game’s intentional chaos, rather than being distracted by anything else. But that’s not to say the game’s overly simple, as optimizing your lifting, chopping, and boosting your skills is a real challenge in these ever-changing kitchens. And apropos for a game set in the so-called Onion Kingdom, there’s always another layer to the gameplay, especially when trying to reach the harsh three-star quotas for each level.
A word of warning, though: Despite the fantastical setting, Overcooked can sometimes feel like actual cooking, in that it can require a lot of repetition in order to perfect a dish. At times, the difficulty can make this party game feel like a lot of work, although in fairness, the same can be said for Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime, another demandingly chaotic, but ultimately enjoyable, couch co-op title. Note also that while Overcooked‘s main course is absolutely stuffed full of enjoyably bizarre activities, there’s very little to do outside them; for instance, solo players won’t be able to take advantage of the versus mode. As for the story, it’s the one regrettably half-baked portion of the game, a flavorless bit of dialogue that has none of the satirical ambition or whimsy of other over-the-top games (such as Roundabout).
But Overcooked isn’t a buffet-style game, and it’s not trying to offer everything to everybody. The meat of the title—cooperative, chaotic cooking—is almost perfectly handled, as are the garnishes, from the catchy musical score to the delightful crew of unlockable animal chefs. By keeping the kitchens varied and the action constant, Ghost Town Games avoids the flavorless death known as repetition, and doesn’t overcook its premise.