Review for Penumbra: Overture
Let's take a look at the horror genre in games, shall we? How often over the years have we seen themes like zombies and old mansions, occult rituals, experiments gone wrong, and maybe some ghosts? From survival horrors like Resident Evil to classic adventures like Amber: Journey's Beyond, all too often tired old themes have been repeated, falling into the same patterns, and failing to offer anything new. I mean, sure, it's a formula that can be successful, and occasionally a few original titles break through, like Sanitarium or the Gabriel Knight series. But more often than not, new horror games often revert to worn out clichés.
Penumbra: Overture, the debut horror adventure from Frictional Games, isn't going to be the game to refresh you with a groundbreaking new plot. In fact, the story feels like an afterthought at times, vague and uninspired. Fortunately, once you start playing and discover its unique physics-based control, and realize that the game is genuinely scary, you won't care as much that it succumbs to overused genre staples. It's also a game that intentionally weaves between adventure and survival horror elements to create a consistently creepy atmosphere. And creepiness, in this genre, is what should come first.
For what it's worth, the story in Penumbra: Overture begins on a highly personal note: the loss of a mother. After the hero, Philip, attends his mother's funeral, he receives a letter from his father, a man who's been "dead" for 30 years. The ambiguous letter hints at clues in Greenland that will help Philip discover more about his father. The mystery compels him to follow, and as the game opens, Philip finds himself arriving in an icy wasteland, where he must escape the harsh wintry conditions through a hatch doorway leading deep underground. From here on out, the player guides Philip through a first-person perspective into isolated tunnels and mines, in a search to discover both his own past and that of his father's.
As you proceed, the disturbing backstory of Philip's father is learned primarily through the writings you pick up during your quest. These mostly consist of miners regaling you with long-winded notes to themselves about their insanity. Besides the introduction, you never learn about the character you are playing, so it becomes difficult to care about why he is there. This is tolerable, however, as it's really the atmosphere that drives you along. I remember playing The 7th Guest for the first time. That game gave me chills, regardless of the story, which I couldn't have cared less about. Similarly, Penumbra: Overture is a game that manages to overcome the weakness of its story by being genuinely scary, and is best played in a dark room with surround sound or headphones. Whether your character is crouching in a corner, listening to the growling of a mutant dog, or being chased by a giant worm, this game will consistently keep you on edge.
But atmosphere and story aside, the root of the experience is the gameplay. Frictional developed their own 3D game engine, and started with the similarly-named Penumbra--a technological demo with an emphasis on physics, which later expanded into Penumbra: Overture. With the keyboard handling movement, players use the mouse to look around and interact with the environment. But more than simple pointing and clicking, items on screen need to be manipulated physically: cans can be picked up and thrown, doors are pulled open, pillows can be turned over, and furniture can be pushed and pulled. These movements all feel very natural, and play an integral role in immersing the player into the world.
The game is an adventure at its core, full of familiar sorts of puzzles, but it does have some action and stealth elements that compose as much as a third of the game, and it turns out that it's helpful to have the kind of reflexes you'd expect in a first-person shooter. The game's marketing suggests that players will need to primarily use their wits to evade enemies, but it's often more useful to simply barge into one, as it frees you up to explore and solve the various puzzles in the area without worrying about the same enemy constantly. You find a few melee weapons during your quest, including a pick axe and a hammer, and you'll mostly be fighting mutant dogs along the way. These are exciting at first, though the repetition of combat becomes more of a nuisance after a while. This is also the only problematic area of the game's physics, as the control to swing your weapon (holding down a mouse button and moving the mouse left or right) feels a little awkward, and the swinging takes too long when trying to battle several enemies at once. Be prepared to take a few hits.
Should you choose to play stealthily, you'll be in for a more time-consuming and perhaps more frightening experience. There are non-violent options here, such as throwing a piece of beef jerky to distract a dog, or crouching in the dark behind a box until it passes. There is also a unique feature that causes the player to get "scared" when looking directly at the enemy, resulting in heavier breathing and a greater chance of being spotted. Even so, I can see many players resorting to attacks, as hiding from the same enemies loses its thrill after the third or fourth time around.
In general, the action ends up being more of a tedious distraction--especially to the adventure purist, or one who doesn't enjoy dying while working out a puzzle. There is a difficulty setting in the game, which allows for easier enemies on lower settings, but the higher settings don't do anything for the game's puzzles, which remain easy and fairly standard. Whether you're trapping a beast, fixing machines, or combining chemicals, adventure gamers aren't likely to see anything new here. That's not to say the puzzles aren't fun, because they can be, in a simple sort of way. And the game's physics really do add to the gameplay, as well, since you'll need to do such things as pulling levers or laying down planks to build a bridge. It's much more satisfying than a simple point here and a click there.
It doesn't hurt that the game is pretty, technically speaking. For an independent project from a team of four people, the game looks great, besides a few shoddy textures. Environments are dark, but lighting is used effectively, allowing players to illuminate the rooms with flashlights, flares, and nightsticks. Movie-like camera effects play a nice role, creating interesting blurring effects as the character is waking up, or dealing with the snow hitting your face in the blinding blizzard. Keying in at the right moments is music that is sparse but atmospheric. Creepy whispers help set the mood, and the sound effects are realistic and jarring. This is a good game to play on high volume, both for the shock factor and as a means to determine the location of enemies.
The game is full of text commentary from Philip, which frequently appears on the screen. I found this to be off-putting at times, since this is attempting to be an immersive horror game. For example, after falling a hundred feet underground, you receive the message: "I can't believe I fell that far and survived. What is this place?" These thoughts are better left, perhaps, to the imagination of the player, who doesn't need to be told that the character is scared or surprised, particularly in such an unconvincing way. At times, however, the text can be helpful, serving more as a guide to what the character needs to do next.
In general, the writing itself is a mixed bag, with sparse touches of charm. Besides Philip's own observations, he encounters a character named Red, who communicates with him through radio transmission. The voice acting here is well done, and Red's borderline maniacal pleas add even more of a feeling of desperation to the atmosphere. Aside from that, the caves and mines are littered with notes from people long gone, which manage to be descriptive, though slightly pedantic.
Ultimately, the game's very title, Penumbra (meaning a partial shadow, or an area that is uncertain), alludes to its own general problem: opacity. The story gives us glimpses of things that are interesting, but doesn't do much to hold our attention. Sure, the game is tense and shocking at scary moments, but not because of our involvement in the plot. However, this game is just the first episode of a planned three-part series, so hopefully the game's story and puzzles will provide more substance the next time around. But whatever may come later, this first installment doesn't feel entirely complete on its own, despite its 6 to 8 hours or so of play time. There are teases near the end of the game, namely of new characters and new environments which could lead to something more promising in the sequels, but you'll probably come away this time feeling a little empty-handed.
Overall, Penumbra: Overture is a pretty fun but uneven game. It manages to immerse you in its setting and atmosphere, but it's clearly lacking in story and character development. Still, it's a scary experience, and certainly a unique one. It's not often that you see a survival horror blended so seamlessly with adventure, and while the action elements definitely need work to make it a full success, the early results are promising. The game's physics-based control offers a new and more involved way to explore, and it's worth checking out for anyone who enjoys horror and doesn't mind a bit of fighting for their life. If you understand what kind of experience you're in for, Penumbra: Overture should offer enough style, mood, and atmosphere to carry you along for the ride.