Reviewed: April 21, 2007
Released: May 7, 2007
Video games, over the past few years especially, have gained the inherent ability to extract a variety of different emotions from us. These can range from sadness, to compassion, to excitement, or sheer terror. While scary games are certainly nothing new to the industry, they have done a good job of perfecting their craft of causing me to unexpectedly change my underwear, and Penumbra: Overture is definitely no exception to this trend.
Penumbra: Overture is the first game in what will be a trilogy of episodes released by Lexicon Entertainment, who are relative greenhorns to the industry but have an interesting habit of releasing action games that serve better as adventure titles, which, all things considered, isnít necessarily a bad thing. Got Game Entertainment will be handling the release in North America.
The game puts you in the role of a man named Howard, whom after receiving a cryptic message from his long dead father, is sent on a jaunt to Greenland in an attempt to find some answers regarding the accounts of his fatherís death. Penumbra: Overture serves as an interesting mix of FPS and horror adventure genres, but puts more focus on solving puzzles and staying alive rather than combat. This is a spin on the horror genre that hasnít been seen in quite some time, and hasnít really used the First-Person viewpoint to great effect until now.
Penumbra is quite pure and simplistic in terms of how it is played, and while it is played from a first person perspective, it is at its heart, very much an adventure title. Apart from the more traditional adventure elements, Penumbra: Overture also introduces a few new innovative features that help to mix things up a bit. From the moment the game starts, you are introduced to a brand new way of interacting with the game world. In an ordinary FPS in order to interact with something, you would look at the object in question, and press a button to activate this object or otherwise make it do what it is supposed to.
In Penumbra: Overture your mouse pointer acts as your hand in the game world, looking at something and holding the mouse button to grab hold of it and manipulating it by moving the mouse. You can also throw or swing certain objects to cause damage to enemies or other things in the game world. This principle is one of the core concepts behind Penumbra: Overture and is applied to pretty much anything that isnít nailed down in the game world, sadly, it isnít really as powerful as one might expect. Because once you get used to this new control scheme, you will find yourself trying to manipulate objects that should do something but are otherwise static.
A concept like this could most easily be compared to a PC version of the wii-mote, just not as detailed, simply because your mouse is limited to two-dimensional movement. While this is somewhat of an innovative idea, it is relatively easy to pick up and learn how to use within a few minutes. However this method of play can get to be somewhat clumsy especially during combat when you are forced to flail your mouse wildly left and right to swing a weapon. You can raise the mouse sensitivity to circumvent this somewhat, but you may still find yourself inadvertently knocking things off your desk more often than not.
Like any adventure title, Penumbra serves up its share of puzzles, ranging from making dynamite fuses, to simply stacking boxes. Sadly Penumbra does little to blend its innovative control scheme with any of its puzzles apart from pushing around crates. Instead, the player is forced to read through the piles of literature that are strewn about the game to find solutions to many of these puzzles, needless to say, this reduces the games pace to a crawl in some places.
Also, like most adventure titles, Penumbra requires a fair amount of playing around with the various items you accumulate in order to solve its many puzzles. Your inventory is managed via the relative ease of a pop-up interface, however, this is somewhat self-defeating. Because while the game offers you the option of assigning certain items to a numbered hotkey, you will often have to bring up the inventory screen to remind yourself as to what key you assigned said item to. This really doesnít become much of a problem until youíre in the heat of combat and forget what number you gave to your pickaxe.
While Penumbraís puzzles do take up a good majority of the game, there is a small combat element present to give the player the constant threat of death. This actually works quite well, especially when combined with the horror atmosphere of the game and the first-person perspective. The combat, unlike the puzzles, actually implements the gameís interface quite well, as the player is only given melee weapons for defense, the player must swing the mouse in the appropriate way they wish to swing the weapon. This method of combat actually makes sense and adds a certain sense of panic and vulnerability to the game, which just makes it all that much scarier. If this sounds somewhat clumsy to you, let me assure you, it is, which makes effectively combating some of your foes a mixture of trial and error, as well as experience.
The foes you combat in Penumbra come in three distinct flavors, dogs, spiders, and giant worms. These enemies can be pretty scary considering at most all you have to fight them with is a pickaxe, but scary as they are, the enemies are fairly easy to dispatch considering their weak A.I. However, you donít actually have to fight any of these enemies, as they all have different behaviors that allow you to circumvent them in some way. For example, the player can use meat scraps to lure a dog away from their position.
Also, the player can simply sneak around most of the enemies in the game which puts a new spin on stealth tactics. In Penumbra, the player can remain hidden in the shadows for as long as they have to, but if they stare at an enemy for too long the character will freak out and reveal his position. The combat still has a tendency to get repetitive, given the limited number of enemies and ways to fight them, but the combat is still pretty cool the first time you try it and gives you a good sense of panic in the midst of a fight.
Combat very much takes a backseat role in Penumbra, with the rest of the game following the same general repetition. The player will spend the majority of their time wandering around a maze of dank mines in search of their next puzzle to gain access to another area of the game, which is just a larger, more complex version of the maze that the player just went through. This wash-rinse-repeat scenario coupled with the shallow depth to the story that the game follows shows very little imagination and just makes the game go stale after the first 15 minutes.
The relative atmosphere of Penumbra is done justice with itís visuals, and while they are somewhat inconsistent, still remains impressive on some points. The Lighting for penumbra plays a big role in helping the ambience of the game and comes in a few distinct varieties based on its source, but they all look very natural and creepy.
Fluorescent lighting gives off a dirty yellow glow, whereas the light from your flashlight is more piercing and bright. All of these different sources cast shadows off of literally every surface and it looks fantastic. With the exception being a few glitches where the shadows seemed to stick to their source, rather than being cast. Penumbra also boasts some pretty cool motion blur effects, which actually look really awesome during the frantic pace of combat.
Sadly the same kind of attention doesnít carry over to the rest of the visuals. Many of the models take huge bites out of the environment with clipping issues, and your weapons, when equipped, just hangs in the air, in the end, these oversights just make the game feel really fake. The physics engine in Penumbra obviously plays a big role with its control scheme. And while there arenít any truly debilitating problems, the engine is inconsistent at times, with some objects seeming heavier than they should be or otherwise not reacting in the way you wouldnít expect them to.
The environments do look good, but lack a feeling of any real variety, which makes the player feel as though theyíre going in circles rather than making any real forward progress. This becomes all the more frustrating with the maze-like environments the game places you in, where all the walls look the same.
The sound effects for Penumbra are really top notch, with the wind blowing through mine shafts sounding quite chilling, and strikes with your weapons giving you a real sense of impact. The music is also well done, with a creepy feel that fitís the atmosphere of the game quite well.
If there were a low point to the sound in Penumbra, it would have to be its inherent lack of voice acting, as all of your characters speech is represented by text. This really destroys any identity the character may have had with the player throughout the course of the game. The only voice acting in the game comes from the disembodied ďhelperĒ character by the name of red, who is supposed to be guiding you through your adventure, turns out to be more of a nuisance than of any actual assistance.
Penumbra, being part of an episodic release, does not serve up a very lengthy play time. A semi-determined player could easily complete this game in one sitting, with a couple breaks to take a step back and figure out the puzzles. This relatively short play time is reflected in the gameís price, averaging about 20 bucks, which is just high enough to keep a generic gamer away, but pull a horror adventure fan in.
There are three variable difficulty levels to the game, but these donít do much to change the presentation and given the already repetitive nature of the gameplay, it makes me question who would want to go through it twice. This and the lack of any secrets, achievements or otherwise, makes playing Penumbra pretty much a one shot deal.
Penumbra is a game that shows real promise, but ultimately fails in a few key areas that prevent it from being a truly excellent horror adventure. The intuitive control scheme is interesting, but sadly doesnít get to realize its full potential. Hopefully in Penumbraís subsequent episodes, the nagging bugs that prevent the game from seeing its potential will be remedied. but until then, Penumbra remains a mediocre adventure game with a small handful of interesting elements, and pee your pants moments.