Penumbra: Overture Episode 1 PC Review

A vast majority of video games that could be labelled as horror titles follow the same formula; while the events may come about differently, you always have to physically battle your way to the end. In many respects Resident Evil 4 mixed things up a lot by simply changing the camera angle! Two students with too much time on their hands noticed this trend some time ago and set out to create a game that actually brought something new to the table; the result was Penumbra and realistic horror.

Penumbra starts off in sombre mood with the death of Philip’s, the protagonist’s, mother. However, the mood soon changes when Philip receives a letter from his long lost father, also deceased. The letter and clues within this letter takes the plot to the icy wastelands of Greenland and here the player begins to take control, the task is straight forward: follow the clues and solve the mystery. Those familiar with titles such as Broken Sword will be highly familiar with this style of story-telling and Penumbra will certainly sit well with fans of the genre in terms of story.

However, while this straightforward adventure mould may attract some players to fork out their hard-earned cash, the real reason to give this title a whirl lies in the gameplay and the mechanics employed within it. It has already been suggested that this game is a more realistic horror title and here’s why. When you play the more established titles you effectively take on the role of someone with a fearless attitude and a high level of skill in using weaponry and medpacs. In Penumbra it cannot be stressed enough that you do not want to get into a fight, because believe me you will die. Unlike Gordon Freeman, you do not have the skill to bash the living daylights out of foes with you trusty crowbar, or in this case a hammer. The emphasis of much of the gameplay is on avoiding combat and without a doubt Penumbra is in a minority of titles that embraces this kind of human frailty. Unlike supposed stealth games such as the Hitman franchise, being spotted is not an option. This is almost immediately evident: when you enter the very first indoor area, a mine, after a few moments a rabid beast appears and if he spots you then you will die in three hits and be lucky to strike him once. That ladies and gentleman is how to force you to be stealthy. While some players may find this style highly irritating, for others it will bring a welcome change of pace from many fantasy characters they are used to playing; this is far more how one would personally have to act if confronted by some demonic creature. This all means that cunning and patience will be your leading attributes rather than strafing ability.

While the need to be stealthy and cautious throughout the game is refreshing, this is not the only gameplay device that is unusual in Penumbra. Interaction plays a massive part in the attractiveness of this title. When solving most puzzles in adventure games there are fixed character animations; you must stand in a certain position and push a certain block while most other items on the screen are immovable. In Penumbra the player not only interacts with nearly everything, they have to perform the actions themselves. For example, to open a hatch early in the game and metal rod must be inserted into a specific slot and then the whole device must be rotated to open said hatch. While the rod is inserted in standard fashion, to turn the machinery the player must grab the rod and then move the character with mouse and keyboard to physically turn the switch. Straightforward doors must be grabbed and then the mouse be pushed or pulled to push or pull the door open. To throw an object there must be a thrusting movement with the controller while you will find that other items must be dragged and so on and so on. This interaction is not only a different way of solving puzzles, but also brings new puzzles in itself; you are not simply solving but also searching, searching for the hole behind the bookcase, for example, rather than just moving boxes and pressing switches. This can all-in-all be described as a very hands on approach to problem solving and is why this game is somewhat more realistic than standard adventure or horror titles. This unusual gameplay style is most definitely one reason alone to give this release a go.

Alas, while gameplay is a strong aspect of Penumbra, the graphical side of things will let the game down for many people. The designers certainly have to be applauded for the time spent on the physics and levels of involvement a player has, however, some more time is certainly needed graphically to impress many potential buyers. The backgrounds, foregrounds, objects and world itself are definitely up to scratch with excellent use of shadows and lighting. Yet, it is the more independently moving items that let the title down. A vicious canine creature has already been alluded to in this review and this is a good example of some work that needs to be attended to in terms of animations and detail. It was certainly very tense knowing I was about to come across my first living thing within the Penumbra world, and also rather interesting to be killed by it. The use of sound was impressive to create tension and apprehension. Alas, when I did first lay my eyes on the beast all fear dispelled from me and I was suddenly aware that I was definitely playing computer game. Also I have just noticed that it appears to have no feet!

Penumbra is certainly a game to give time to if you are a fan of the horror or adventure genres. The story is solid enough, the use of sound is very clever and the gameplay superb, unfortunately the title is only let down by graphical issues clearly stemming from budget and time constraints. Promising to be the first in a series this title certainly lays a decent base from which to establish a fresh gaming experience and is certainly worth a look. In the same way that Fahrenheit brought fresh ideas Penumbra Overture can too.

While it may not top the sales charts, this style of gameplay could well change the way gamers interact with their purchases; potentially ahead of its time.

6.9/10

by

Version tested: PC

Developer: Frictional Games

Publisher: Lexicon Entertainment

Genre: Adventure

Players: 1