I don’t normally spout off about video games, since there hasn’t really been a whole lot that has impressed me to the degree that I felt the need to share. This one did, though, and this is going to be a long one, so bear with me. It’s called Penumbra Overture: Episode 1. It fits pretty snugly in the Survival Horror genre alongside titles like Silent Hill and Resident Evil, but places much more emphasis on exploration, puzzles, and building a rather significant level of suspense than on fighting your way through hordes of zombies or whathaveyou. The game starts with a relatively simplistic and somewhat implausible backstory that tries to explain how you’ve come to find yourself in the frigid wastelands of northern Greenland. Upon finding refuge in a mysterious underground shelter, you suddenly find yourself caught up in a mystery that soon reveals very sinister and deadly goings-on.
Somewhat hackneyed plot aside, one of the main things that marks this game’s uniqueness is its implementation of a Newtonian physics engine. Besides the usual intuitiveness associated with bringing innately familiar real-world concepts into a video game, Penumbra seeks to further immerse you in its dank and creepy environment by requiring real movements to be executed in order to perform equivalent functions within the game. Doors must be grabbed and pulled or pushed with a mouse movement back or forward for them to open. Likewise, levers must be grabbed and pushed or pulled. Boxes must be lifted and stacked or pushed out of the way to reach otherwise inaccessible areas, electrical cords must be grabbed and plugged into their sockets, hatches must be lifted. Even the combat system requires you to grab, pull back and swing or stab blunt or piercing objects to effect slashes or jabs. This takes a bit of getting used to when compared to traditional games, which typically require only that you aim and click, but once mastered it serves to create an additional layer of immersion in the manner of the Nintendo Wii’s accelerometer-based WiiMote. The combat system is aided by the fact that, unlike manipulating other objects, which move as your mouse does when held, the game assists by giving you only three basic moves: Slash left, slash right, or jab. This makes physical interaction with weapons a lot simpler and less unwieldy than if you were whipping something around the screen willy-nilly. There is also the fact that enemy AI is pretty simplistic. Where available, you can just hop up on a crate or rock and slash at enemies from on high while they try in vain to snap at your heels. Where nothing mountable is available though, you’d better hope you can sneak around, because some creatures attack in packs (spiders, for example), while others, who normally patrol singularly (such as undead wolves) can howl for assistance if given a chance – and then you’re screwed.
While battle is unavoidable in the game, you quickly learn that stealth and cunning are often your best allies. Though you will probably have to deal with threats sooner or later, the ability to hide in shadows and skulk stealthily around in a crouch might help you slip behind a creature’s back while you look for a more defensible position or an exit.
What really makes the game though is the intensely creepy atmoshpere the game provides. The lighting and environments are very well constructed, and while many are quite dark, there is a subtle ambient light that strikes a perfect balance between visibility and murk. This is no Doom 3 here (yes, you can use a flashlight/glowstick while wielding a weapon) – dark environments are still navigable, but there is plenty enough murk to have you jumping at shadows and wondering what that thing in the distance is, and whether or not you just saw it move.
Good portions of the game are experienced with only ambient sounds – the hum of fluorescent lights, the buzz of electrical equipment, miscellaneous sounds off in the distance. Some might find the musical absence here disappointing, but in fact this tends to build tension, as you can hear everything both near, and, indistinctly, far. Where there is music however, it is subtle and eerie and exceptionally well composed, serving as a distant background soundtrack and suspenseful aid without ever making itself obvious – until you encounter a beast, then the soundtrack dynamically switches to a jarring, heart-pounding piece that accompanies the action very well.
Battles are relatively few and far between, however, which is something I like. Most games are pretty predictable in their pacing – battle, explore, battle, explore, brief exposition, explore, battle, etc. Generally this is done to avoid the dreaded battle fatigue, where players become fed up with a game that seems to offer too much of one thing and not enough of another. Some games get this balance right enough of the time to keep you interested, but they are still pretty predictable. The pacing in Penumbra Overture is much less predictable. With longer periods between battles, no useful way to predict when you’re going to encounter something nasty, and a pretty steady sense of dread and suspense, those titular jump-out-of-your-seat moments seem all the more exciting – and rare is the game that has made me do that. I grew up with horror movies and slasher flicks, so I’ve become pretty inured to them, but when they’re done right they can really give you a jolt. Though this is a game and not a movie, it is nevertheless done right.
Reviews I’ve read of the game (I usually read reviews and research something before I buy it) seem to pick on its “outdated” graphics, but I see nothing to complain about. While there may not be the kind of texture variety found in games like Half Life 2 or Doom 3, it really doesn’t make a difference here. The graphics still seem on a par with the likes of F.E.A.R., and anyway, the environments you find yourself in don’t really make a huge variety of textures necessary. There’s only so much you can do with rock walls, diamond plate floors and wood beams. Creating subtle variations here just for the sake of variety would probably go unnoticed anyway, and so would be a pointless waste of resources.
The learning curve here might be a tad steeper than most games, mostly due to the physics interaction methodology. There is also the concept of combining items in your inventory to create new items in order to solve a puzzle, though this is pretty simplistic once you know to do so. Items you need to combine to achieve a particular result are explained by way of notes and manuals found scattered about, so there’s not much guesswork involved.
If I have any complaints about the game, it is that it needs a fairly up-to-date system in order to play it in all its glory. It does support many older video cards, and has graphical options you can use to scale back on the effects such as motion blur and light bloom, but for maximum immersion, it is best to play with all settings maxed out. It is at that point where you achieve the most realism and thus feel that you can suspend disbelief that much more. The game also does have a few glitches, mostly of the visual variety, but they are easily overlooked.
The save game system is also quite irritating. I much prefer systems where you can just save whenever you like, whether by hitting the quicksave key or by doing a full save game. Penumbra instead uses both waypoints and artifacts at strategic locations where your game is saved. They are fortunately close enough together that you won’t usually go too long before you have the opportunity to save your progress, so there is that at least – but still, I see no point in contrivances such as this. I would much rather save whenever I want and be able to recall that save whenever I want. The one thing I hate is being in between save points when I am suddenly called to do something. I either have to lose whatever progress I have made since the last save point, or try and put off what I need to do until I can find the next one. The save menu can also be a bit confusing as there are three categories: Auto saves, save points, and favourites. Auto saves are save games generated by waypoints. Save points are save games generated when you touch an artifact. Favourites are where you can store your favourite points in the game so that you can go back to them at some point, even when the auto saves and save points have rolled over. (Each section can save only 10 slots, after which the oldest saved games are deleted)
Those aside however, Penumbra Overture: Episode 1 comes across as a polished, commercial-grade title, despite being designed by a small upstart and published by a similarly small upstart. It’s one of those gems in the rough you probably won’t find on many store shelves, which is a pity, because despite its budget-title price tag, it looks and plays like just about anything coming from the big boys right now, and you could certainly do a hell of a lot worse for your $20.
As the title suggests, this is going to be an episodic game, much like the Half Life 2 quasi-sequels, and frankly, I’m looking forward to the next one.
Penumbra Overture does feature a downloadable demo, but of equal note is the downloadable tech demo that the team showed off in 2006. This demo differs from the actual game in quite a number of ways – it is not Overture, but rather a kind of pre-Overture demonstration of the technology. The basic gameplay is the same, however, and while very short (maybe an hour when you first play, and 10-15 minutes once you know the solutions to all of the puzzles) it does give you a tantalizing taste of what playing Overture is like. It was on the strength of this tech demo alone that I bought Overture, in fact. One note about the tech demo: It ends rather abruptly, just when it seems like it was getting good, and there’s no “game over” message; it just dumps you unceremoniously back to the main menu.
One word of advice: Whether Overture or the tech demo, play it at night, with the lights off (and headphones on if you roll that way, as I do), for maximum creepiness.