Penumbra: Overture — Episode 1 Review

Never in my life has my enjoyment of a game depended so much on the environment in which it is played. If you’re playing Penumbra: Overture in the ideal atmosphere, in the dark with the volume blasting so hard you’re scared the squishy substance between your head is going to ooze right out (play the game, you’ll understand) and with the right gamma settings (.5 worked for me), it will offer you an experience that even your strong uncle Teddy will find to be a little jarring, unless you figure out a few key "oversights." If you don’t play it in this type of an atmosphere…well, have you seen a horror movie during the middle of the day? It’s a little like that…

It’s Februrary, 2000 and your mother has just passed away. To top it off, your father, who has been dead for 30 years, sends you a package and before long you are on a boat headed for Greenland in search of who knows what. When you finally arrive in Greenland (brace yourself for this shocker) not everything is right and you start hearing voices. Compound that with the fact that there are half-dead dogs running around, man-eating spiders the size of your aunt’s overfed cat, a fairly helpless protagonist, and a general reliance on user-oriented light sources and you have yourself a pretty typical game, on paper.

According to the official site: "Originally Penumbra was developed as a technology demonstration on innovative game design to immerse the player into a game. As this demonstration was extremely successful the game is now developed into a full commercial game, released as episodes." So what kind of a tech demo was it? Well, the best way to say it is it’s a mix between Doom and Half-Life 2. You hold your light source in your left hand — you can choose between a flashlight (careful, you can run out of batteries), a glow stick that never runs out of light but illuminates the proximity instead of a longer and more direct area like the flashlight, or a flare — and you interact with the environment and/or use your weapon with your right hand. Almost every object has weight and the player can interact with it in some way, whether it’s useful or not. If you walk into a room and you can’t find the key for the next area, take a look inside a drawer. It’s probably in there.

Sounds typical, right? Wrong. Unlike most games where a menu will pop-up after you interact with a drawer, in this game you actually pull the drawer open yourself. If you can’t get to a ledge, you might have to construct your own mini stepladder of Pisa using barrels and boxes. Call it what you will, but this added level of interactivity only adds to the realism and phenomenal atmosphere of the game. Oh, did I mention there is no HUD? If you get hurt your screen turns red. Typical? You bet. This game isn’t so much about a revolution in gameplay, but a matter of fine-tuning existing elements in a rarely used genre. This isn’t a first-person shooter. This isn’t even survival-horror. This is survival-creepy.

For the most part, the combat is pretty awful. You have no crosshairs (taken out for realism?) so you usually only have a general idea of where your blow is going to land. I don’t know if this was intentional on Frictional Games’ part to make people shy away from combat, but it made me develop my own combat tactics. (Ok, now if you want to play the game the way the developers (probably) intended, I wouldn’t read the rest of this paragraph. Seriously, you’ve been warned.) When a combat situation against the dogs was nigh inevitable, I would quickly run to a box, sit on top of it, and begin to hack away at them when they got close. The dogs didn’t seem to mind. They kept getting knocked down, getting back up, running away, and coming back for more. Sounds silly doesn’t it? It is. Also, the dogs patrol in a simple geometric pattern that is easily recognizable. Aren’t these things supposed to be vicious, bloodthirsty scavengers? Then why do they act like programmed robots? Or is that a plot twist…

If you skipped that last part you can start reading again. I felt a little dirty using that tactic as Frictional developed a refreshing twist on the stealth element. If you remain still while crouched and in a dark area your screen will turn blue as your eyes become more accustomed to the dark. The tradeoff is that if you stare at an enemy for too long you will become frightened and the enemy will be alerted to your presence. Before I developed my own method for defeating the dogs there were a few occasions where I didn’t know if a dog was walking towards me to eat me or if it was just passing by. It’s a simple and very effective game mechanic that I hope they delve more into in the next episode.

Despite the fact that I had such a bad time with the combat system, the presentation pulls the whole thing together for an experience all its own. Remember, only play this game in the dark with the sound up — otherwise don’t bother.


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Author: Kyle Stallock View all posts by

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