Penumbra: Overture Episode One


Reviewed by Carl Lyon
Video games are usually a pretty easy topic for review. Take a game, compare it and contrast it to whatever the big dog is in its particular subgenre, praise it or bury it, and move on. While this particular formula works wonders with easy-to-pigeonhole games (first-person shooters draw comparison to Halo, real-time strategy matches up to Command and Conquer, etc.), Frictional Games? peculiar Penumbra: Overture presents an interesting conundrum: how does one follow the traditional comparative review format when the game is a wholly unique, fresh experience?

Answer: you can?t. Instead, one has to look at the game as a standalone entity. Sure, there are certain elements of the game that may seem familiar, but Penumbra mishmashes so many fragments of previous games together into a Frankenstein?s monster of intelligent design. Simply put, it has to stand on its own two legs, for better or for worse.

Penumbra: Overture Episode One (now that?s a mouthful) starts off unassumingly enough. A narrated series of Ken Burns-flavored stills introduces us to Philip Buchanan, a college professor who receives a supposedly posthumous letter from his father, who had abandoned Philip and his mother before Philip was born. The letter directs Philip to a safe-deposit box whose contents Philip is supposed to destroy. Unfortunately for Philip, human curiosity takes over, and he uses the notes inside the box to find a hidden mine in Greenland where he hopes to find answers.

From this point, we are thrust into the game, and the player realizes just how fresh the whole thing is. Despite its first-person perspective (using a rather handsome and feature-rich 3D engine) Penumbra foregoes traditional combat-based action, instead relying on a series of physics-based puzzles to challenge Philip in his quest for the truth. The interface is remarkably intuitive and natural once one gets past the initial (although very shallow) learning curve. Desk drawers are opened by clicking their handles with the mouse cursor and dragging outwards. Boxes are lifted and stacked to form makeshift stools. Barrels are tipped and rolled to new locations. The surprisingly natural physics engine, coupled with the minimalist approach to the interface, allows the player to focus on the meat of the game.

I know what you?re thinking: ?That?s all well and good, Carl, but is it scary?? You better believe it! While it may not offer the cheap jump-out-of-your-seat scares of Resident Evil or the disturbing undertones of the Silent Hill series, Penumbra doesn?t disappoint in the fright department. Despite its slow, cerebral approach to gameplay, Penumbra nonetheless offers up a near-constant feeling of dread in the player, fueled by the almost unbearable feeling of isolation in its murky mineshafts and punctuated by moments of pants-soiling terror. Philip, in his journeys throughout the mines, encounters a handful of strange creatures, and it?s in these moments that the freedom of the game design truly shines.

For example, in one of Philip?s few encounters with the game?s twisted menagerie, there can be several choices that the player can make. In my playthrough, I found no less than three possible solutions to one encounter with the malformed, rotting dogs that patrol the mine. One can stick to the shadows and sneak past, careful not to look too long at the beast lest they be driven into a panic, in which your character actually starts to hyperventilate, alerting the dog to your presence. The second solution, and certainly not the wisest, is to engage the dog in combat, using one of the few destructive tools in the game (in this case, a pickaxe) to beat the mutt to death. The third option (and certainly the most clever and rewarding) is to use some beef jerky to lure the dog in front of an operational steam pipe, and then scald it to death with the simple tug of a lever. All three solutions are completely logical and, to some degree, based in reality. This proves to be remarkably satisfying to the player as they are forced to think less within the context of a game, and more within the context of reality. If you think it would work in the real world, chances are it?ll work in Penumbra. Again, this allows the player to feel less like they?re playing a game, and become more involved in Philip?s story and the dark tale of the mine itself. This story, told through radio chatter, found notes, and scattered journal entries, calls to mind the cosmic works of Lovecraft. Without giving too much away, by the end of the game?s 8+ hours you?ll have experienced a lunatic named Red, giant flesh-eating annelids, the journal of a spider-eating madman, the spiders he didn?t devour, and alien lanterns that show the past (as well as offer the game?s few save points). It?s certainly one of those stories that need to be experienced to be understood, as it manages to walk the razor-fine line between traditional horror, and the uncomfortable knowledge that there?s something completely outside of our understanding going on here.

However, despite all of these high marks, Penumbra is not without its share of faults, particularly its bugs. On more than one occasion, the dogs? models clipped through the floor as they recovered from their beatings, and in one case, one made it completely through the floor altogether, occasionally greeting me with a snapping muzzle poking up through the floorboards like a land shark. A few puzzles here and there were also a bit finicky, seeming to work only when actions were completed in a specific sequence, leading to a few cases of backtracking when you realize that you?ve got to retry things in a different order, which can lead to problems if you haven?t tapped one of the aforementioned lanterns or encountered one of the game?s sparse checkpoints in a while.

These are all minor quibbles, thankfully, against a very well-done whole. From its richly-written beginning cinematic all the way through its cliffhanger ending (hey, it is only Episode One), Penumbra practically drips with style and originality. Turn off the lights, put on some headphones, and enjoy twenty bucks well spent.
For more information visit the official game website.