Penumbra Overture




Genre:   Action Adventure

Developer:   Frictional Games

Publisher:    Got Games Entertainment

Released:  May 2007

PC Requirements:   OS: Windows 2000/XP/Vista, 1Ghz CPU, 256MB RAM Memory, 1 GB Free Hard-drive space, ATI Radeon 8500/NVIDIA GeForce 3 video card

Additional Screenshots





by Nickie


I creep along the dark winding tunnels, desperately trying to find a way out of here. There are so many locked doors, and behind them are most certainly supplies I need. It is so dark in here though, and while hiding from the lurking dogs and avoiding the skittering critters, it is so easy to lose my way in the many twists and turns. Why, oh why, did I ever pursue this quest? A letter from my father, dead these thirty years, told me about this place. Foolishly I have come to unravel the past, and in doing so, may lose my life or at least my sanity.

It’s a game. It’s a game. It’s a game. You must keep telling yourself that. Send kudos to the game developers for creating a convincingly spooky and palm sweaty atmosphere. From running through the brightness of the ice blizzard to tumbling down into the mine, from disjointed notes and clues scattered throughout the winding darkness of the tunnels to the ambient sounds of hostile creatures -- all is effective for placing you in a discomfort zone.

If that is all the developers were trying to do in this first episode of a trilogy, then they have succeeded. However, if they meant this to also be fun – for me it wasn’t. I can see raising the heartbeat during a few instances in a game to flesh out the story. Here, though, was a steady diet of action and discomfort. Much of the discomfort comes from the controls. In using them, I felt like I had my strong hand tied behind my back, and I was trying to thread a needle using only my weak hand. (More later about the controls.) 

“I don’t like spiders and snakes,

And that ain’t what it takes

To love me,

Like I want to be loved by you”-Jim Stafford (from the song Spiders and Snakes)

First, this is not an adventure game, and I don’t care who says it is. This is an action adventure game. Or perhaps one could just call it a horror game, which is also fitting. It does have the same feel as the Silent Hill games, and if you are a fan, then you may well find this an enjoyable romp. Or maybe a Crystal Key game turned into its nightmare counterpart. But I can’t call a game an adventure game when half of the time you are running, sneaking, fighting and being attacked by horrific creatures. The screen view is clumsy during combat and you find yourself fighting air. What’s more, your character is so useless that if he LOOKS at said creatures, he becomes faint and the screen blurs. Enough already!

“Heroics are for Hollywood actors and fairy tales”- Penumbra

On the plus side, there are no sliders for those who don’t like them, and the puzzles are quite simple. Most of them consist of finding a way into locked rooms (without becoming something’s meal du jour), discovering notes left by former occupants, and using clues left in the notes to make machines work or to put together various paraphernalia to aid in your escape. It was interesting to read the notes, and of course they did give the game a story line.

Besides the notes, there is scant story to the game, which I admit is a personal peeve of mine. The developers seem to have an interesting story line envisioned, but they don’t follow through (at least in this episode). Who this character really is, and why we should care about dragging him through endless tunnels when he wants to hide his head and refuse to look at what is about to eat him alive -- these things remain a mystery. And yes, you could consider the mine a big maze to explore for most of the game. I did say endless tunnels, and maybe that is not quite accurate. The game is rather short. It took about ten hours to complete. I’m not certain how much of that time involved getting turned around when fighting or hiding and then running in the wrong direction.

I didn’t fail the test, I just found 100 ways to do it wrong”- Benjamin Franklin

You can’t save at will. Your game is automatically saved at certain checkpoints, or when you click on artifacts. Thus, when you continue the game, you are taken back to the checkpoint or artifact. If you are unable to successfully navigate to the next save point, of course you are going to repeat steps. Because of the awkward camera angles, the inability to look at what is attacking you without becoming weaker, and the control scheme, you should expect to die and repeat steps with some regularity. You can hide rather than fight, but this becomes a chore, staring at the game screen for dull moments wondering if you can venture forward. Perhaps it is possible to hide from every single opponent, but it wasn’t possible for me. I detested the necessity of killing dogs (no matter that they were psychotic), and didn’t appreciate the associated gore. What’s more, without writing a spoiler here, there is a later opponent that can kill you in the blink of an eye. Back to the checkpoint, and try, try again!

There are also three difficulty settings, which change the strength of your opponents but not the difficulty of the puzzles.

“I hope that the meager food rations here will keep me alive” - Penumbra

There isn’t much dialog, but for what there is, the quality of the voiceovers is very good. The music and the ambient sound are also very good and fit the game well. The scratching of insect feet and the moaning of the dogs will fray nerves.

The graphics likewise suit the game -- very dark and gloomy. The sense of abandonment is intense. The use of shadows as you use your light source is convincingly real. What shows up in the light is sometimes rather subpar, but I haven’t forgotten that this is a small group of developers working on a limited budget.

“One point of curiosity is some kind of archaeological find, an artifact buried in the earth”- Penumbra

In regard to the aforementioned controls, there is at the same time a cause for congratulation and a melancholy wish that there could have been better implementation.

You play the game from a first person perspective, utilizing the WASD buttons for movement, and various keyboard keys for additional actions. However, an innovative measure has been taken here, in that you use the mouse for specialized and realistic interaction with objects in the game. Quoting from the manual, “Almost all interaction in Penumbra behaves in a physically realistic manner…You grab an object by pressing and holding down (the left mouse button). To let the object go, just release the same button.”

This level of physical realism is something different in a game, and at first it was fun to explore in this manner. Drawers to be opened and closed, items to be picked up and flicked aside, much to be explored in this new way. Indeed if this were an adventure game with an adventure world to explore and no timed or combat elements, this might have remained an appreciated and welcome innovation. But things don’t continue to run smoothly using this type of interaction. A hatch is sticky and time is running out. A hammer can’t be wielded in a physically realistic manner to protect life and limb.  

“Perhaps this mine really is cursed”- Penumbra

All in all, I saw Penumbra: Overture as an intriguing first effort from a small group of developers who are scheduled to make two more episodes to round out the game. I wish that Episode One could stand alone, and that it had some sort of resolution. I wish a lot of things, but mostly I wish that it had not been called an adventure game when it isn’t. As an action adventure game it shows promise and may ultimately succeed. However, due to its many action elements and inherent problems, I can’t recommend it to adventure game players.

Grade: C


May 2007

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