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Written by Hayden Dingman, @haydencd
Yes, it took six years for Bloody Disgusting to review Penumbra: Overture. Criminal, right? We know you’re a discerning reader, however, and trust our opinion most. Thus you’ve undoubtedly waited six years with bated breath for us to rate whether the game is good or not.
Is Penumbra: Overture worth playing? The answer is a slightly-qualified “yes.”
Penumbra: Overture, developed by Frictional Games, is a short, somewhat rough-around-the-edges first-person horror game with a heavy focus on stealth and puzzles. The game avoids the usual “monster closets and things chasing you” dynamic, instead relying on atmosphere and sound design to do most of the work. I wouldn’t say the game is always successful, but it’s great to play in the dark with headphones on.
You play as Philip, an everyman professor who recently received a note and a pile of documents from his long-absent, presumed-dead-for-thirty-years father. The note says to absolutely, at all costs burn the enclosed documents and ask no further questions. Like any good son you ignore your father’s advice, find a marked map of Greenland in one of the notes, and charter a boat to that remote location to begin your adventure. Once at the location you get lost in a blizzard, begin to freeze to death, and break into an old mining operation to get warm. A mine that’s more than it seems, to say the least.
If it sounds ridiculous, well, it is. The story of Penumbra: Overture is thin and more than a bit convoluted, conveyed to the player in large part through book excerpts and notes from the mine’s former inhabitants. By the end you’re left with a confused pastiche of hallucinogenic spiders, a secret organization studying some sort of phenomenon below the mines, and a crazy man who calls himself Red.
Red, who you “meet” through an acquired radio around a third of the way through the game, is one part helpful mentor, one part psychopath. He’s also the best part of the story. My favorite line? “I’m sorry…Sometimes my emotions are like a disobedient pet: uncontrollable, and often rolling in shit,” spoken in Red’s weird, potentially Eastern European accent. While the rest of the story is a mess, Red is strongly written, and his promise of “answers” is a strong motivation for the player to keep progressing.
And keep progressing you shall! Deeper and deeper into the mine, creeping past demonic dogs and giant spiders while solving innumerable puzzles. Some of these puzzles are based in the aforementioned notes, while others take advantage of Penumbra’s incredible physics engine.
The game is, at heart, a point-and-click adventure game. However, most of the game’s objects behave as they would in real life, from an interaction standpoint. You don’t just click on a door and watch it open. Instead, you grab the side of the door that opens and pull the mouse back, opening it as much or as little as you’d like. The same goes for drawers, pulling boxes around the environment, or using a rock to break ice off a frozen door (as you do in the opening minutes of the game). In each situation you are controlling the movement of objects in the environment. The system feels smart, intuitive, and gives you a real sense of place.
Unfortunately, the game’s combat is rooted in the same physics system. Yes, Penumbra: Overture has combat if you’re not careful and stealthy. First of all, there’s the problem that combat introduces to all horror games: enemies are no longer inherently scary, but are something the player must defeat. If you die it’s because you did not beat the game’s obstacles, and not necessarily because the enemy is terrifying. The more you die in the game and repeat sections, the less scary that section or monster becomes.
And if you engage in combat in Penumbra: Overture you will die a lot. The game’s physics-based combat is “finicky” when I’m feeling charitable, and “broken” when I’m not. Rather than just, for instance, holding down a button to draw back your weapon and then releasing, Penumbra has you waving the mouse to swing weapons back and forth across the screen. If you’ve ever played any of the old Elder Scrolls games (Arena, Daggerfall) you’ll know the system I’m talking about. At first your utter ineptitude with all manners of weapons is kind of funny. After you die a few times it’s simply frustrating.
The main problem is that your interaction with the camera during combat becomes completely unpredictable. Sometimes you draw back your weapon and the camera locks in place, but your enemy has already moved away from where you aimed. You swing at empty air, the enemy eats your heart, and you reload. Other times you swing and the camera goes more insane than your ol’ buddy Red, leaving you staring at the ceiling in your final moments as the demon dog feasts on your heart again.
Things get even more annoying when you’re attacked by poisonous spiders. Not only are they small and fast (read: incredibly hard to aim at), the spiders can also kill you in just a few seconds. The spiders don’t show up often, but the tell-tale skitter skitter of their legs usually heralds an annoying series of trial-and-error reloads in the future.
Luckily most combat can be bypassed. The spiders are afraid of your flashlight, so just keep it trained on them whenever possible. The dogs patrol in set routes for the most part, and are easily bypassed with stealth. If you do engage in combat, it’s easier to stand on a crate where the enemies can’t reach you and swing Philip’s pickaxe like a madman rather than actually face your foes head-on. Tip-toe through the shadows, stop to hide behind the occasional crate, and you’ll be fine.
Despite its drawbacks, Penumbra: Overture decidedly proves the importance of audio in a horror game. For all the game’s problems—lackluster AI, low-res textures, muddled story, broken combat—it still manages to get in your head, primarily due to the rich sound design. Philip’s panicked breathing, the low growling of demon dogs, the metallic screech when you open a locker, the clang of a toppled fire extinguisher, and the low bass rumble of distant machinery—these sounds aren’t revolutionary, but they help the game make up for lackluster visuals. The score also plays a part, reinforcing the tense atmosphere with growling bass tones and pounding drums. Sometimes it’s a bit melodramatic, since none of the enemies are particularly scary, but on occasion it works wonderfully with the sound design to ratchet up the tension.
Again, Penumbra: Overture is destined to be played in the dark with headphones.
The Final Word: While quite obviously the work of a small developer, and despite a number of flaws, Penumbra: Overture manages to impress primarily because of its moody sound design, loveable psychopath Red, and an impressive physics system. Horror fans who can look past the occasionally ugly visuals (the graphics are bad even for a game from ye olden days of 2007) will find a game that clearly understands the importance of “atmosphere,” and though the story is convoluted and a bit absurd, it still contains a few excellent moments. Just don’t try to go Rambo on those demon dogs. It’s not worth it.
Penumbra: Overture is available on Linux and PC (reviewed).
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