"Like all good nightmares, Philip's begins with something all too real - his mother's death. The days following the funeral are characterized by nothing, save for an incessant feeling of abandonment. Until, that is, he receives a letter from a dead man."
And so begins the fascinating and compelling trilogy of Penumbra: Overture, a game that promises to deliver a story enticing enough to make you invest in a trio of games, a feat not for the faint hearted. As we have already witnessed, 'Sin: Episodes' was a planned trilogy that flitted down the can after just one installment. So what does Penumbra have to offer gamers that will keep them on tender hooks and wanting more?
The game starts with an introduction explaining why the character you play is embarking on this "journey of secrets", a journey to try and unravel what happened to his late Father. With his Mother having passed away and the arrival of a letter from a dead man the main character decides to throw caution to the wind and embark on a quest to unearth the truth.
Penumbra: Overture is set in Greenland. After traveling aboard a boat to the location indicated on a map in the previously mentioned letter, you stumble out into the cold wilderness in search of 'something'. Almost ready to collapse from the cold you find a hatch; can this be what you have been looking for? Will there be answers inside? Anything to get out of this damned cold...
One of Penumbra's main features is its revolutionary use of physics. Now the act of opening a door is not simply down to pressing a button; you have to grab and push/pull the door open like you would in real life. This feature is so good that if you grab a door near its hinges it will not open very easily at all, however change to the handle side and it will glide open effortlessly. Likewise open a drawer and the items inside slide towards you as you would expect. Even picking up objects and throwing them feels very real, heavy metallic items lump to the floor with a satisfyingly realistic thud. I would go as far to say that the developers have even outdone the Source engine in the realistic physics department (not the case for the character models though, they seem to flop to the ground with predictable pre-defined animations).
Within the game itself you come across countless diaries and documents that help to slowly unfold portions of the story, some sections of the game even have you using these 'clues' in some very cunning ways. Indeed the adventure side of the game has been very well thought out, giving the gamer a good chance to exercise their gray matter. Yet even with this ingenuity there still seems to be the usual find locked door, find key later, return to locked door to progress cycle which can become rather repetitive and frustrating.
Which leads me onto another (major) gripe that I had with the game, the amazingly frustrating combat system. First of all let me point out that the designers have stated that this game is not about combat (evidently so, when you face it) and as such the player should avoid combat at all costs. Yet inevitably you will face a combat situation at some point, and it is almost equally inevitable that you will be left reloading from the last checkpoint. This frustrated me furiously, I want to have the choice of dispatching my foe if I really have to, yet the outcome is nearly always death if you even attempt it. The real problem with the combat is that it is so slow and sluggish. The enemies that you face are very fast and you only have a moment to respond with a swing of the mouse, however I had a very hard time even landing a hit, let alone killing the damned beastie with successive thrusts. Looking at the official forums this point does seem to be one of quite a bit of debate, some people like the challenge and having to sneak, others (like myself) find it stupendously frustrating, so much so that after five successive deaths the only thing I wanted to do was shut down the game.
Graphically the game is very impressive on a high-end system, the atmosphere is well set with dark, moody lighting and great effects, indeed most of the game is played in dankly lit environments but they do look very good. The player is equipped with a torch and you also find glow sticks to help you with your vision in the dark tunnels. The sounds that accompany you are very immersive too; sometimes they can be quite chilling... creaks from floorboards, heavy breathing from behind a locked door, unsettling stuff indeed. The hero of the game seems to be pretty scared most of the time, even the sight of the enemy can make you turn nauseous, stare at the enemy too long and you may even give away your location, which is not a good idea. The music kicks in to let you know that you have to be stealthy to avoid an encounter, this then revs up further if said creature spots you, normally indicating a good time to retreat.
It may be worth mentioning that Penumbra has been created by a small four-man team on a very limited budget, maybe that's part of the reason why they have tried to make a trilogy of this game. Some of you may remember that there is a free Penumbra game available via download; this was essentially a tech demo, albeit a very sophisticated one. The team got the chance after the tech demo to create the game you are reading about now, and for such a small team they have done a stellar job. Yes there may be flaws in the story and clunky enemy models but the team has done a great job in a market that is increasingly becoming for the 'big boys' only. A ray of hope then that more talent like this might come out of the woodwork to offer up innovation to the gaming community.
In closing, Penumbra is entering a risky world of online content delivery that may not work out. Half-Life 2: Episode One has managed to do it successfully, but it already had a fan-base established while Penumbra goes into this line without said fan-base and has to keep people hooked. Does it succeed? Well that is for each individual gamer to decide. Suffice to say that this game is definitely worth checking out, and because it is part of a trilogy it won't set you back an arm and a leg. More over, if you really get into the story you can rest assured (if all goes well) that a second and third part will follow close behind. Penumbra is a good adventure game that tries new things to varying degrees of success, for example; bashing open boxes by 'swinging' your pickaxe is great but trying to 'swing' your pickaxe into an enemy is supremely annoying (and deadly to you).
Where Penumbra really wins through however is in its storytelling and puzzle solving. I would like to have seen a lot more of this as it's the vagueness and lack of information that truly keeps you gripped to the plot throughout; as you share in the main protagonist's complete bewilderment. I also found the tasks to be very entertaining as they provide a bit more of a brain workout than other recent adventure games have in the past, and at least it's all logical too.
Overall, a promising...