Penumbra: Overture Review

Penumbra: Overture is the first in an anticipated trilogy of games developed by Frictional Games -- a small, independent team of developers. It was preceded by a demo freely available over the Internet, in which the developers showcased some of their talents, and set the stage for the trilogy to come. Penumbra: Overture places you in the character of Philip, who receives a letter from his father -- although his father is dead. The introductory video takes you through Philip's discovery of a strange book belonging to his father, and his eventual travel to Greenland to track down further clues to his father's death. Stranded in Greenland in a blinding snowstorm, Philip encounters a metal grating in the snow leading into a shadowy world underground, and the actual game play begins.

It is difficult to classify Penumbra as purely an adventure game. At the same time, while there is a certain amount of physical combat, neither is it a "shooter." Rather, the game combines elements of several genres: adventure, puzzle, FPS. As you play the character of Philip, you have very little information to go on, and so the game requires quite a bit of exploring. In the course of exploring, you are called upon to solve a number of puzzles -- both inventory puzzles as well as some minor logic puzzles. And there are several cases where hair-trigger combat responses are necessary to overcome enemies whose only goal is to eliminate Philip.

Without question, the most unique aspect of the game -- and the one which the player encounters right from the start -- is the physics engine that has been designed and implemented within Penumbra. Throughout virtually the entire game, most objects can be manipulated based on the laws of Newtonian physics. Rather than simply clicking on a door to open it, you now "grab" the door and pull (or push) it. The door swings exactly as it would had you performed the same operation in the real world. Objects can be picked up and moved around; and when they are dropped, they fall, bounce, and tumble just as they would in real life. Drawers pull out only as far as you pull them out -- and just as quickly or slowly. Objects can interact with other objects, with lifelike responses.

There is also a down side to this wonderful physics engine -- and that is the amount of time (and practice) required to become comfortable and fluent with it. Picking up a hammer and swinging it in the real world involves many different forces, all acting in multiple planes. Trying to mimic those actions with 2D controls is quite a feat. (Almost all object manipulation is done with the mouse, by clicking and/or dragging.) And when it comes to times of combat -- whether against rabid dogs, spiders, worms, or other creatures -- timing is of the essence. Often speed is as crucial as accuracy -- and in the world of Penumbra, those two are almost diametrically opposed.

Movement throughout the game is through a fairly standard WASD keypad interface. But it is still difficult to navigate Philip through the game, due not only to the lack of a good point-and-click interface, but also to the inability to see clearly where you are going. And anything beyond simply moving around is a two-handed operation -- working with both the WASD keypad, as well as the mouse, simultaneously. While the navigation keys can be redefined (to use the arrow keys, for example -- something that is more intuitive, and certainly more right-handed), the drawback is that this makes for an almost impossible combination, when trying to use the navigation keys and the mouse at the same time.

The game is played almost entirely underground -- through a maze of tunnels and underground passages and caverns. As a result, the scenes are very dark. In fact, after the first scene or two, it is impossible to see anything without some additional light, and the game provides only a few meager tools to assist in this regard. You will obtain a flashlight... only to find out that the batteries will wear out very quickly if the flashlight is used continually. There are also glow sticks that provide an eerie bluish-green tinge to each scene. But regardless of any additional light, the scenes remain quite dark, and it is often difficult to make out details. (I would highly recommend playing the game in a completely dark room, with the monitor brightness turned up as high as possible -- or, if available, the gamma correction adjusted appropriately.)

The scenes themselves are in keeping with a first-try game, independently-developed by a team of four. While there is some degree of detail, the vast majority of scenes are very nondescript (one cavern looks just like another), and the darkness of the setting serves only to hide this limitation. (The screen shots in the sidebar are some of the brighter examples, using the flashlight and glow stick.)

Another problem is the story itself. While the introductory video does, to some extent, set the stage for the game, there is really no goal, no objective, no real facts on the information Philip has received from his father. As the game progresses, you will encounter documents and notes that provide clues that contribute to the story. However, there is little more development of the plot itself. It is possible that the other two stories in the planned trilogy will develop the story further; but the initial offering of Penumbra falls short in this respect.

There is no Save option in Penumbra -- at least, not one that is accessible at every point in the game. There are places throughout the game where you can create "save points," but only at these pre-defined locations, and not just anywhere at the player's discretion. The game's rating is "M" (Mature), predominantly for the blood and violence, but also for language (most of which I considered unnecessary).

Throughout the game, there is also the repeated switch between game genres -- from a quiet adventure-style exploring through the caverns, to a sudden switch to a combat-mode encounter with an enemy that will terminate the game with Philip's death in mere seconds if he doesn't act quickly. And that brings out another shortcoming with the game interface. Getting to the inventory is a bit convoluted; it cannot be done quickly. (Thankfully, some shortcut keys can be defined to pull up specific inventory items. But this is up to the player.) So when danger attacks, most often the initial result will be Philip's death, the end of the game, and a re-loading of a previous game, where the player can now "prepare" for an attack that will no longer come as such a surprise. This is not quite as entertaining as a game that is designed specifically as a FPS, where tools and weapons are more quickly accessible. Furthermore, as already mentioned, manipulating objects in Penumbra -- while quite exciting at first, due to the unique physics engine of the game -- is quite a chore, and more deaths result from the inability to strike at an enemy quickly and simply. Fortunately, not all enemies must be faced head-on and defeated. The game also provides the ability to "sneak" past enemies in certain circumstances -- which is often the recommended approach.

The bottom line is that Penumbra presents some unique gaming aspects, a wonderful physics engine, and a good combination of exploring and fighting. At the same time, it lacks in plot and ease of navigation, the graphics leave room for improvement, and the amount of game play is quite short. However, this is still a good offering from a four-person development team, and we can hope that the second and third games in the trilogy will exhibit lessons learned from this initial game.

-- Frank Nicodem