I hope you people are happy. I just finally finished powering through Penumbra: Overture and the fucking game has a bunch of spiders in it. As I mentioned in the past, I don’t like spiders at all. I contemplated quitting, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that for a third write-up in a row. In hindsight, while dealing with the spiders sucked, they weren’t that bad or as pervasive as I’d feared, but I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.
Penumbra: Overture is the first game is what was planned to be a trilogy. Upon the announcement of the second game, Penumbra: Black Plague, the developers, Frictional Games, stated that it would be the last game in the series. They did apparently also put out an expansion (Penumbra: Requiem), which I presume could be called the third game, but that’s not the way they represented it.
The story of this first game is that of a character who begins the game with his mother having just died. He receives a cryptic letter from his supposedly dead father (shades of Silent Hill) which leads him to a bank safe-deposit box and eventually to Greenland to find out what had happened to his father. You find a hatch in the snow, and end up falling inside. From there, you obviously have to find your way through an abandoned mining facility. Along the way, all kinds of creepy creatures and weird situations occur before you finally make your way to the cliffhanger ending (and unsurprisingly don’t find out what happened to your father).
It is a first-person survival horror game, although, to me, it plays quite a bit like an old point-and-click adventure in 3D with a physics engine. It emphasizes stealth as well, because the character is so weak and melee combat in first-person is always difficult. You use the mouse to move the pointer and interact with objects (shades of Myst) and keyboard to move around, switch weapons, light sources, etc. Melee combat is performed by holding down the left mouse button and swinging the mouse back and forth to swing a weapon or push it forward to do a poke, although the game discourages fighting.
Enemies (spiders, weird dogs and others) respond to both light and sound, and if you look directly at an enemy, your character will start to freak out. The screen will start shaking, you’ll start panting, and combat will become more awkward. If you crouch without a light source enabled, you will become better hidden after a short time, but any movement will disturb your status and will require another short interval before it returns. The problem with this is that it can get really tedious waiting for an opening to make your way past the enemies, especially when you can’t actually watch them to make sure that the passage is clear. For the most part, I ended up having to fight every dog I encountered while running past all the spiders since they were such a pain in the ass to fight. Anything you fight requires multiple hits to take down and would be invulnerable to damage for the few seconds it would take to animate falling over and getting back up.
So, combat is pretty bad, what about the puzzles? As I stated previously, felt like an old-school point-and-click adventure:
- Find a door, get told you don’t have enough strength to open it, wander about until you find a crowbar, then go back and combine the crowbar with the door to open it.
- Find a journal entry that explains how to fire up a generator, but it has no power. Find a battery, stick it in, but now you have to decipher the labels to figure out what the start-up sequence is.
The good thing about Penumbra in this case is that they generally provide you with clues as to how to proceed, although some of them can be pretty obtuse. However, there’s nothing in the way of Gabriel Knight 3 mustache puzzles. Most clues come in written form from journals, notes, and manuals that you find. Part-way through the game, you find a radio and a mysterious character named Red starts talking to you. His insane ramblings provide additional clues and backstory (shades of Bioshock) as well as atmosphere.
Ultimately, I found Penumbra: Overture to be okay at best. The tedium of stealth and combat coupled with all the various backtracking through large fairly plain environments (lots of corridors at right angles with a bit of set-dressing here and there). Atmospherically, it engenders some interest with the mystery of what went on in the remote facility, but that’s also pretty by-the-numbers as you find journals from miners complaining of security changes, weird occurrences, and so on. In a few days, I’ll be back to let you know if Frictional’s latest effort is any more interesting for me or not.
- Released: 2007
- System: Mac/PC
- Publisher: Frictional Games/Paradox Interactive