A major leap forward for adventure gaming and survival horror
Survival horror, mainly on consoles, usually takes the form of a third-person action game, with a few minor puzzles. Unless it is Alone in the Dark
, that concept does not work for me. The cinematic perspectives turn the player more into a director, rather than being
the character, and the re-run of locations, the hordes of enemies, and the seemingly redundant puzzles reduce the initial excitement to dull gameplay, constantly reminding the player this is just a game with promised game time to live up to. Guns blazing, the survival element is soon lost and designers have to come up with enemies five time the character's size for a challenge.
"Dramatize, dramatise!" Henry James would shout. Indeed, the power of suspension lies in absence – showing, not telling. Penumbra: Overture
achieves immersion through 4 major elements: a dark, isolated environment fully navigable through a first-person perspective with convincing graphics, realistic physics and challenging puzzles, very few and exceptionally strong enemies constantly leaving the player in fear, and finally, a strong storyline interwoven into the gameplay instead of shown through cut-scenes breaking the flow. To fully enjoy this game, you need to darken the room and turn the volume up, it is all about the atmosphere.
The player controls Philip, a young man who receives a letter from his father, whom he presumed dead. He asks him to destroy his notes, but Philip becomes intrigued, reads the notes, and travels to Greenland to find out what his father has been up to. After a short sequence aboard the ship, which acts a tutorial where the player experiments with the controls and physics, the game starts with a blast as Philip ends up in a snowstorm on a deserted wasteland, with only a few minutes left before he freezes to death. The adrenaline kicks in right away, as you search for a hiding spot in a blindingly furious storm, and when you finally find a safe haven, it turns out to be a worse place than outside.
The entire game takes place in a dark, underground complex. There are only a few light sources, and Philip has to rely on his flashlight (with depletable batteries), a glowing stick and flares. Darkness is not a shade of grey in this game, but truly a wall of pitch black. The game is largely spent exploring the areas and finding ways to proceed. It will take up to an hour into the game to meet the first enemy, but before that, you will have heard noises and screams, read notes about strange creatures, and seen bloody traces and remains.
Unlike Half-Life 2
that pushed the envelope of physics and interaction for the player, but ultimately turned it into a gimmick (let’s hurl some white paint at that zombie!), in Penumbra it becomes more than just a fun distraction. The manipulation of items is elementary to advance in the game. Many first-person shooters lose their sense of immersion by forcing down a level path through the player's throat, regardless of the environment. It is hardly believable a hero is able to bring down an alien as large as an apartment block if he cannot move a tiny crate to make way over a fence. For every action, Frictional has constantly considered how the physics can be involved: opening a drawer has the player move the mouse down, valves are closed with a circle-swing, items can be tossed in the air... it would be perfect for the Wii controls. But there is more to it, some puzzles have the player stack crates, planks and barrels forming a large structure to reach higher areas. Using this approach, there are multiple paths to solve puzzles, and the player is only limited by natural forces. Surprisingly, the puzzles strongly resemble those from classic point-and-click adventure games, with both environment and inventory-based actions. None of them feel illogical or thrown in to add to the game's length, and a lot of them are very clever. Incorporating these classic elements into a dynamic, physics-based environment is innovative for the adventure genre and shows how such gameplay can survive in a graphics-dominated market.
Players often have the tendency to seek comfort in exploring a game’s restrictions and then exploiting that logic to gain the upper hand. I will explain Penumbra's devilish ingenuity in this matter through an example. While exploring the mine, I did not spot a wolf in time, too late too hide, and soon the growling creature was chasing me through the corridors. It is a race you cannot win, and I barely managed to dive into a room, block the door with two wooden crates, and then waited until my heart rate dropped to an acceptable level. In the meantime, the wolf was throwing itself at the door, budging it, but not able to get the crates to move. Delirious with victory, I climbed up the crate and peeped over the door, laughing at its helpless attempts. In any other game, the wolf would either keep endlessly banging at it, or decide to walk away, but before I realized what happened, the continuous blows managed to reduce the door to shreds, and I tumbled down, dazed and confused, soon feeling a set of teeth delving into my shoulders. This was unscripted, and almost 2 minutes had gone by before it got through. Events such as these completely defy the numb and illogical strategies many other games encourage, and keep you on the edge of your seat.
Enemies are few but come in many forms, with a few scripted sequences, but all of them are exceptionally strong. Close combat is hardly ever rewarded as most of the weapons are tools (a hammer, an axe). Instead, you have to use the darkness to your advantage to hide and sneak past creatures, put out light sources, set up traps, and lure enemies away by throwing items into an opposite direction or, for spiders for instance, scaring them with your flashlight. Usually, you will be ducking down in a corner, listening to the sounds in the distance, and watch in agony as a growling pair of yellow eyes moves towards your direction. Philip is able to crouch and stay unnoticed, but cannot face enemies in this position. If you look towards them, Philip will tremble in fear, the screen blurs and he will let out a scream, revealing his position.
Philip is entirely on his own, but during the game he will be in contact with Red, another human in the complex. Much like SHODAN
, he seems to be able to watch your every step. You never know when to trust him, as he balances on the border of insanity, sometimes calmly explaining the way, a moment later raving like a lunatic. You constantly need to trust your own judgement, as Red leads you into dangerous situations, out of madness or to test your loyalty. Next to the eerie ambient music and the many scary sound effects, the voice-acting is also very convincing. Although the environment is dark, there are some very disturbing rooms filled with interactive objects, beams of lights casting soft shadows, and interesting areas such as a bright frozen lake in a cave. The graphics are top-notch and the in-house developed game engine rivals its contemporaries, especially combined with the outstanding design.
The game's highest hurdle is the blend of genres. First-person shooter aficionados will soon become frustrated by the somewhat random combat controls, the feeble weapons, and the stealth elements obstructing their thirst for pace. On the other hand, a certain breed of adventure gamers clings to the genre only because of the story or the intellectual exercise, and consistently steers away from any game where the character can die or where time-limited actions need to be performed. This is a game for classic adventure players who want to test their skills in a new environment with the addition of physics-based puzzles, or for open-minded players not afraid to try something hybrid.
There a few annoying parts in the game with a lot of running back and forth, quite common for the genre, but they only stand out because the other parts of the game never feel tedious. If you decide not to kill the wolves, it will take a lot of time to move around as you constantly need to hide.
The Bottom Line
It is hardly surprising to see innovation originate from the indie gaming community, but Frictional Games, with its limited resources (just check the credits), is able to beat many high-profile developers at their own game. Penumbra: Overture
is worth every cent and offers plenty of gameplay. With two more episodes in store, there is a bright future for these developers. The game takes survival horror to a new level, and throws in a fascinating mix of classic adventure gaming in a game world ruled by realistic physics. It is not without flaws, but bound to become a trailblazer for future titles. There is no other game to challenge your wits and make your heart race as much as this one does.