Written by  :  St. Martyne (3655)
Written on  :  Jul 21, 2007
Platform  :  Windows
Rating  :  3.57 Stars3.57 Stars3.57 Stars3.57 Stars3.57 Stars

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The most unusual adventure of recent time, but is it enough?

The Good

Finally after long years of waiting the adventure genre had moved forward. The year 2006 showed a lot of innovation together with a rediscovery of a hilarious narrative of a comedy adventure in form of such games as Fahrenheit, Scratches, Dreamfall, Sam & Max Season One, Al Emmo, Scratches and so on. The trend of innovation continues in 2007 by the will of Frictional Games, an independent developer together with their horror-adventure game Penumbra: Overture – Episode 1. With a powerful physics engine and a complete real-time 3D environment Frictional Games has managed to succeed where it seems that everybody else failed, in creating a constant suspense atmosphere that can’t be ruined by either illogical puzzles (as in other horror adventures) or by over-reliance on cheap effects (as in other horror actions). But unfortunately for the Penumbra, all that glitters isn’t always gold. Check out the not so Good section for details.

Of course the main driving force behind the title is physics. The game that has a library file called “Newton.dll” in its folder convincingly proves that harnessing the computing power of a gamer’s CPU may yield not only spectacular results for an action gaming but provide a sophisticated and intelligent gameplay of an adventure as well. Much like in Fahrenheit the player has to perform a certain pattern of movements with his mouse to do simple actions which in any another game may be accomplished by simply pushing a button. However unlike Fahrenheit, Penumbra applies all the known laws of Newtonian (all three of them) physics to these actions. So opening a door will be a much easier enterprise, if you get hold of it as far away from the hinges as you can. Otherwise expect a lot of effort to be put in moving your USB rodent. The same goes for turning valves, pulling levers, opening drawers, moving barrels, throwing motors and so on. With Penumbra all these everyday actions (at least for a gamer’s life) are performed with a fresh and interesting approach.

Thank God Frictional Games has not applied the same system to the combat part as well. Although it still has certain issues, the action in Penumbra is a far cry of that unyielding monstrosity as seen in Trespasser. Thank God, because the action takes a bigger role in the gameplay of Penumbra, as one might expect. Fighting off zombie dogs could be a much more a nuisance than it is in its current state. But still, although I always support the inclusion of action sequences in my adventures I would recommend you to set the difficulty level to easy at the beginning of the game. You won’t lose any bit of a challenge, because the main challenge of Penumbra lies in its puzzles, but will save yourself a lot of unnecessary encounters with the game’s awkward combat system. In terms of story and presentation the game is a devoted follower of System Shock. The masterpiece by Looking Glass studios and Irrational games is constant source of inspiration for the developers. Penumbra features the same nonstop gameplay in which all the plot twists are revealed not in separate cutscenes, but during the game itself (Yes, you zealous Half-Life fans, System Shock did it first!). You will constantly find the notes of the previous (and a few current) inhabitants of the underground complex you’re exploring, much like in fashion of audio logs as seen in original System Shock. Even the greatest villain of all time, Shodan, has got her respective counterpart in the first episode of Penumbra. A delusional yet mysterious and obviously intelligent person Red will guide you, in his own cryptic way, through the obstacles, you will be constantly encountering. Expect some serious and convincing voice-acting on his part. Unfortunately all the other parts of its inspirational source Penumbra got wrong. Which brings me to the…

The Bad

So what’s wrong with this game? First of all it is level design. The guys from Frictional Games obviously put a lot of effort in the locations that require a lot of exploring on players part. But what about all the others? Running through the constant featureless corridors can hardly be a worthwhile time spending for a seasoned adventurer. Now System Shock did that right. All the corridors and rooms connected represented a unified whole. In Penumbra you almost feel that those aspects of level design were created by different people. Tell me why do we have to suffer through these tedious, long and tiresome corridors every time we want to get somewhere? It seems that Frictional Games has a lot to work upon until the release of the second episode.

Another miss is all those notes scattered throughout the game. The problem with them is that they’re so unrelated to the game and to each other that considering their size it hardly worth the bother to read them through. Again, System Shock got that right. In SS, and especially in SS2 all the logs were personal, intimate I might say. There were a countless number of subplots going on through these messages. Each new log was like a birthday present. You were always wondering what happened to this particular person and what he was going through. Penumbra does neither of that. Except a thrilling diary of a spider-eating madman, all that you have to read is dry news clippings, and workers’ log reports. Hardly an entertaining or intimate stuff if you ask me.

And the last and most serious of Penumbra crimes is that it doesn’t live up to its advertisement. All of the inventory based puzzles has nothing to do with physics whatsoever. Double-click on an item, click on the hotspot and here you are! No physics implied, classic adventure gaming in its purest form. All the physics go to opening the doors, pulling levers and pushing rocks. I really expected from Penumbra a much more serious level of interaction than just pulling, pushing and turning stuff.

The Bottom Line

So what do we have? Cool physics system, advanced graphics, thrilling atmosphere and excellent voice-acting against poor level design, limited interaction and overabundance of unrelated text. It’s truly a tough choice. But given a game indie status and that it’s an episodic title, I think we should give Frictional Games a chance to improve. If truth be told they’ve managed to deliver a decent and honest game. So I have to say that you support the game now, otherwise you’ll miss one of the most unique gaming experience on this (PC) shore of the gaming market and deny the most promising game series of recent time its right for existence. And it would be a real shame if you do so.