Trouble Thinking

May 7, 2010

Humble Indie Game Review: Penumbra: Overture: Episode 1

Filed under: Game Reviews — Tags: , , , , — Durandal @ 10:56 am

As you’ve been made aware of by an extremely handsome man, the Humble Indie Bundle is a package of independently produced games that you pay whatever you feel like for, at least for the next 4 days. I just finished one of the games, Penumbra Overture: Episode 1

Penumbra Overture: Episode 1 is first and foremost a game with a very silly title. But it is also more than that. The game begins on a very Lovecraftian note: the narrator, Phillip, begs the player to not make the same mistake he did, and to “end this” and “vague words something bad not going to tell you what though because hoo boy it’s so bad that even a description will give you a heart attack”. You then step into the shoes of the narrator, on a quest to do exactly what it is he told you was a terrible idea.

The opening familarizes you with the interesting and surprisingly intuitive control scheme. In Penumbra, you move things with you hands. Well, your hand. A little “open hand” or “gripping hand” icon hovers over objects instead of a cross-hair. In order to say, open a desk drawer, you click on the drawer and simply pull back. The nice part about this interface is that it works for absolutely everything in the exact same way. Opening a door? Grab handle, pull. Moving a box? Grab and pull, or if it’s too heavy get on the other side and push forward. The puzzles the game presents can frequently be solved very elegantly by simply rearranging available objects into realistically makeshift solutions. It’s a wonderfully simple system that allows for a feeling of closeness with things in the world that’s very engaging. This is probably the only game I’ve ever nudged a door open in, fearful of what might lurk on the other side.

Which brings us to the other important gameplay element of Penumbra: pants-wetting fear. From the first moment you exit the tutorial, it’s obvious things aren’t going to go well for Phillip. You don’t so much “enter” the abandoned mine where much of the game takes place as “almost die falling into it”.  You then begin an increasingly desperate quest for some kind of exit using the incredibly poor array of tools Phillip has on him, as well as anything you can scrounge on the way. The thing is, you never scrounge up a machine gun, and Phillip is a terrified and barely alive young academic. So when the monsters start stalking about, your only real option is to hide in the dark. Even looking directly at one of the beasts that haunts the old mine for too long will give Phillip such a fit that he gives away his position. Combat in Penumbra is a final resort, as basically anything can kill you faster than you can muster a final flip-off of fate.

It’s not just the lack of combat options that makes things scary, it’s the darkness. Playing with the appropriate monitor settings (lots of contrast, low brightness), lights cast tiny pools and your flares barely reach the walls. Your very, very few flares. Helpfully, the game does allow you to have “dark vision”, a blue-tinged hazy view of your immediate surroundings that kicks in when you’ve been still for a bit. What this means in practice is a lot of frantic blind scrambles followed by short pauses to reorient. Much of the time you don’t even see the enemies, you just hear a scrambling of tiny legs or a low growl that seems to fill the walls no matter where you turn. Even when there’s nothing in your immediate surroundings trying to kill you, searching storerooms for necessary materials in the feeble light of an old emergency bulb is a nerve-wracking experience.

The sound design contributes fantastically as well. The spectacularly done creaking, chittering, growling, and whispering that goes on around you manages to make a simple walk down a hallway into a rollercoaster ride of terror as you attempt to pinpoint what exactly is going to leap around the corner.

The only real issue I had with the game, aside from some of the non-physics puzzles being slightly obtuse (something that plagues any adventure game), is that death removed the sense of fear. The game has a reasonably simple system of checkpoints and savepoints that updates frequently enough that it’s rarely too inconvenient to die. What this means in practice is that all of the tension and horror drains out of the experience approximately the second time you die in a given area. Having confronted the enemy (and soundly lost), you think “oh… maybe I can just run past it to the door?” Knowing the map and knowing the enemy positions removes all the dripping terror and replaces it with a rather tedious series of sprinting challenges. Another issue is that playing the game on anything but very low brightness and gamma removes the darkness element, which significantly reduces the impact of the set pieces.

Even if you play the game with a map in hand and the monitor turned to Dwarf Star, I’d recommend at least checking this out. The carefully laid out set pieces and interesting story revealed through a patchwork of text material from different time periods make for an entertaining and atmospheric short story. But playing this with the lights out, your headphones on, and the monitor dimmed to the point of blackness makes this less “entertaining” than “embarrassingly frightening”.

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