A gripping, fighteningly brilliant game
Penumbra: Overture, on the face of it, seems to be an indie game, indeed I bought it in the Indie Bundle, and to a large extent it is, but at the same time it has the feel of a much larger, bigger production game. The game overall is brilliant, but two main parts of it make it what it is, the story and atmosphere. The story is relatively simple to explain without giving away too many secrets; you're an explorer of sorts who is following the trail of your dead father into the wastes of Greenland. You come across what appears to be an abandoned mining complex, and seeking shelter from a raging blizzard, you take shelter in there. As you explore the mine, however, it becomes apparent that something far more mysterious and sinister is going on. The story itself is gripping as hell, and it'll make you read every scrap of paper you find (left by various doomed miners, scientists and explorers) and search incessantly for the next clue to the questions and mysteries raised. But what really makes Penumbra: Overture shine is its atmosphere. Created through the visuals and especially the brilliant audio; ambient noise of scratches, whispers and moans that constantly make you wonder whether or not that was the wind or someone creeping up behind you. The atmosphere created will scare you and haunt you, but ultimately make you love and hate this game. From the chattering of the spider's feet to the sharp breaths of a man behind a locked door who won't answer you, or the soft mist and smoke from the ice or flames, to the crushing rock that presses around you, this game will tear you into it.
The game's main gameplay mechanic is the physics. You use the pointer as a virtual hand, lifting and pulling objects in the environment to overcome puzzles and obstacles. The virtual hand also works somewhat like the Heavy Rain control scheme, as you also open doors, cupboards and drawers by 'pulling' with the mouse. This mechanic is actually quite smooth, and I never encountered a single issue with it, with the exception of the fact that you can't use it when wielding a weapon, which makes everything slightly more scary as you're unprepared for any sudden attacks. The puzzles you encounter are quite varied, and some are quite difficult, but generally require the use of the physics system.
But the game does have its faults, and some are quite serious. I'll mention the graphics first, now as it is a pseudo-indie game, they're not a strong point, but I'm not one who is really into perfect graphics, so they're forgivable if they serve their purpose, and as stated above, by God do they serve their purpose. Onto the more serious issues, first of all is the inventory system. It's frustrating and clumsy to use, in addition to not pausing the game while you're using it, even when reading the various notes in the game, the game does not pause. But by far the most serious of Penumbra's problems is the combat. In fighting the various wildlife that stalk the mine, which are mostly wolves and spiders, the player uses various melee tools they've picked up, or dynamite, and in some cases traps appear in later levels. But when it gets down to fighting, it's at best a 50% chance of death, mainly down to the way that your view goes with your swing of pick axe or hammer, meaning that if you miss the wolf on its first leap at you, it hits you for one of the three times before you die, and is also behind you, allowing it to jump at you again before you can turn around to face it, leaving you with 2/3s of your health gone and a wolf with full health (who is now probably behind you again). This makes combat, when it does occur, a panicky and desperate affair, so much so it's best avoided with the game's stealth mechanic, which is literally crouch, hold still and don't look at the approaching enemy until you think it's walked away. If anything however, the chaotic and borderline failure of the combat actually adds to the scariness of the game. An oncoming wolf is a million times more terrifying when you know it'll probably kill you.
Penumbra: Overture is a brilliant game with a gripping story and terrifying atmosphere that soaks you up. The physics based gameplay is both fun and engaging, while never seeming 'Gamie'. The game is only let down by its downright cumbersome inventory system, frustrating combat and occasionally poor graphics. I would strongly recommend to anyone who enjoys the horror genre or physics based adventure games.