A solid start to a good horror series, despite infuriating combat
The Penumbra series ended up being a very pleasant surprise. It is a cross between a traditional adventure and 1st person survival horror. The combination of gameplay styles feels very refreshing and new, and just as important, the story is captivating too. This first chapter, Overture, is a successful kick-off of the series. If it has one major shortcoming, it's the controls, which can be insanely frustrating at key times. If you are looking for a refreshing take on the adventure genre, and if you are in the mood for some creeps, then you should enjoy this first chapter of the Penumbra story. Hopefully, the controls won't make you pull your hair out first.
Penumbra casts you as Phillip, a man living in England who gets a letter from his dying father, whom he hardly knows. The letter tells you to destroy a book that he has kept in a safety deposit box. Instead of destroying the book, however, you use it to find an abandoned mine underneath the ice in Greenland, where many things have gone horribly wrong. Soon, you encounter a strange friend who helps you through the game. It is a classic setup for a survival horror game, and when it comes to atmosphere, This game ranks with the best in the business. What happened in this mine, and why does your dad want you to destroy all evidence of it? Who is this friend of yours and why does he help you? The story pulls you in immediately and never lets you go.
There isn't much writing in the game, but what is there is top-notch. Instead of overwhelming you with cut scenes or dialog, Overture lets you pick up the story in little pieces like notes or other clues in the environment. It ends with a twist that packs an emotional punch, and it succeeds because of how well the mystery is told. One of Penumbra's best accomplishments is that it has the unconventional charm of an indie title, without the low-budget cheese that typically accompanies such a game. This is a good thing, because without it, the story would fail.
For the five or six hours that it takes to complete this chapter, you never feel safe. The game constantly reinforces how isolated you are, how much danger you are in, or how quickly you could freeze to death outside the mine. Even when there are no enemies around, you never feel entirely secure, as if danger or death is always one step away. One of the main reasons for this feeling of danger is that when enemies do appear, the game does, in fact, become very hard. This is partly because the game is designed as a survival horror experience which forces you to use stealth. It is also partly because of the game's faulty stealth gameplay and broken combat – more on that later.
Adventure games have been somewhat notorious for outdated gameplay and unintuitive puzzles. Penumbra destroys these problems by adopting a first person perspective, high quality textures and lighting, WASD controls, and more intuitive, physics-based puzzles. The game brings a lot of tried and true gameplay mechanics found in games like Half-Life 2 to the tired old adventure genre. If this game were a first-person shooter, it might be considered outdated, but as its own variety of game, it feels like something new. Almost every object in the environment can be picked up, moved, thrown, or manipulated. Many of them are just extras, but some of them are needed to solve problems. You may need to pick up a rock and throw it to break glass. Or, you may need to stack boxes to reach a high point. You can manipulate items by gripping them with the left mouse button and then dragging the mouse. Grip a drawer and pull the mouse back to open it. Grip a valve and move the mouse in a circle to turn it. Move the mouse back and forth to swing a hammer. The puzzles are moderately challenging, and satisfying because they are so intuitive. Both chapters in the series do a great job of making puzzles solveable without spoonfeeding every solution to you. Some of the puzzles are rehashed from first person shooters (once again, like Half-Life 2), but for some reason, this new environment gives them fresh life.
Control problems truly manifest themselves with the game's terrible combat, which is outrageously hard and never fun. Simply swinging a weapon back and forth is ridiculously clunky. Hands down, Penumbra: Overture has the worst combat controls that I have ever experienced. Many areas are patrolled by rabid dogs, and other areas are infested with annoying packs of giant spiders. On the middle difficulty level, you can only take a few hits before you die, and these enemies will always gang up on them if they can. When you try to swing a weapon at them, the game fails to register a swing at least half the time. The control is simply broken, and if you try to engage in a lot of combat, you will fail miserably because of it.
You are supposed to avoid combat by using stealth. This option has mixed results. The game requires backtracking through hub areas numerous times to find items and complete tasks. Having to sneak past the same dog five times gets old fast. This is especially true since stealth isn't very effective. Enemies will walk past you if you are crouched, in the dark, and standing still, and if they haven't noticed you yet. But if they walk into you, or if they see you before you hide, then you either have to run away to the nearest level transition, or you have to fight with the game's awful combat controls. Neither solution is much fun. "Overture" has a lot of rabid dogs to hide from and a lot of annoying spiders to run away from. The problems here really bring the game down. Fortunately, the second chapter, "Penumbra", is a lot better in this area.
Although they are not cutting edge, the visuals in Penumbra's two chapters are mildly impressive, for an adventure title. I would place the graphics about on par with a high end game from 2004. The lighting and texture work is pretty good, but the game doesn't make much use of shaders. The artwork is as adequate, but not spectacular. For the most part, the graphics do a fine job of communicating the dirtiness, the nastiness, and the danger of you environments while telling the story, and that is as much as you can ask. The audio for the game shines while providing much of the atmosphere that you would hope for in a horror game. You constantly hear creaks, wind blowing, maybe a distant growl of a dog, or whispers that sound like they are right next to you. Penumbra is never lacking in atmosphere. It is one of the creepiest games of the past few year/
Penumbra: Overture came out in 2007, and, as promised, the sequel came out a few months later. Overture has some very frustrating moments, but it is definitely worth playing. The unique gameplay, the atmosphere, and the story are enough to make the annoying hide-and-seek sessions with dogs and spiders tolerable. As soon as you finish this episode, you can go out and buy Penumbra: Black Plague, which is even better.