spoonyone's Penumbra: Overture - Episode 1 (PC) review

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You won't have to wait all season to see what's in this hatch.

Fans of H.P. Lovecraft will find a lot to love with Penumbra Overture, a budget title intended to be the first chapter in an ongoing series of stealth-horror games. The setup is a familiar one: your absentee father sends you a “by the time you read this, I'll be dead” letter with instructions to go to a secret safe deposit box to destroy a collection of documents left in your name. Of course, curiosity wins out over these posthumous pleas and you follow these clues to a mysterious hatch out in the middle of Nowhere, Greenland. Naturally, you do this without sensibly equipping yourself with cold-weather gear and rations, nor do you deem it necessary to tell anyone where you've gone in case the worst should happen. And it does. The tunnel collapses behind you and you become trapped.

Look, do you want to play a survival horror game or not? Play along!

Any further spoilers would be unforgivable, but suffice it to say you spend the rest of the time crawling in the dark, investigating the secrets of this forgotten compound, trying to find another way out, and finding something other to eat than beef jerky left over from the Johnson administration. Untold horrors lurk in the shadows just waiting to feast on your brains, of course, and being the bookish sort the best way to deal with them is to sneak past them. Combat is achieved through swinging gestures with the mouse, and it all works about as well as swinging a whiffle bat underwater. Fighting is generally a last resort and you'll usually die unless you get an early knockdown and keep wailing on your enemies' skulls with a mining pick, Shaun-of-the-Dead style until they stop twitching.

Never fear, sneaking isn't nearly as tedious as you might imagine and is nicely handled by allowing your character's eyes to adjust to the darkness instead of forcing you to strain your own vision, cranking up the gamma, or forgoing stealth completely and walking around with a light.

The real strength of Penumbra is its sense of verisimilitude. The facility and everything in it looks functional and lived-in, as if several iterations of occupants each took their turn here and left their individual marks on the place. The puzzles are all practical and feel like logical extensions of the place instead of tacked-on fetch quests, and that's rare for any game.

It's still quite short, but I've paid much more for far fewer hours of entertainment. The ending visual alone will almost guarantee that you'll be waiting with nervous anticipation for Chapter Two.

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