Follow a trail of clues left by your supposedly dead father.
PC Release: March 30, 2007
By Ian Coppock
My fascination with horror games borders on the obscene. It’s hard to explain, but I get a really primal rush out of navigating a dangerous environment, armed only with my wits and the mouse sensitivity jacked up all the way so I can turn around and flee at a moment’s notice. It perplexes my friends and has been called a disease, but screw it, I love horror games. Amnesia: The Dark Descent is my favorite horror game and a penultimate title of the genre, so I decided to check the back catalog of Amnesia‘s creators, Frictional Games, for more content. To sum up how most horror games begin… I found something.
Penumbra: Overture was the very first game made by Frictional, and it provides both a fascinating account of the studio’s experiments with horror mechanics and a solid game in its own right.
Set in modern times, the story follows Philip, a young physicist who receives a letter from his father right after his mother’s funeral. Funny thing is that his father supposedly died 30 years ago. Philip follows the letter’s instructions and retrieves a stash of documents from his father’s old bank. Rather than burn them, as the letter begs him to, Philip traces their origin to an unmarked location somewhere in uninhabited northern Greenland. He sets out to find the father he never knew, and what all the letter’s commotion is about.
Philip stumbles through the arctic wasteland and reaches the map’s destination, an old mine, and takes shelter inside rather than die from hypothermia. Letters and physical evidence indicate that the mine played setting for some horrible calamity, and you begin to hear strange noises around and below you.
And you see things.
It takes little time at all for Philip to realize that he is not alone. The entire mine is infested with mutated creatures, twisted into evil, dangerous forms by some unknown force. As with Amnesia, you have no means of self-defense. Your only recourse with encountering a monster is to run from it, hide from it, or distract it. Philip can hide in the shadows to elude monsters, but if they spot you, don’t hope for a clean getaway.
Despite being hounded by giant spiders and dogs with glowing marmalade for eyes (among other creatures), Philip picks up the trail once more. All the while, I was beset by gnawing questions. Why did Philip’s dad fake his death? What’s his connection with the hell that is this mine and its monstrous inhabitants? Perhaps most importantly, where does this tunnel lead?
Penumbra‘s mysterious narrative is quite gripping. Similar to Amnesia, you’re thrust into a dangerous environment with very little context and a single, simple goal, woven into a series of physics puzzles and hair-raising encounters. The narrative gains strength by being presented as nothing more than what it is: a silent, lonely journey into the earth, feeling at the pitch darkness and the nebulous tragedies within the mine.
Philip is a silent protagonist, but he is not alone in the mine. You’ll encounter a few other characters comprising a riot of agendas and personalities. You’re accompanied throughout most of the game via radio by Red, an insane miner who’s been trapped in these tunnels for decades. His disparate and insane monologues were some of the more interesting writing I’ve seen in a horror game. He’ll throw riddles at you hinting at the world’s end and questioning the line between sanity and insanity.
Penumbra‘s gameplay is a mostly fine-tuned suite of mechanics built for stealth and speed. Philip can crouch in the shadows to become effectively invisible, and he can also lean around corners to see monsters before they see him. You’ll find medicine and other supplies but rarely, further prompting you to not be a hero. Philip also has a flashlight, but its batteries run down quickly and the light makes you easy to spot. Flares and glowsticks can help mitigate dead flashlights, and provide distractions.
What amazed me about Penumbra: Overture is that the game actually features combat. Philip can swing a hammer or pickaxe at an incoming foe, but it will only stun them for a few seconds. This feature is encompassed in Penumbra‘s less high-quality game mechanic. To use tools, you’re expected to click and drag in order to simulate swinging or hammering. The mechanic is clunky, to say the least. I spent much of the game having it faulted by a swinging camera or not gripping the mouse at the proper time. This, in turn, reduces combat to a series of lucky swings. Don’t get your hopes up, you’re still essentially defenseless in Penumbra.
Aside from avoiding and sneaking around monsters, Penumbra‘s most important game element is puzzles. To advance into the mine, Philip will have to fix machinery, open doors and build tools. Most of these puzzles are refreshingly intuitive (yes, I’m still a bit butthurt over the puzzles in Half-Life: Blue Shift). Frictional is good at remembering that the simplest solution is usually the best one, and so you won’t spend hours groping in the dark for obscure tools or playing guessing games with one of several methods forward.
Occasionally you’ll find instruction manuals for machinery, but they’re densely written. This is the most trivial complaint I’ve ever indulged, but instruction manuals written like real instruction manuals made one or two puzzles a yawnfest. Constantly checking between one and thirty steps to fix a motor isn’t exactly my idea of fun. I’m not saying don’t put in challenging puzzles, just streamline the process a bit.
The game throws some amazing thrills your way. Horror junkies will relish avoiding the mutated dogs that stalk the halls, but you’ll also be expected to crawl through basements and tunnels infested with giant spiders, gasping for air and trying not to get devoured by swarms of the damn things.
Some encounters in this game were more heart-racing and terrifying than anything I’ve seen since Amnesia itself.
Penumbra‘s visuals are a little dated and rough around the edges, but this is an indie game, and one that’s nearly six years old at that. Even though the textures and objects are a bit low-res, the environments are of an impressive scale and their details are arranged in a manner quite conducive to shivers. Maps will help you keep track of the mine’s maze-like environments, and the assets are interesting to look at both for their variety of color and looking quite aged by time and neglect. For the best effect, I recommend playing this game alone in the middle of the night with headphones in.
I don’t have a problem, okay?! I can quit whenever I want!
I give Penumbra: Overture a heartfelt recommendation. Though it has a few clunky mechanics and tiresome sequences, it is an overall solid horror game. Fans of Amnesia will fall in love with this game’s pacing and narrative, both similar in structure to those of that game. It was a great start for Frictional Games, and any gamer who calls himself or herself a horror fan needs this in their collection. For what you get, this game’s $10 price tag on Steam is a steal.
You can buy Penumbra: Overture here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.