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Penumbra: Overture, Episode 1 - Official Review by Schadenfreude 07/29/2007, 10:04pm PDT
So, Penumbra: Overture is finally out there for the buy, and I've just finished it.

Like those of you that tried the demo might already know, the first thing that comes to mind when playing Penumbra is: "This would probably make for a great Wii game" --Every time you open a door or turn a valve or whatever, you have to mimic the movement you would do with your hands using the mouse. For the most part, the system works fairly good. Then again, the same applies when you swing a hammer or a pickaxe as a weapon, and this doesn't work that good. More like it's a really shitty combat interface. However, the game is heavily stealth-based, and what little combat there is belongs to the hit-and-run variety (sort of like Clock Tower, from what I gather) (I never played those, though, only read about them). There are only three enemies: Some spiders (and boy does this rule! I can't believe noone thought of spiders as enemies before!) you do need to fight but you'll only find them like two or three times in the entire game, some wolves which are what you're seeing the most, and a third indestructible enemy you only can run away from. So the wolves are basically your main enemy. They're highly trained military-type wolves, and they only move following certain predefined patrols, so you need to learn them and sneak by using crates and stuff as cover. In case you're discovered, you can hit them but you they won't die, you just stun them long enough to get the hell away and look for cover.

Halfway into the game you do get a way to dispose of them, in case you're tired of all the sneaking. Because you have to do a lot of sneaking. Fortunately, our man can crawl pretty fast, so it's not that annoying. In fact, crawling around hiding from the wolves is the main thing that builds the atmosphere of the game. At least during the early sections. You need to not only stay behind cover while the wolves patrol, but also avoid staring for too long at them, or else the protagonist will freak out a la Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth. Because they're monster wolves. Or something. The stealth system borrows heavily from that of Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher's Bay, down to the blue tint in the screen to indicate you're not visible. If you stay put well hidden for long enough, this stealth-vision becomes a full fledged night vision, and you get to see almost perfectly everything around you.

One interesting thing is that you have several ways to illuminate dark areas: You can throw a flare, you can use a flashlight that eats up batteries really fast, you can use a glow-stick that lasts forever but can only light a limited radius, or you can make your way crouched and take advantage of the aforementioned stealth-vision.

There are some physics-based puzzles and some regular use-blah-with-blah adventure puzzles. Either I'm getting really brilliant at this shit, or the puzzles are not very challenging. The much-hyped physics are put to work more than I expected they would. Sort of. The thing is, you can move almost every single object on sight, and you can use most of them as throwing weapons to slow down enemies. Unfortunately, they didn't apply the physics to the puzzles as much as they could have (actually, as they should have). The item puzzles are solved just by putting an object over the other as in any other point n' click adventure; it would've been cool, for example, having to spill liquids moving the mouse the proper way and such. Also, there are two or three regular platform-like puzzles. In a first-person perspective game. Again. These include a room in which you need to walk over the floor tiles following a certain pattern and -you guessed it- a couple of jumping puzzles. Fuck damn, when are these people gonna understand that this shit DOES NOT WORK with a first-person perspective? The part with the deadly tiles annoyed me so much I actually put the game aside for a couple of months, I was so pissed. But then I came back because it deserved a second chance.

The story uses the very Lovecraftian gimmick of telling the tale as a flashback from the perspective of a protagonist that knows he's on the brink of oblivion, regretting the decisions that led him to wherever it is he ended up in, and tries to leave a sort of testimony/warning for those that follow; and while there are a lot of documents that little by little start uncovering several plot points, there are no major revelations to be spoken of. In a very Lovecraftian fashion too, the game tries to make you believe it has a brilliant story by not telling you a story at all. Once you're done, it's like you've played through a gigantic intro for the true story.

In fact, this first episode ends up being about meeting what seems to be the only other living person inside the mines, a guy who's been trapped down there for over 10 years and is clearly losing his mind, breaking into rambling semi-poetic discourses every now and then. This guy works as a SHODAN of sorts that constantly speaks to you through a radio giving you tips and whatnot, and he ends up being a pretty colorful character. In fact, he was the best part of the game for me. I thought it was pretty clever how they made that the closest thing to a friend I had down there was the faceless voice of a clearly deranged man. It was like I was looking forward to meet him just to have a friendly face down there, but at the same time --did I? :O I mean, what kind of what would I be meeting? :O To me, that device gave the entire game a whole new level and nicely enhanced the overall sense of desperation and hoplessness.

Finally, the game looks really good. The graphics are not exactly next-gen but they look better than a lot of AAA titles out there, and there are some neat special effects at work, like some sort of motion blur whenever you turn your head too fast and such.

So, to sum it up: For an indie game, Penumbra: Overture is a terrific piece of work. It looks more than pretty, the control system is sort of original and works just fine, you feel overpowered only because you're meant to, the sneaking is painless and even enjoyable (at least during the early parts, because it does get old eventually), and the storytelling is captivating enough (some even call it brilliant, I don't know if I'd go that far). And the physics engine give gameplay a rather unique feeling, although it's unfortunately underused, especially in the puzzles.

Oh, and the ending is brilliant.
Penumbra: Overture, Episode 1 - Official Review by Schadenfreude 07/29/2007, 10:04pm PDT
    Re: Penumbra: Overture, Episode 1 - Official Review by Cannibal Dave 08/19/2007, 10:52pm PDT
    So Episode 3 just came out. How does the trilogy as a whole stand up? NT by Mischief Mourner 09/19/2008, 8:20pm PDT
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