Penumbra: Overture began its life not as a full game, but as a technical demo for a new 3D engine. But in creating this technical demo, the folks at Frictional Games realized that they had something good on their hands. With a good backstory, a solid environment, and a penchant for suspense, Frictional Games has the start of something good here.
Gameplay and Story
Penumbra is a first-person combination of adventure, horror, and suspense. Its overall feel is somewhere between Call of Cthulhu and Indigo Prophecy in that it has a foreboding sense of doom and you just know that something terrible is waiting to be revealed as you pull back the layers of the story. Your character's mother has recently died and shortly after, you receive a letter from your father. This wouldn't seem all that strange except that your character's father is also dead. The letter leads your character to a frigid wasteland in Greenland and from there your adventure begins into the heart of an abandoned mine. Or maybe it's not entirely abandoned? I'm not going to say much more about the story here because frankly, it would ruin some surprises.
The gameplay feels fairly "raw" and the atmosphere and immersion of Penumbra are well served by this fact. There isn't any UI to speak of aside from an inventory screen which stays hidden until you need it. The rest of the time is spent with little more in your hands than a flashlight which never seems to have enough power. And when your flashlight runs out of batteries, you're left with an emergency glow-stick and flares. These two options provide just enough light to see what you're doing and bathe everything in a creepy green or red light. Like I said, these guys have a knack for suspense.
There are many puzzles and obstacles that involve manipulation of objects and your surroundings and this is handled well with a hands-on feeling. In other words, if you need to open a drawer to look inside, you grip the drawer handle and pull back slowly revealing its contents. Using your hands in the environment contributes to the immersive nature of Penumbra in a way that I didn't expect. Imagine walking with your failing flashlight in one hand and slowly pushing a creaky wooden door open with another. So much of the horror in Penumbra is wondering what will be behind the next door.
Two aspects of Penumbra that do not exactly shine for me are the interaction with objects and combat system. For the most part picking up, pushing, pulling, and manipulating objects are intuitive. But every now and then, manipulating the inventory and interacting with objects feels a bit sluggish. On the one hand, this can be frustrating but on the other hand, it helps to build the fear factor when things are getting dangerous. Combat in Penumbra is for the most part best avoided, and the game acknowledges this fact. Still when combat is unavoidable, trying to swing a weapon (hammer, pick axe, etc.) is somewhat frustrating as the camera angle follows your swing from side to side and sometimes you'll find yourself bested by a spider that really only needed to be hit twice. But again, knowing that you're not much of a fighter helps to build the suspense and horror of the game so it's not a total loss.
Penumbra's visuals are excellent and they make great use of effects like dynamic shadows, motion blur, bloom and normal mapping. Also worth mentioning are the physics which add significantly to the realism and feeling of interactive freedom. I played the game on two different rigs, one with a Radeon 9800 Pro and one with a GeForce 7600 GT and greater graphical horsepower definitely provides a more immersive experience. Overall, the lighting made the biggest impact for me in the visuals for Penumbra.
Sound & Music
Immersive and suspenseful games can be made or broken by audio choices and Penumbra made all the right moves. Voiceover is well done and the sound effects are both haunting and high quality. The music ranges from ambient and suspenseful to downright terrifying when there's danger nearby. The easy option would have been to overdo the audio in Penumbra, but the conservative choices made by the developers at Frictional Games worked out just right.
Penumbra: Overture will surely strike a chord with fans of adventure and horror games. And even if you're not crazy about those genres, I'd still suggest downloading the demo and giving it a try. Penumbra: Overture is the first episode in the series and will undoubtedly leave players itching for the next installment.