Penumbra Overture Retrospective

By: Paul Millen

Published: May 26, 2010 Posted in: PC Gaming Nonsense

The Humble Indie Bundle was great, wasn’t it?  God love those indie devs with their kind hearts and courageous business models, they fully deserve me buying and owning all those games for very little money.  Including, excitingly, Penumbra Overture.

Released in 2007, Penumbra’s been scuttling through the shadows of my attention for a while now, with its novel first-person physics control system and general scariness, so I’ve been waiting for an excuse to try it out, keening horror imp that I am.  Thoughts and dark screen-grabs abound.

If ever a game needed ‘Oooh, nearly’ quoted on its box, it’s Penumbra Overture.  Whenever it threatens to take adventure / survival-horror in a new and interesting direction, it does something to undermine it.  ‘Undermine.’  Hah, I crack me up.  For you see Penumbra’s set in a mine.  A dark, dark mine.  Which goes some way to establishing a very interesting and novel device: the need for light.  So much of the game is shrouded in near-impenetrable darkness that a torch or flare are necessary companions, providing meagre but comforting illumination.  They’ll light your way, but torches exhaust batteries and flares are in limited supply; the incidental lighting you occasionally stumble across in the form of lamps or generator powered lighting grids are welcome relief indeed.

Robbing the player of their sight is something few games have really toyed with beyond the occasional gimmicky section to alter the pace or allow a quick fiddle with night vision goggles or something.  To actually have an entire game during which you are fighting through the shadows, some of which contain unknown horrors, would have been terrifying brilliance.  Unfortunately, Penumbra chickens out a bit, providing a glow-stick with infinite power and a pretty unnecessary ‘night vision’ that’s activated by crouching and staying still to help the player along and negate any threat of ever being left in total darkness.

Penumbra Pics - WTF

There are eyes – growling eyes.  But what is it?!

It’s a shame cus the fear of the unseen and unknown is such a powerful device.  Penumbra toys with it at the beginning: when approaching a floor hatch something massive starts hammering on it from the other side before disappearing and restoring eerie silence.  ‘Fuck’ thought I, ‘I’m going to have to go through there’.  Early crawls in darkness, desperate not to alert whatever the hell it is that’s growling nearby to your presences by flashing a torch are genuinely bloody scary – that is until you discover they’re just crappy mutant dogs, rendered utterly harmless if you stand on a crate.  Oooh, nearly.  Much better to have some kind of ethereal monster, but Penumbra insists, with its enemies and bizarre plot, on sticking to the tangible at the cost of atmosphere.

Penumbra Pics - dog

Oh, just this crappy stick legged doggy thing.  Eat hammer doggy thing.

Now, that funky interface – it’s a great idea bringing physics-based puzzle solving into the first-person survival-horror adventure domain, but does it work?  Well, yes it does, but it doesn’t work terribly hard.  While it’s certainly fun to wrench containers open, fling stuff about or slowly inch through doors for a wary peak, all with a held left-click and appropriate mouse movements (like the gravity gun, basically), there were no puzzles that allowed me to put this system to clever use.

In an early area I spent about ten minutes fashioning an intricate box-and-plank lever system in order to remove an obstructive set of shelves.  When this failed I realised that the solution was to simply yank the shelves over.  Later, progress was hindered once again when I came face-to-face with gaming’s greatest adversary: a broken steam pipe.  Rather than anything clever, this was simply avoided by crawling through a vent.  I was fully prepared to be ingenious but the game wouldn’t let me; only perhaps a single puzzle required a modicum of creative thought and even then an adequately supervised toddler group could solve it in under a minute.

Penumbra Pics - flares

Penumbra has a FLARE for atmospheric lighting.  Ahaha.

Penumbra still has some exceptional moments; delicious aspects almost untempered by gutless design decisions.  We all enjoy a good chase, don’t we?  Penumbra has two, both bowel wrenchingly scary, skin-of-your-teeth dashes from certain death requiring quick thinking and rapid use of the interface.  I think the last chase that had me this panicked was the hotel bit in Call of Cthulhu when I actually shouted feebly ‘just… just fuck off’ at the baddies on the screen, such was my terror.

It possesses excellent flourishes of the macabre as well.  Reading scraps of diary entries introduces characters once trapped within the mine, exhibiting their slowly decaying sanity; one room describes with several subtle, and one not so subtle, clues a man who decided to perform a rather extreme auto-amputation.

Penumbra Pics - room

The radio room where you find the radio, and your dear insane friend.

Then there’s Red.  About half way through, you salvage a radio receiver which soon springs to life with the voice of Red, your only human contact, a fellow prisoner of the mine desperate for your help.  Like Bioshock’s Atlas but insanerer, he is at once your friend and guide and, schizophrenic with loneliness, your hysterical tormentor.  In a way, Penumbra Overture is the sad story of Red’s prolonged isolation, it’s just a shame there are so many ancillary plot details that obscure this.

Penumbra Overture’s still inventive three years after release, if a little timid in executing what it sets out to do.  I’d trade my elbows for something exploring the same lines but with more of a supernatural / psychological bent.  Maybe the sequels have?  If you’ve played them, do drop a comment in the comment box.

Paul Millen