Penumbra: Overture Episode 1
First posted on 21 March 2008. Last updated on 07 September 2009.
Episodic gaming has seen both success and failure in the adventure genre. While Telltale Games' new Sam & Max is an example of episodic games that has risen to popularity, Ransom Interactive's The Forgotten is also an example of a failed series that has fallen quickly to obscurity after only the first episode. Now, newcomer Frictional Games takes aim at episodic gaming by releasing Penumbra: Overture Episode 1 that is supposedly the first game of a planned series. At its core, the game is best described as an action adventure in the survival horror subgenre but with a twist. This game is not for the faint of heart. The frantic actions and the creepy atmosphere are constant bombardments on the senses. Fellow adventurers, be warned!
The story begins in February 2000. You play Philip who, shortly after the death of his mother, receives a letter from his long lost father, Howard. The letter is filled with cryptic words, leaving only a clue to Howard's whereabouts somewhere in an uninhabited region in North Greenland. Tempting fate, Philip decides to travel aboard to find his missing father. There, he stumbles into a blizzard and barely survives only by finding shelter in an old deserted underground mine. As Philip explores around to find an escape, he learns that he is not alone trapped beneath the frozen wasteland. His only companion (human or otherwise) is Red, who somehow speaks to Philip through a radio found in the mine. From Red, Philip discovers that all the minors have died of horrible deaths back in the 1970s from a mysterious disaster. Yet, many questions remain unanswered in his mind. Who is Red? Where is his father? What has led to the mine disaster years ago? In the end, Philip's answers can only come with a great sacrifice which he must make before his terrifying escape.
The Penumbra series has had an interesting development history. Originally, the developer has made an earlier version of this game as part of a tech demo to showcase the company's own HPL game engine. According to the developer, HPL is a 3D physics engine developed in house that is based on the free but close source platform called Newton Game Dynamics. When the demo starts gaining mass media attention, Frictional Games is able to secure a publisher and expand the development of the demo into a full commercial game. Faced with a limited budget, Frictional Games wisely decides to develop the game in episodic format, now renamed Penumbra: Overture, so that each episode may be quickly released for retail sale.
Despite what the developer may claim otherwise, Penumbra: Overture is a first-person action adventure that plays more like a first-person shooter (FPS) in the style of Half-Life. This owes to the fact that the game makes heavy use of its engine's advanced physics system to bring a new level of realism in the player's interaction within the game that is unparalleled by other games in the adventure genre. Specifically, objects in the environment can be manipulated in a physically realistic manner by mouse actions that mimic real physical moves instead of simple point and click. In particular, doors can only be swung open by dragging the mouse (while holding the left mouse button) in an arc, drawers can be slid open by dragging the mouse backward, and wheels can be turned by dragging the mouse to move in a circle. Objects can be lifted, moved, and dropped with properties of real physics (such as center of gravity, fulcrum point). This means it is much harder to shut a door if it is pushed closer to the hinge than the edge (since there is less torque generated by the former). Multiple objects can also interact with each other with properties of real physics. For example, as an experiment (which unfortunately is not a puzzle solution that the developer has anticipated), I try to prop up a metal door against a wall with a leaking steam pipe in order to gain passage across a narrowed corridor that is blocked by the steam. I quickly discover that the high pressure of the steam will push back the door so the wall cannot be sealed. Even when I try to support the door with a crate behind it, the pressure from the steam is high enough so that both the crate and the door are pushed backward! It is only after I jam up the extra space between the crate and the opposite wall with wooden planks, such that the corridor is now completely blocked up across while still leaving room to be climbed over, that the door can be held up without being pushed away. The incorporation of real physics such as in this puzzle adds an extra layer to the puzzle solving, beyond that of simply moving or stacking 3D crates, for example, that are in other adventure games. Likewise, during combat, a weapon such as a hammer or pick axe must be swung from side to side by dragging the mouse left to right or right to left in a slashing motion, akin to the control used in combat in Dragon Lore years earlier.
The graphics in Penumbra: Overture Episode 1 is decent, but the game engine that powers it is clunky at times. All the environments in the game are fully rendered in 3D in real time. Texture mapping, dynamic lightning, and pixel shading are all used to good effects. The use of motion blur to animate rapid motion is particularly effective. Not only it gives another layer of realism during quiet exploration, it also greatly heightens the dramatic effect of a chase scene. These advanced graphics, however, can be manually turned on and off to tweak the game's performance. The game supports resolutions up to 1280x1024. Akin to a FPS, both the keyboard and the mouse are used for game control. Movement is controlled by the keyboard, while roaming is done using the mouse. To manipulate or examine an object, the object must first be centered on screen (a patch adds the option to turn on a crosshair), after which a context sensitive icon (such as a hand or an eye) appears to indicate possible actions. An inventory is available to store collected items. Items can be combined within or selected out of the inventory to use on the environment (such as a key on a door). The same weapons from the inventory which can be armed for combat are also used to solve some puzzles (such as clearing an obstruction). A notebook is available to store all the loose pages of notes that are found scattered around the mine through which the core back-story of the game is told. It also stores a to do list that clearly identifies the goals that are needed to be achieved by the player at any given time during the game. By default, items of interest flash momentarily on screen when they are first discovered. In addition, clues are automatically updated in the form of personal notes in the notebook. Both of these features can be turned off to increase the level of difficulty of the game.
The audio is superb and is primarily responsible (more than the graphics) for the eerie ambience of this game. Playing this game alone and in the dark, with the sounds turned up, can be truly terrifying (in a good sense)! The haunted music and ambient sound effects from a distance work well to create a sense of impending doom that is relentless throughout the game. By contrast, the voice acting in this game is a mixed bag. The narrator's voiceover in the introduction is just awful. On the other hand, Red's voiceover is well acted, conveying at the same time a sense of madness, sarcasm, and desperation that are all parts of Red's character. Strangely (perhaps a sign of the game's limited budget), none of the commentary Philip makes to himself are accompanied by voiceover (only written texts are displayed). However, since the narrator's voiceover is so poorly done, this is probably a blessing in disguise!
Even for an action adventure game, Penumbra: Overture Episode 1 is unapologetically heavy in its action play. This imbalance can be jarring for adventure game purists. Nonetheless, the game has a fair share of traditional inventory-based puzzles. These puzzles are fairly simple, and their solutions rarely involve more a single step. Clues are readily found on notes scattered around the mine. Likewise, the physics-based puzzles are quite straightforward; an exception is the room with a broken ladder wherein access to a tunnel from the ceiling is not at all obvious. There are levers to be pulled, buttons to be pushed, and wheels to be turned. There is even a sound based puzzle. There are also plenty of simple mini mazes. By contrast, the action elements in this game are extremely challenging. Enemies are difficult to kill, even on the lowest difficulty setting (the game offers 3 difficulty levels: Easy, Normal, and Hard). Contrary to what the developer may claim that this is just an incentive to encourage stealth play, the game is simply too unforgiving for stealth (including setting traps or creating a diversion) to work reliably. Enemies are few; the most commons are mutant dogs and spiders. In general, I am disappointed by the clumsy enemy AI (Artificial Intelligence) in this game, albeit I am also pleasantly surprised by the same AI that steers the dogs to retreat from my attack and then to growl to call for reinforcements of other dogs from far away. The game has a few interactive chase scenes (involving a giant rock worm) that are disguised timed action sequences. You can die in many ways in this game, such as by falling, fighting, or being blown up (be careful with the explosives!). A health meter in the inventory shows the current health status. You can regain partial health by ingesting painkillers (perhaps masking your health status is a more appropriate description) found scattered around as collectible items.
Penumbra: Overture Episode 1 is a game in which its greatest asset is also its greatest hindrance when trying to deliver a pleasurable gaming experience. The combat system, which uses the innovative physics engine to mimic real physical moves, is nearly unusable. Mouse movements are slow to respond and lag severely behind so that it is impossible to time correctly when striking an enemy. Instant death ensures after only a few missed hits. This is made worse by the need to locate the scarce numbers of fixed artifacts (lantern) in order to save the game (in other words, you cannot save the game at any time). The game also limits game save slots to only 10 (not counting autosaves), and older saves are automatically overwritten by newer saves unless they are manually added as favorites. This annoying save system is reminiscent of the old styled console FPS. Moreover, the 3D physics engine, while innovative, is unpolished. There are glaring graphic and collision glitches. Frames rates in certain scenes, such as the Lake Utuqao, are atrocious. Some of the physics are also in error. An example from early in the game is a metal shelf that can be pulled over so that it is left hanging forward in mid midair rather than falling flat to the ground as in real life. Objects cannot be manipulated to rotate with any precision so that they can be placed in a particular orientation. This makes certain actions, such as barricading yourself away from an enemy with objects against a door, very difficult. The large numbers of mini mazes, in the form of underground tunnels or corridors, are also annoying. Understandably, all these elements are added to the game to intensify the emotional gaming experience for the player. Unfortunately, their execution turns the gaming experience into an exercise in frustration instead.
Undoubtedly, the greatest achievement of Penumbra: Overture Episode 1 is its unadulterated creepy ambience. It does so by relying heavily on psychological terror (which is almost always better) rather than visual gore. For me, the experience playing this game rivals that of Amber: Journeys Beyond or Scratches that are among the best horror graphical adventure games I have ever played. The visual effects are subtle but work well to enhance the atmosphere of the game. The fluorescent green light cast by the glowstick is especially eerie. Other terror comes from its stealth plays and time chases. Combats can be avoided (though this is difficult to do realistically) by cleverly hiding behind boxes or crates or corners of walls and moving slowly while crouched down. When in stealth, the screen color is tainted in blue (to supposedly indicate that you are well hidden) and the screen image is warped. The warping then becomes violent as an enemy draws closer and your character begins to get spooked. In several scenes, the player is thrust without warning into an elaborate chase sequence by a giant monster. As the game progresses on, the story builds up to a climactic encounter with Red in the end. Needless to say, the game ends in a nail biting mini cliffhanger that is said to be continued in the next episode.
Overall, Penumbra: Overture Episode 1 is a game with much potential in the making. Despite being a budget title, it is innovative and truly delivers a creepy horror gaming experience. The game succeeds admirably in transforming a clichéd dungeon crawl into a gut wrenching dungeon bash. Yet, true to its episodic nature, the game feels unfinished and somewhat unpolished. Adventure purists will also find the action elements in this game too jarring (this otherwise short game has taken me over 20 hours to finish because of its action elements). Amid of its imperfections, however, this game is also a vision of a possible future for the adventure genre. Thus, it is a game worthy of a play without hesitation, if for not for its technological merit then for its revolutionary vision. A bright future now awaits for the series. In the meantime, I will ready myself with a glowstick for my next adventure!