Penumbra: Overture ReviewJoe Shaffer
It's been suggested before that the events that transpire in horror stories are the result of poor choices. That's precisely how Penumbra: Overture, the first installment of a three-part episodic horror game, begins. You take the role of an intrepid college professor from the UK, Phillip, who's received a letter from his allegedly dead father (we've down this avenue before...) instructing him to destroy the contents of a certain safety deposit box. Our hero gathers the items contained within it, most of which consist of literature written in an indecipherable language, and decides not to heed his father's words. Rather, curiosity gets the better of him and sets him on a mission to translate the cryptic passages. Although he and a fellow professor are unable to crack the code, they are able to gather from the texts that the book is linked to a particular location in the middle of Greenland. Phillip then decides to set sail and discover the secrets hidden at those coordinates.
Okay, let's think about this now: Greenland. Ironically, it's not as green as the name advertizes. In fact, our hero has to travel through a vast snow field to get to his desired location. I don't know about you, but curiosity be damned. Were I in his shoes, I would have given up on the quest the instant I read "Greenland." Now comes the real kicker: in the middle of this snowy Greenlandic field, he discovers an entrance to an abandoned mine.
I know the game is trying to make a point about how dangerous curiosity can be, but is anyone in the world--even a passionate professor--really that devoted to sating their curiosity? Is anyone really willing enough to plunge into the unknown depths--with a high possibility of death, injury or isolation--just so they can know what some dusty old book says? Apparently, the answer is yes.
Phillip penetrates the frozen chamber and.... BAM! Cave in, he's trapped. See? That's what curiosity and careless bravery get you. Instead of bettering society or enjoying a short-lived moment of fame, our hero can only expect to be listed as "dead in absentia." Little does he realize that there are plenty of beings in the darkness below that can aid him to that end...
The carved out corridors Phillip explores in Overture are every bit as tenebrous and convoluted as they should be. Early on, just the act of walking builds tension. Regardless of whether you pad or creep through the hallways, you always feel hungry eyes upon you or attentive ears listening. You'll hear noises and sometimes check your back to see nothing. Even when you access one of the game's many rooms to investigate clues or nab helpful tools, the tension doesn't let up. The best part is that if you haven't done your research on the game, then you won't know what's stalking you. It's the lack of knowledge that toys with you the most early on.
Before long, you'll hear ungodly ululations originating from the darkest depths. You'll also squeeze into a cramped crawlspace and see whole animals wrapped in cocoons and egg sacs the size of medicine balls. That's when you know you should be afraid. Somehow a pack of feral dogs have found their way into the tunnels, and spiders the size of house cats have been running amok. Bear in mind that you're a college professor and not a specially trained operative on a mission to kick ass. There also wouldn't be much of a reason to discover any firearms or ammunition down in the mines, so you can bet that your only means of terminating these monstrosities is via melee combat.
...and that's where the game beings to fall apart.
It's generally accepted that combat in a horror game should, in most cases (read: those that aren't Resident Evil 4 or Dead Space), be clunky and difficult to manage. In theory, that's supposed to be the side effect of being an ordinary citizen as opposed to a battle-trained soldier. Overture adheres to this standard for the most part, yet at the same biffs it hard in regards to combat. It's not because the game's melee system is clunky, though, but because it's flat out broken.
I didn't notice how troublesome it was at first. In fact, I recall enjoying the act of beating a mutant dog to death a claw hammer. The damned mongrel gunned right for me and all I could do was brandish the hammer and start beating away. Fighting wasn't a matter of repeatedly clicking the left mouse button, but required me to hold the LMB while continually dragging side to side to simulate swiping the weapon across the dog's dome. In video game terms, this is the closest I've ever felt to playing as Dee Wallace's character in "Cujo."
Unfortunately, subsequent battles taught me what was wrong with the game's combat system. For starters, buttons don't always respond as they should. There were moments when I clicked on the LMB and Phillip didn't pull the weapon back in a ready position as he should have. Instead of taking a swing at my opponent, I inadvertently rotated the camera. Long story short, the dog bit me to death and gorged on my remains (no, really, you can hear dogs eating you after you perish). There were also times when I swung a weapon and it appeared to collide with my adversary, but the blow didn't register. The problem is it's difficult to gauge how close you need to be for a hit to count, or what part of an opponent's body detects combat collision. Rather than creepy, engaging enemies in battle is annoying. I find myself becoming enraged more often than scared.
Overture even becomes less frightening as you advance. Rather than generating fresh scares throughout the campaign, it rehashes the same situations to the point you'll likely be numb to the experience by the end. There are only so many times that tight tunnels full of spiders or twisted hallways full of dogs can be scary, and this game goes beyond that point.
If anything redeems Overture, it's the game's clever and organic (for lack of a better term) puzzles. Most of the game's puzzles involve interacting with objects that actually belong in the environment. At one point, for instance, you have to fire up a deactivated generator to restore the lights. That involves not only experimenting with various levers and valves, but reading a manual and replacing damage parts. Another segment requires you to mix chemicals in order to create an explosive compound, so you can clear away a roadblock. The game provides you with just enough clues to be able to figure it out, and thankfully doesn't beat you over the head with hints.
Ultimately, though, Penumbra: Overture is not the game it should be. It's disturbing and atmospheric for a short while, but the effect eventually diminishes. It wouldn't have been such a misfire were it not for the lame combat system and the game's inability to consistently provide fresh scares throughout its campaign. The best that I can say is that it's a fair start to a budding franchise, and that the developers could easily recover from the missteps they made.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.