For all those decrying the state of indie gaming, some of the recent success stories from small development teams would surely beg to differ. Valve picking up Narbacular Drop and producing Portal, the Behemoth team (Alien Hominid) breaking out into Xbox Live territory and successfully courting the mainstream media; it seems that there is still a place for small-scale titles developed by passionate teams, and that can only be a good thing for the industry as a whole. Taking a lead from this movement, Penumbra Overture can now be added to that particular list of esteemed projects, and the folks at Frictional games can consider the release a resounding critical success.
Originally released for free in 2006 in the form of a tech demo, it wasn’t long before Penumbra garnered enough positive praise on the Internet for the development team to consider completing the project as a commercial venture. Overture marks the first in a series of PC titles from the same canon, with the team deciding to take the relatively low-risk method of episodic delivery rather than a single full-price release. Hopefully this initial introduction to the charms of a horror-puzzling FPS will catch on, as whilst the atmosphere comes across as a low-budget mixture The Thing and a student art project, the technology itself is surprisingly well-designed and definitely shouldn’t be overlooked for glossier titles.
Overture initially sets the player in the guise of a rather forgettable English adventurer. Tasked with finding the hidden meaning behind a cryptic message left to you from a long-lost father, a Tomb Raider-esque trip to Greenland is soon on the cards and a boat swiftly chartered. Curiosity lights the path, and following on from a brief cabin-bound tutorial, events take a mysterious and rather inevitable turn for the worse. Climbing through the arctic wasteland, the player is soon forced into a series of underground mine passages and dimly-lit rooms as the first chapter plays out to a rather predictably weak back-story. For once however, the cheesy dialogue and appalling voice acting are largely redundant, with the atmosphere created in the dark visuals taking center stage for much of the experience.
Played from a first-person perspective, the initial reaction on entering such a familiarly dangerous environment is to reach for the guns, and the development team knows this all too well. Without providing any form of standard weaponry, Penumbra constantly plays on a sense of vulnerability and survival from the very outlook, and doesn’t let up. There are no prompts towards violence, and in fact the game goes out of its way to force you to run and hide rather than weakly stabbing in the direction of any of the foes with a hammer, pickaxe or a nearby rock. If you get caught, you can take down some of the enemies by bludgeoning them in this manner, but always as a last resort. It comes as quite a refreshing change to be powerless in an environment and viewpoint usually equated with all-out destruction and extreme violence, and kudos to the designers for attempting something this bold.
Of course hiding behind a rock, no matter how atmospherically enveloped that rock is, doesn’t make for a good game. Thankfully, Penumbra contains enough adventuring and well-balanced logic puzzles to tie the experience into a decent package.
Physics are at the core of the engine, and form the basis for many of the logically thought-out challenges. Everything in the world has a realistic weight and behaviour, with all of the key interactions usually driven by a single button-press slotted into the engine accordingly. Opening a door, for example, requires the user to grab the handle with the mouse button then drag outwards with the mouse. Opening drawers, lockers, picking up or swinging objects all require a similarly natural movement, lending the environment an almost natural feel. Whilst there are no particularly tough or ingenious moments throughout, Overture balances the amount of puzzles pretty decently with the amount of exploration on offer, and everything feels logically tied in to the behaviour of the objects at hand.
Whilst many gamers will be put off by the decidedly average character models and shoddy voice acting, Overture manages to strike out on its own path and create a unique experience that, whilst not perfect, is worthy of a look for anybody interested in the adventure or horror genres. Creeping around in the dark with only a flashlight to hand whilst the wind whistles through a passageway and footsteps can be heard around every corner can be extremely disconcerting, and it’s a testament to good game design that it manages to unsettle right from the start. Big-name horror titles such as Resident Evil and F.E.A.R can certainly learn from some of the things that Penumbra gets right, and just goes to prove that sometimes the simple ideas are definitely the best.