Penumbra Overture: Episode One PC
Published by: Lexicon Entertainment
Developed by: Frictional Games
Release Date: Out Now
For better or for worse it seems to be a growing trend for games to be released in episodes. Personally I'm sceptical about this because whilst the price of the individual episodes is cheaper than the price of a full retail game, when you add the price of all the episodes together you end up with a price that's quite prohibitive. For an episodic game to appeal to me then it has to be good and certainly something different. Penumbra Overture, on the evidence of this first of three episodes at least, fits the bill on both accounts.
Penumbra Overture is best described as a first person survival-horror action adventure game. Right from the beginning there's a sense of doom and foreboding as the character you'll play as, Philip, talks about the death of his mother, a letter from his father (who abandoned him before he was born) and his own downfall. You'll begin playing as Philip just as he has arrived in Greenland in the midst of a blizzard. Not long after arriving in Greenland you'll descend underground into the darkness and from this moment on the game becomes an intimidating affair that fans of the survival-horror genre should appreciate.
Where Penumbra differs from most survival-horror games is in you need to interact with objects. This isn't your usual, typical adventure game so you use an object by simply selecting to use one object with another. The game has an advanced physics system that requires you to literally perform the required actions with the mouse. Very early in the game you find a metal hatch on the ground with one of those wheel-like locks that need to be turned in order for the hatch to be opened. In a normal adventure game you'd simply chose to use the hatch and it would be opened. In Penumbra Overture you'll put your cursor over the wheel and it will change to a hand icon. Once the hand icon appears you'll need to click and hold the left mouse button and then make the necessary movements with your mouse in order to open the hatch. Draws can be opened and many other objects can be interacted with in this way. To look at an object you'll simply right click when an eye icon appears. Combat in the game is preferably a last resort but when faced with an enemy you'll have to really swing your melee weapons in order to deliver a harmful blow. It's important to make it clear though that the game is not really about combat and for the most part it's not an option as the enemies are too strong to simply take an aggressive approach. For virtually the entire first episode stealth is called for and it's the only way to progress.
One area I thought Penumbra Overture could have been much better is the storyline. Sure the game is dark and creepy (although as we'll mention in a moment it's not so creepy for deaf gamers) and this helps to set the mood but what is lacking is a quality storyline. Of course this is just the first third of the game and it's a little harsh to be too disappointed with the storyline when you've only seen a portion of it but unless it picks up quite a lot then it's hard to get excited about it. The fact that you don't see your character doesn't do the apparently weak storyline any good. Part of the charm with point 'n click adventure games is that you get to associate with the character you see on the screen for practically the whole game. That's not the case here though and it does feel odd. Some might be put off by the combat, which you can't always avoid, and the fact that you can die (which isn't unknown in an adventure game but nevertheless I've always found it to be irritating).
As far as adventure games go Penumbra Overture certainly looks good. It looks more like a 3D engine that you would expect to find in an FPS rather than an adventure game. Running the game at higher resolutions and with all the graphical effects turned to maximum is certainly going to need a decent PC specification. Our ever-aging system (Pentium D 805, ATi X800XT, 1GB RAM) coped reasonably well with the game running at 1280x1024 and most details set to maximum when running under Windows XP. It was very sluggish under Windows Vista though but seeing as the operating system isn't officially supported it's no cause for complaint, although it is worthy of a mention in case Vista is the only operating system you have on your PC.
In terms of its deaf gamer friendliness, Penumbra Overture is OK. The game is subtitled. Actually there's not a great deal of speech in the game and most of the dialogue is text only. All of the important information is shown in text and you can recall journal information and personal notes at any time. You're notified when a journal note has been added. What deaf gamers will miss out on though is the game's ambience. Most of the fear aspect in the game is created through the use of eerie sounds. There are no captions in the game and without the knowledge of these eerie sounds, and the fearful ambience they help create; the game isn't quite so intimidating. This is somewhat disappointing when you consider that a fearful ambience is one of the essential ingredients of a survival-horror game. As we mentioned earlier, it pays to be stealthy in Penumbra Overture. During the game you'll have moments when an enemy is nearby and hearing gamers will be aware of which direction these enemies are coming from. Whilst this does make things trickier for deaf gamers, it doesn't make things impossible. Usually Philip will say something to indicate the presence of a nearby enemy. It's also possible to see an enemy when they are still some way off. With the dogs, for example, you'll see their eyes shining in the dark. There are no gauges to indicate whether you're making much of a noise, which is a little disappointing. However, if you crouch and remain still for a moment, in a location that enables you to be covered from the eyes of a enemy, you'll have a blue tint to your vision which enables you to see a little more clearly in the dark (without the aid of your flashlight or glowing rod) until you begin to move again.
Penumbra Overture is one of those games that's quite unlike any survival-horror or adventure game that you may have played before. Having to physically interact with objects rather than simply solving puzzles in the typical manner is something most gamers will definitely want to try. The game also does a great job of providing an intimidating atmosphere although deaf gamers won't be fully aware of just how blood curdling the game can be thanks to the absence of captions. Judging from this first of three episodes it's fair to say that the story needs to improve somewhat during episodes two and three because at the moment it's less than memorable. Personally I have enjoyed this first part. Sure there is plenty of room for improvement but there's definitely potential here.
The first episode of Penumbra Overture certainly shows promise and those looking for a survival-horror or adventure game with an original twist will enjoy what's on offer here. That said though, there is room for improvement and I'm hoping episode two will flesh out the storyline.