So, a first-person physics-based horror action-adventure. Don't get many of their kind around here, which may have something to do with most folks' idea of gaming physics being Crackdown-style kicking a man into a car so hard that it explodes, or watching a corpse flop slowly down a flight of stairs then laughing at how its legs spasm when they shoot it repeatedly in the crotch. Which is admittedly enormously entertaining, but nowhere near as clever as having mouse gestures directly translate to moving objects that behave in accordance with Newtonian physics. In practical terms, this means, for instance, try and open a door by pulling on its middle and it'll swing really, really slowly, if at all. But grab it by edge (no, not the one with hinges on) and one swift downwards movement of the mouse will open it at speed. Penumbra tries to apply such thinking to puzzles, with varying results.
Even if that's its prime gimmick, it's not its most accomplished element. Like Stalker, it's a game whose successes rely more on a finely-honed atmosphere than its actual events. The physics puzzles serve to demonstrate that your character, despite the fact he's the kind of guy who heads into spooky abandoned mines in Greeland on his own, is no superman. He's not terribly strong, takes a while to lug moderately heavy objects around, and has to hit a dog with the business end of a pickaxe at least six times before it seems seriously bothered. (Distressingly, in fact, his voice sounds a little like my own, which gives me a pretty clear image in my head as to exactly what kind of ten-stone weakling he may be). He can't even look at monsters if they pass nearby when he's hiding, or he'll go out of his mind with fear. His very obvious vulnerability makes creeping around by torchlight, worrying about zombie dogs, giant worms and gusts of steam a lot more unsettling than it would be if here were a Doom guy. A cynic might argue that the near-perpetual darkness better masks the rather crude monster models, but really it's the not-quite-sure-what's-going-on factor that does it. There's perpetually some kind of weird noise around the corner, and always the sense that you're winging it and don't really know where you are exactly.
It's genuinely creepy, and the somewhat flailing attempt at a mystery-laden plot sadly undermines that. It'd do better if it relied on its own inherent spookiness rather than trying to create artificial atmosphere by banging on about a character we don't have any real reason to care about, something about his dad, destiny and miners writing stupidly long notes to themselves about their imminent horrible deaths. One plot element does work very well though, which is Red, a gloriously insane man who starts jabbering at you over a radio you find about halfway in. Without wanting to give the game away, his deliberately unusual manner of speech is simultaneously frightening and hilarious, as is his tendency to flit wildly between helpful and hostile. He's the most compelling element of the narrative, and wonderfully acted, which makes it something of a shame that the end of his every sentence is, for some reason, cut off in our review code.