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Penumbra: Overture

Let's get physical.

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

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.

Hitting this what the rusty hammer you found won't work. Run!

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.

Other than that, the storytelling falls fairly flat. Partly, it's perhaps because this is a low-budget game made by a small team, and partly because when manfully attempting to straddle both the adventure and FPS genres, it discovers that neither of its legs are quite long enough to do so. The plot, traditionally key to any good adventure, feels very much an afterthought to the physics challenges, and those in turn play second fiddle to the Half-Life-without-weapons vibe. Though Penumbra predominantly leads with its puzzle foot, it has to dance with its action one just as often - death happens here, often, and as many obstacles involve fast reflexes as do careful consideration. This can work really well [spoiler alert] - dodging an Indiana Jones boulder, and frantically smashing holes in the floor so it plummets into the depths before you're given a one-way ticket to reload town [end spoiler]- and really terribly - such as struggling with the rigid camera whenever you're frantically manipulating an object, and, most of all, the combat.

When was the last game that featured a heroic spider? Charlotte’s Webb doesn't count

In Penumbra's defence, it advises against fighting wherever possible, but sometimes it's either unavoidable or sneaking around and waiting in corners becomes just too tedious. Even if it were the case that every fight were dodged, the intent for the game to be so doesn't quite excuse quite how clumsy the combat actually is. The mechanic for waving around a hammer or a pickaxe just doesn't quite work, again because of that cumbersome camera, and also because a mouse moving across a flat desk doesn't quite translate to swinging a big metal thing back and forth through the air, or into something's skull, as the case may be. The same is true of some of the non-combative puzzles. As far as I can see, I'm making exactly the kind of circular movement I would to spin a wheel, but the game for some reason thinks I'm just waving up and down, and after a while the mouse wears a semi-circular stripe on my desk, which I have a horrible feeling might be French polished, but belongs to my landlady, who I'm too afraid to ask about it because I've gotten it into a right state over the years.

This sort of action would quite probably work well on the Wii, where you can make much broader, three-dimensional movements, but, when it's something that needs doing in a hurry, it's fiddly and uncomfortable on mouse. Other gesture-based interactions feel spot-on - pulling backwards to open a drawer, or struggling to drag around a large chunk of wood you've stupidly grabbed by a corner rather than the middle. When it does work, it feels really good, a very genuine sense of interaction with the environment that makes an incredible amount of sense for adventure gaming.

Being spied by a dog means death one time out of two, hence cowering in fear is usually the better part of valour.

But, in the same way that sewing together parts of clever people's brains isn't likely to create a fully-functional human being, let alone some super-genius, Penumbra feels more like a collection of great ideas than a truly successful game in its own right. Much as I was regularly impressed during it, generally I wasn't having quite as much actual fun as I'd like. For every clever puzzle there's a patronising one, like a letter containing a code that loudly announces said code by putting the relevant words in CAPITAL LETTERS, or one that inflicts instant death again and again until you work it out. Most disheartening is that so many involve finding yet another way to get past yet another locked door (or variations on that theme) - tiresome in an FPS, but doubly so in a game that's clearly got a lot going on upstairs yet seems to be wasting it on tedious find the key exercises. Solving a puzzle rarely feels like a proud achievement, but merely making more progress through more dark tunnels.

All that said, if you're interested in a serious relationship with gaming rather than purely out for a good time, please do take a look at Penumbra. It does some truly clever stuff, has an effectively creepy atmosphere and there's a few signposts in it that action and adventure games alike would do well to follow. With two episodes to go, there's every chance that with the intriguing foundations now laid, the wobbly storytelling and puzzles will fare much better in those.

7 / 10

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