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Penumbra: Overture (PC) artwork

Penumbra: Overture (PC) review


"A fun if somewhat rough around the edges first release from Frictional Games"


Frictional Games is quickly gaining a lot of favor with me as I play more of their games, not even half a year ago, I'd never heard of them. But little did I know I technically did, because even two years after its release, I kept hearing about an Adventure/Survival Horror game for the PC called Amnesia The Dark Descent. The more I saw about the game the more curious I became. Admittedly Survival Horror and Adventure type games are among my favorite, they're very immersive and I think that may be why they're among my favorite genres. So finally, I decided to give the relatively unknown game and studio a shot. Needless to say, I enjoyed Amnesia a lot, and it appears that everyone else did as well…it seems like one of the most talked about games on the internet even to this day.

But this review isn't about Amnesia, I just wanted you to see my stance or position on this studio and what is arguably their best game to date before I get into Penumbra Overture…as me playing Amnesia first has a lot to do with what I have to say about Penumbra Overture. Anyways, I did some digging and figured out that Frictional Games had released a series of games before Amnesia called Penumbra's Overture, Black Plague, and Requiem in that order. I looked at screenshots of the games and did some reading, for the most part it sounded like it was more of what I enjoyed about Amnesia, seemed like a given for me to go ahead and buy the games and play them, and that I did. But Penumbra has a very different feel from Amnesia if that makes any sense, and if it doesn't I'll try to explain to the best of my ability.

Penumbra is set in a more modern day setting whereas Amnesia was set in 1839 Prussia; Penumbra is set in 2000 Greenland, so with these different time periods different kinds of scenarios present themselves along with possible gameplay differences as well. In Amnesia, you have no weapons, no real defense against enemies other than your wits and your ability to hide and think clearly under pressure. Penumbra Overture isn't so different in that regard. Besides that the gameplay and design of this game is very similar to Amnesia with a few differences.

You still pretty much explore environments looking for ways out to go to the next area while avoiding enemies, you still manage an inventory of items and find various documents to help fill in the backstory, and there's still a decent amount of puzzle solving even if most of it is a bit easy. But as I played I noticed the differences between the two games and how Penumbra Overture has a few rough edges in comparison. But in a way I expected something like this, Frictional Games isn't a big studio or anything after all…apparently they were working with a very small budget and the results given are pretty impressive none the less. I'll give the game's backstory out a bit though so you can get a feel for it and see how the story and the gameplay are tied together, spoiler free.

The player character Phillip receives a message from his father who he thought had been long dead, telling him to come to a remote location in northern Greenland. Phillip comes to Greenland and takes shelter from the harsh cold in an abandoned mine, unfortunately for him the mine collapses and he falls deeper into the earth. What he finds is evidence of some kind of research operation going on, along with mutated and aggressive animals that are out to kill him. You have to guide Phillip through the mining complex to figure out what's been going on down here and what his father had to do with it, all while surviving the hostile animal life down below with minimal (not really) supplies and barely any way to defend yourself.

Penumbra Overture plays almost exactly like Amnesia does if we're just talking about gameplay mechanics. You walk around in dark, dilapidated environments searching for ways to progress further, get out and get away from enemies while trying to figure out what exactly happened. You find files and journals strewn about to fill in the gaps for you somewhat and you also find several tools and items to help you get further along or just to help with survival in general. There is one key difference between Amnesia and Penumbra Overture though that has to do with gameplay, and it's about the enemies and how you deal with them.

In Penumbra you don't encounter many humans at all, it's actually something that helps aid the game in getting across its atmosphere of complete isolation. As a result you don't really encounter any human enemies like I stated above, just animals. Eventually you can find some items that will help you deal with them more easily such as a beef jerky, a hammer, a pick axe, and even a broom (though I personally never used it). This is actually kind of a problem when compared to Amnesia, the atmosphere isn't as oppressive and you're not nearly as helpless, barely getting by. You have a defense against most of the enemies. You can kill them by attempting to use your hammer or pick axe, which is quite awkward and takes some getting used to. I'll try to explain it.

To use a weapon, you hold down the left mouse button and that readies the weapon. Once it's held at the ready, you can flick your mouse to the left or right to swing the hammer or pick axe in that direction. If you move the mouse up or down, it's like you're getting ready to do a power swing from an overhead position or you're rearing back to hit someone with the broad side of the tool, and you have to swing again in the opposite direction in order to execute the movement. It's just awkward to explain and it's awkward to do in the game. At first I couldn't figure out how it actually worked and I just flailed the mouse around noticing that I was actually swinging but with no real consistency, I think a tutorial for this would've been nice but such a thing was absent.

The worst item that could possibly be used for a weapon but ends up completely useless is dynamite. It's very delayed and you'll have a hard time timing the explosion right to kill something like a dog, a fast moving enemy. The problem though is even if you can successfully time it to go off on a dog, it won't kill it! I'm sorry but that's ridiculous, the game doesn't even give you that many sticks of dynamite, I think I found five in the entire game, so it's not like a weapon you can abuse constantly or something! As for the beef jerky, you really just use it to distract dogs and that's it. It's not very practical to use but I've read that you can use beef jerky to lead dogs into traps and you can kill them by opening up pipes to blow hot steam at them. I tried to do it several times in the game but I could never get it to work, maybe I'm just not that good…but I found that you can save a lot of time by simply avoiding the dogs and running away rather than spending all that time trying to lure them towards the pipes. It becomes another useless item in your inventory.

Like Amnesia, in Penumbra Overture you've got an inventory of items you keep that have all kinds of different functions, some can serve as weapons and tools, others are health items or utility items like flares or batteries for a flashlight, and some are used just to solve a puzzle. You also have a health indicator and above your inventory space there's a row of numbered spaces where you can put weapons or any other kind of item Phillip can hold during gameplay to act as bound keys for them, though honestly it's not that useful of a feature other than breaking out your hammer on short notice. Anyway, I noticed while playing this game there are a lot of useless items that are supposed to serve a purpose of some kind but I guess there was some oversight in the game design that relegated them to just taking up space. You have a few different kinds of light sources you can use for instance, just like Amnesia you'll run into a lot of dark areas where you'll need to be able to see.

In this game Phillip starts with a Flashlight, some batteries and a green glow stick kind of like one you'd see in Tomb Raider or something, he also picks up flares as he explores the mine. Here's the problem though, the flashlight isn't all that effective in this game compared to the glow stick which has infinite power and provides a decent amount of light whereas the flashlight requires batteries and it can drain them pretty quick. The flares pretty much give off the same amount of light as a glow stick only difference is you can drop them on the ground to keep a source of light going in an area for a brief time…but you'll probably never do that at all, so essentially flares are completely useless and the flashlight is barely worth breaking out which takes away from some of the tension a little. You also find a lighter and some fluid that enables you to light up some oil lamps through the mines which reminds me of Amnesia when you'd fine tinderboxes to light up candles and lamps…but you only really do this in a few sections of the mine and you never run out of lighter fluid. I think things would've been more interesting if your glow stick didn't have infinite lighting power, glow sticks in Tomb Raider and even in real life don't, it'd force you to manage your resources and consider your choices more often which is an integral part of Survival Horror.

Another resource kind of item that's squandered is painkillers. You use painkillers to recover your health, but the problem here is that your health can recover to its maximum if you just take a rest and you manage to get away from whatever is tormenting you. I only used painkillers if I was in a real pinch and that was maybe only twice through the whole game. I wasn't playing on Easy either, I played on Normal, maybe on Hard mode you don't recover your health as much but I can't say as I've not played Hard mode just yet. This aspect of the game unfortunately doesn't change as the series moves on, a lot of these items still receive little usage but I guess Frictional Games learned their lesson with Amnesia where you are worrying a lot more about your stock of light sources and health items.

The remainder of the gameplay is pretty satisfying with no other issues other than an interface quirk and the fact that manipulating items in the environment feels sluggish. On your interface in first person, you don't have any kind of indicator to tell what exactly you're focusing on in the environment. Unlike in Amnesia where you have that little dot or crosshair on the screen, you have to just move the screen around until you see a hand or an eye come up. You can press R to enable a hand to show up that you can move around the screen but it's only something you'll do if you're having a hard time interacting with something. Thankfully this issue is fixed in the next game, Penumbra Black Plague. As for opening and shutting doors and drawers or turning valves or moving boxes…everything feels like it's caught up in molasses and moves very slowly. It's fairly irritating but not game breakingly so, again this is fixed in the next installment so no big deal.

The look and feel of the game is quite good though with no real issues to speak of other than maybe a few low res textures here and there. The graphics are pretty high quality for a 2007 indie release, I thought they were pretty impressive anyway. The environments are well populated with items and it's convincing that these are lived or worked in spaces and rooms you're going through. The enemies look pretty good as well other than some choppy animation on the spiders you can encounter. The sound design and effects are good, no real complaints here other than that maybe the designers didn't play with your sense of hearing quite enough. The music is effective and moody but not too many tracks stand out in my mind.

I'd say the only true weakness this game has is a lack of replay value. There isn't much of a reason to come back to this game once you're done other than maybe to challenge yourself on a higher difficulty or simply to experience the game and its story again. It's of average length for a classic survival horror game, I clocked in at around 7 hours by the time I finished it. For $10 on Steam that's not bad at all, it is a memorable experience.

If this game reminds me of anything its John Carpenter's The Thing, this influence continues on in Black Plague as well. That's not a bad influence to take when it comes to horror stuff. I recommend this game to anybody who likes Survival Horror or Adventure type games, you'll definitely enjoy it despite some of its flaws. Also, it's a given if you've played Amnesia to go ahead and give this one a shot if you haven't, it's practically guaranteed that you'll like it if you had fun with Amnesia. As I said before, it's definitely rough around the edges when compared to Amnesia but it's very similar game but you can tell it's Frictional's first effort but a solid one none the less and without Penumbra and the success it had, we may have never gotten Amnesia.

3/5

zork86's avatar
Community review by zork86 (October 25, 2017)

Sometimes, Zork reviews something other than Resident Evil games. And when he does, he gets the hose again.

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