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Penumbra: Overture (PC) artwork

Penumbra: Overture (PC) review


"Overture is a slightly uncomfortable amalgamation of half-finished ideas, but, when it's at its best, it's surprisingly brilliant. If it were a little more inventive beyond its physics engine, and a little less clunky in its mechanics, we could be dealing with an indie classic. As it stands, it's merely an engaging and impressively frightening way to pass an uneventful afternoon."



Don't travel to remotest Greenland to answer a message from your father from beyond the grave. Definitely don't get lost and take shelter in an abandoned mine. That's just silly. It's bound to be terribily dark, filled with scary monsters and useless weaponry, and built using a novel physics engine. It'd be a terrible idea.

Playing Penumbra: Overture, however, comes more highly recommended, if only for the 'scary' and 'physics engine' bits. We'll get the worst aspect out of the way to start with. Overture would do significantly better without the combat. Really, it's an adventure game trying to be survival horror, and it becomes rather tiresome as a result. The best sections on offer here are devoid of overt threat, and reliant on the consistently panicky and confusing atmosphere, compounded by near-total darkness and astonishingly adept sound design. When the baddies turn up, it's a little weary: angular, clichťd horror tropes that are more frustrating than scary. Penumbra is confused as to what it wants to be, but it's painfully obvious which direction it should have taken.

The physics bit doesn't help matters during combat, even if it is put to brilliant use elsewhere. The idea is simple but theoretically ingenius: you pick things up by clicking and holding, swing them around by moving the mouse, and throw them by releasing the left button. To open doors, draws and cupboards, you click on the handle and pull or push. To unblock a doorway, you drag the debris away from it. To fight enemies, it's the same principle.

When there's no threat, the system's fine. Brilliant, even, skyrocketing the immersion factor. When there's a rabid dog charging at you, though, the imprecision of swinging a hammer around is scream-inducingly frustrating. Independent developers Frictional seem to have realised this, and advise you avoid combat where possible by using careful stealth tactics: in other words, hide behind conveniently-stacked crates for inordinately long periods of time, until getting bored and just legging it past any threat to the next safe area. Neither option is satisfying.

It's a shame, because when Penumbra edges away from its nouveau survival horror mechanics, it's really bloody good. The story's a little uninspired (and doesn't really get going until the end, this being Episode One of the series), but the writing is glorious. While it's a little awkward and illogical to have diary entries scattered around the game world, each is well-written, in-depth and engaging. And there's an absolutely divine character written into proceedings around half-way through, fodder for some fine psychological twisting and an agreeably disturbing finale. Nice work.

Unfortunately, when the game starts throwing an abundance of environmental puzzles at the player, it hits another brick wall - or, more frequently, a locked door. There are a lot of these in Overture, and a huge portion of your time will be spent figuring out ways to get past them. Usually, it involves finding a secret passageway around it. Sometimes you can break a lock off, or pry more rickety doors open. Rarely does it become more inventive than this.

Still, it's testament to Penumbra's design that, despite all this frustration, its foreboding atmosphere hardly ever lets up. This is one of the most heart-pumpingly tense games I've ever played, with an abundance of bumps-in-the-night piercing alarmingly through the shroud of darkness. The maze-like level design might have been annoying in another game, but here it adds to the sense of blind panic as you try to figure out a way to progress. That it achieves this without ever really making you jump is highly impressive. Some of the more mainstream horror developers could do far worse than pay attention to Penumbra.

Overture is a slightly uncomfortable amalgamation of half-finished ideas, but, when it's at its best, it's surprisingly brilliant. If it were a little more inventive beyond its physics engine, and a little less clunky in its mechanics, we could be dealing with an indie classic. As it stands, it's merely an engaging and impressively frightening way to pass an uneventful afternoon.

Rating: 6/10

Lewis's avatar
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (February 20, 2009)

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