A first-person stealth-action survival-horror adventure? Well, that’s the wacky world of indie PC gaming for ya! Penumbra: Overture is the first in a series of episodic games known collectively as the Penumbra Collection. In a genre that’s leaning ever more towards emphasizing visceral action and monster-closets over good old fashioned scares, Penumbra throws out the guns and leaves you with your wits and a flashlight.
The story finds the player character, Philip, exploring an abandoned mine in Greenland in search of his presumed-dead father. The plot is told through exploration of the environment, old notes you’ll discover, and your interactions with Red, a manic former miner communicating over radio. You’ll come across giant spiders and nasty mutated wolves as you delve deeper and deeper, trying to uncover what happened, where your father is, and make your way to Red. Red may be your only hope of getting out but his insanity makes him a tad unreliable.
The first thing that sets Overture apart is the player character. Philip is a physics professor and just an ordinary guy. I don’t mean “ordinary guy” like Gordon Freeman is an ordinary guy, rampaging through alien dystopias with a machine gun. I don’t even mean “ordinary guy” like Harry from Silent Hill, picking up a gun and facing the horrors of the titular small town himself.
Indeed, there are no guns in Penumbra. Overture features a hammer and mining pick that can be used in emergencies, and objects in the environment can be thrown at enemies, but these tricks merely stun your foes long enough for you to run away, hide, and quietly wet yourself. Progress is made by sneaking your way past monsters as you get from Point A to Point B and solving numerous puzzles in order to progress, most of which are based around the game’s physics engine.
At it’s heart, that’s really what Penumbra can be boiled down to: an adventure game. The meat of the game is in exploring your environment and using it to overcome various obstacles. What makes the puzzles interesting is the rich physics engine. All of the puzzles are based on the in-game physics, requiring the player to explore the environment, observe the objects within, and find a way to use them. How can you break this rusty lock? How can you find a way to distribute your weight as you walk across an icy lake? How can you block off this cave so the giant spiders can’t get to you? Penumbra tests your reasoning and awareness and it does it well.
Every object in the game is operated—for lack of a better word—“manually.” The mouse acts as a hand and left clicking allows the player to interact with objects. The mouse must be rotated to turn a valve, pushed forward or back to operate levers, and moved around precisely to manipulate other objects. It’s a system that very easily could have become tiresome and frustrating with less precise physics. Luckily, Penumbra’s physics are some of the best I’ve seen, and the level of interaction gives the game a surprisingly tactile feel.
Overture’s weak point, unfortunately, comes in between these head-scratcher puzzles. While scary at first, fear quickly becomes overshadowed by monotony. Getting from Point A to Point B is set up in a fairly generic stealth-action manner. You’re in a maze being patrolled by monsters. Since you can’t fight the monsters, you need to sneak around in the shadows, slowly making your way to the next puzzle. Well, that, or you could just run by them; it’s surprisingly easy to do so.
Sure, fear comes from other places as well. Penumbra manages the psychological scares that can be felt from effective use of light and sound better than most. Still, once you get used to the routine and know what to expect, it mostly stops being scary.
Those lights and sounds are still put to good effect, however. Despite the budget graphics, Overture offers atmosphere in spades. The creaking and crumbling of the mine, the howls and growls of distant beasties, the narrative that can be gleaned from the settled chaos of the mine. With more time and money put into it, the environment could easily approach BioShock’s Rapture in terms of immersion.
Arguably, Overture’s weakest point is the story. In looking at the entire series, it really isn’t necessary to play Overture for its story. The story arc with Red, the game’s prologue and its cliffhanger ending are all the plot that really matter. The notes you find lying around provide some decent insight into the backstory but are hardly necessary to the actual plot of the game. Other than that, it’s all very standard: an abandoned facility overrun by mutants created from some kind of infection. That’s okay, though. The reason to play Overture is for its atmosphere and puzzles; the story merely provides context for these elements.
Overture is a fine game on its own. It drags on a little longer than it probably should and the routine of puzzle, maze, puzzle begins to wear thin after several hours. The puzzles themselves are fun and challenging and the atmosphere is compelling. While the series doesn’t truly shine until Episode 2: Black Plague, don’t write off Overture too easily. It isn’t necessary to play it first but it is worth a look.