Penumbra: Overture Preview - 10/02/2007

It’s difficult to know just what to describe Penumbra: Overture as. It’s sort of an action/horror/first person/point and click game, but in real time, and with full character movement. One of the most interesting games of the year, and one that really impressed us from our hands-on preview.

Originally designed as a tech demo and released for free, Swedish developers Frictional Games clearly have a lot of talent in their four-person team. Now though, the demo is being turned into a trilogy of episodic games, with a full story and upgraded for the average gamer.

The reason I cited this as a point and click game is because of the way you do things in the Penumbra world. While W, A, S and D are the usual movement keys, and CTRL is crouch with spacebar for jump, you interact with virtually every object in the game using the mouse. Left click and your character can pick something up like in Oblivion, where you lift an object with the button held down and can move it, interacting it with other objects or simply playing with the brilliant physics the game boasts. Right click however and your character will analyse the object in text form, or try to use it in some way. This may be as simple as turning on a light, or reading a pamphlet to discover how to decipher a Morse code message, one of the intellectually challenging highlights of the demo.

Using the mouse to look around like in first person shooters, you have full control over your character and unlimited interactivity with your surroundings, unlike proper point and click games where you tend to click at the side of the screen to look around, and can only make your character move by using basic key presses or mouse clicks.

The action element of Penumbra comes with the various monsters in the game. In the short but fulfilling and mentally stimulating mine level we were treated to, we only met a plague of evil looking spiders that we were fortunate enough to be fast enough to escape, before blocking their route behind us and almost triggering a cave-in in the atmospheric and moody mineshaft.

The story behind the game is surprisingly detailed, although details are being kept in the dark by the developers to save spoilers emerging. Basically, you play as Phillip, whose mother recently died before you mysteriously receive a message from your father, who supposedly died a long while beforehand. He tells you in the message to go and get a book from a safety deposit box and burn it. Instead, Phillip reads the book, as you certainly would, which points to a location in Greenland though clues and cryptic messages, and after much intense study, Phillip decides to go to the location in an attempt to find out what the book really speaks of. Once there, a blizzard sets in, and Phillip stumbles into a metal hatch jutting out of the snow, which is where the struggle for survival against the supernatural begins.

Importantly for a game that is rich in moments of horror, the atmosphere of Penumbra is superb. The graphics play a lot into this, with no heads up display, but depth of field techniques (where certain parts of the scenery are blurred, and some sharpened as in real life where you focus on a particular object or person) implemented superbly to concentrate your eyes on certain parts of the screen, such as a particular monster or just an eerie, broken window. Very similar to the graphics used in The Mark, a FPS that we’ll be previewing shortly, often the graphics are a little too blurred in places, although it is strongly arguable that this adds to the feeling that you are actually in Phillip’s body, and are feeling the distress and panic of the situation.

With the huge array of interactive objects in every area come very tough and mentally challenging puzzles. Because of the excellent physics system, you often have to think outside the computer gaming box to crack some of these tests. In real life, you would no doubt try throwing a box down a chasm to break it open, realising that the force of the drop would smash it, as opposed to throwing it against a wall or trying to open it with a rock. In a game however, you probably wouldn’t expect the height and force of a throw to be taken into account, but, in Penumbra, these things all happen – again, aiding the feeling of actually being in Phillip’s shoes and making his decisions as you would in real life.

Many of the puzzles involve searching the area, which can be really freaky, with brilliantly dramatic music backing up the tense and eerie feel to the surroundings. The feeling of moving a crate blocking an entrance, expecting there to be some sort of monster lurking behind, occurred often throughout the demo, and the fact that there never was anything there is a testament to what a good job Frictional Games have done with the atmosphere – horror games should rely on atmosphere over substance to compel gamers, because realistically, it’s unlikely a werewolf is going to jump out from behind a crate in an abandoned mine, but you would always feel scared in real life, in a dark, friendless place.

You have a torch to provide some comfort, although not with the shadows it creates, which you need to find batteries for and keep replenishing them every so often. As a backup you have a glowstick, which provides barely enough light to see two metres in front of you, and casts a murky field of light on the scenery giving it a menacing, shadowed feel. A large part of the game outside the demo does involve sneaking around in these shadows. Phillip is an ordinary human being, and can’t be expected to fight some of the larger creatures in the game world.

Because of this, you must use shadows to remain hidden. If you stay still, you can also be less visible, and the screen takes on a shade of blue if you are in cover. However, should an enemy come running towards you, the only real option is to turn away and crouch down, avoiding the possibility they’ll catch the glint of your eyes. This will make hearing the creatures creeping around you one of the most tense experiences in gaming, just waiting for the blow to knock your character into submission, or the sound of clawsteps wandering back the way they came. Staying perfectly still also enhances your vision in the dark, again, as in real life.

While the ‘stealth’ sections play a large part, there are a wide variety of weapons available to try and batter your opponents with. Pickaxes, shovels, even brooms, can be wielded as weapons, and as tools, with the mouse being used to swing the item one way, then back in the other direction to create virtual movement and momentum on screen to harm an enemy. We used the broom to dislodge an object up high, and then carried it round with us as a security blanket until we found the (much) more deadly pickaxe right at the end of the level. While we never needed either as a weapon, and perhaps a broom would only be useful for stalling the advance or breaking the gait of an onrushing creature, the feeling that you do need them is the crucial factor that plays throughout Penumbra: Overture, or at least the mine level anyway.

Because of all this, the potential for this game is huge. The developers have made it so that there may be five or six ways to solve each puzzle in the game because of the physics. While we used the broom to get the item as explained before, the notes covering the game and giving a walkthough of the level explains that you can stack boxes to get the item off the shelf, throw them to move it physically, or ‘perhaps some other way’. This faith in the system really shows that experimentation in the game is the way to go, and if you’re stuck on a puzzle or task, then do what you’d do in real life. If I saw a lamp on top of a bookcase in real life, that I couldn’t reach, I’d use a long object to get it down, move something so I could stand up to the level and reach it, or maybe try and push the bookcase over. All these things are possible in the game world, allowing a huge, huge array of possibilities for the gamer.

Excitingly, it has also been shown that breaking a beam for example, could be used to crush an enemy, with the rubble collapsing on a target below, and if this can be translated effectively and consistently into all the levels of the game (our pick axe did in fact do some damage to objects and part of the mine wall), then Penumbra could have truly endless depths.

It really benefits the game to be made with a unqiue engine, designed to show off the capabilities of the modern system in tech demos. Having said that, it ran beautifully on our two year old PC, and so should be open to almost everyone at launch.

Hopefully the story will unfold as dramatically as it sounds at the moment, and as long as people are satisfied with more atmosphere than action, creating the real feel, then this should go down well.

With around eight hours of gameplay in each episode, and the obvious replay value from the physics engine and multiple ways to solve each task, you should certainly keep an eye on this around the March 30th release, especially as it’s set to release at a knock down price, as is the trend for episodic games of today. Coming on the PC, Mac and Linux, again showing the knowledge and dedication of the developing team, this is a game that seems perfectly suited for the Wii (we can only hope, as the wiimote would be superb for this, despite the graphical downfall it would require), but will surely be a sleeper hit on the PC if the other levels of the game are half as immersive as what we’ve been playing this week. We expectantly await the finished version with over-sweaty palms.


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Lexicon/Gamers Gate
Frictional Games