Saturday, November 20, 2010

Penumbra Trilogy

One of the things that I really regretted the most about attending Gamescom 2010 was not being able to go to Paradox Interactive's booth! Sadly, they were only in the press area and not in the entertainment area, so as a mere mortal, I was not allowed to go by their booth and say hi or whatever it is I may have done. I have to admit, out of all the fun and innovative games that they published I only really know Penumbra. Penumbra is a trilogy consisting of Penumbra Overture, Penumbra Black Plague and Penumbra Requiem and it mainly takes place in an underground mine and later an underground bunker in the remote icy plains of Greenland. We don't get to know a whole lot about our protagonist named Phillip, except that he inherited a bunch of files from his father, who apparently had been declared dead for 30 years already, and who asks him to burn all the files and ignore the undecipherable information that is hidden inside of them. Naturally, Phillip indulges his curiosity and while he cannot crack the code and find out what it is he is supposed to burn and destroy, he finds a location marked in the notes: The above mentioned abandoned mine in Greenland.

Penumbra is one of the very rare games that I have not actually played myself. My boyfriend and me played it together, which means, he takes care of the controls and I occasionally pipe up when he is stuck somewhere. Because Penumbra does contain a bunch of really interesting riddles! You can't even really define the genre that Penumbra belongs to because to me it is a game not quite like anything I have ever experienced before. If pressed, I'd also group it under Survival Horror and Adventure Game. I'm mainly going to talk about Penumbra Overture here because that was the part that I enjoyed the most. We also played through Black Plague and liked it well enough but we were a bit disappointed with Requiem and didn't even finish playing that one.

Anyway, the first thing that probably springs to mind is the quite special controls of Penumbra. Penumbra actually has a working physics engine and the game also makes practical use of that engine, as opposed to "only" using it for realistic effects. Which means, as only a few games have fully made use of the physics engine before, you will have to block doors with barrels or stones that you will actually have to haul all the way over to where they are needed, by dragging them with your mouse. The controls of Penumbra are much less coded than it was the case with games of the same genre in the past. When you want to use a key, you don't just select it in your inventory. You take it into your hand and have to guide it to the keyhole. When you want to fight you actually have to swing the weapon around as opposed to pressing or holding an attack button. And maybe most memorably, if you want to open a door, you have to grab it and pull or push it open with your hand. The fact that doors aren't opening by themselves when you interact with them in a certain coded way is probably one of the things that makes the game the most immediate and creepy. Because the interaction with the game is much more direct and demands of you to actually perform motions such as attacking and opening of doors, everything feels much more real.

Then you have to mention that while the graphics aren't completely amazing as you might expect from super expensive games it is a very clever play with atmosphere and setting that makes up for any graphics shortcoming that you might experience. Penumbra Overture is a game that has the balls to never have you interact with another human shaped being face to face. You enter that abandoned mine in Greenland and soon start to feel that complete loneliness and isolation from the rest of humanity. There is no going back, there is only going deeper into the mine to finally chase down the information about your father and why it was so important to burn the files and never have the information contained in them known to mankind. After a while, you really start to feel the pressure and between big spiders, flayed dogs and mutant rock worms little breaks between game sessions are definitely advisable.

But after a while you also stop thinking so much about the reason why you have entered the mine in the first place because the strange ongoings in there and the meeting of a new "friend", which is only present through a staticy voice over a radio, you just start wondering what the hell has been going on in that mine. Penumbra is very subtle here. While some games would quickly point the viewer to the popular and quite overused trope of "Nazi superscience", Penumbra leaves it at subtle hints like supply sacks with "Thule" written on them and a typewriter from 1933. We always hope to find more information to what has been going on in the mine, what the research was for in the end and we are especially looking forward to the meeting of our only "friend" within the whole game, an ominous person named "Red" who guides us through the labyrinth of tunnels and caves, never quite knowing what he wants us to meet him for. The combined effects of the very involved physics engine and the psychological impact of constant isolation and imminent danger are guaranteed to grip you and make Penumbra Overture a trip that you won't forget quickly.

Apart from the general action of the game it is noticable that Penumbra is a game that has been made with a lot of love and out of the raw desire to just create a fun videogame. The voice acting is sometimes funny in a way that the voice acting in the first few Silent Hill games was slightly off in moments as well, but fans will grow to love these little quirks most certainly. Then there are some sweet little easter eggs to be found, one being a little sort of Space Invaders style game on one of the PCs in the abandoned shelter. Another one being a cute reference to a certain wellknown hero with a crowbar. Any game that makes a reference like that is cool by default.

Some people might find the ending of Penumbra Overture to be really disappointing. You could say that Frictional Games has been making this up as they were going along, especially when you consider that Penumbra Black Plague throws your protagonist into a completely disconnected scenario, having gone from the abandoned mine into a seemingly abandoned shelter and thus entering a whole different plot line. Fear not, the resolution of Black Plague is much more satisfying, but looking back I just can not help but be sad that the ending of Penumbra Overture has been kind of anticlimatic.

Still, Penumbra is a game that I can wholeheartedly recommend to anybody who is even slighty interested in Survival Horror or just a really well made game, different from most that we find on the market these days. Since the game has been out for some years already it's available for quite a cheap price at amazon so it's definitely worth having a look at, even if you, like me, turn out to be a bit too chicken to play the game yourself. It's the perfect game to play with a friend to keep encouraging each other to go on, go deeper into the mine. You're gonna have fun and will feel very glad that you aren't alone.

No comments:

Post a Comment