- Genre: Adventure/Horror
- Format: Download
- Developer: Frictional Games
- Publisher: Frictional Games
- System Requirements: Mac OS X v10.4, 1.5GHz PowerPC or Intel processor, 512MB RAM, Radeon 9600 or GeForce 4 graphics card (GeForce4MX not supported), 300MB hard drive space
- Review Computer: 2GHz 20" Intel Core Duo iMac, 1GB RAM, 256MB ATI Radeon X1600
- Network Feature: No
- Processor Compatibility: Universal
- Price: $19.99
- ESRB Rating: M
- Availability: Out now
- Demo: Available from various sources
Now, this one takes me back to a time when I was single and living on my own and could happily while away my evenings playing computer games. It was easy, then, to turn on the Power Computing Mac clone, turn off the apartment lights, and play a couple hours of some horror adventure game in an attempt to be creeped out. The trouble is that horror games generally sucked back then, and were more laughable than frightening. Sure, sometimes you got an AMBER: Journeys Beyond, but mostly you were stuck with a Phantasmagoria.
And did Applelinks really used to look like that?
The problem back then is that the technology required to really create an immersive, frightening game experience just wasn't there. Simply pointing and clicking your way through sparsely detailed still images with the occasional live action video tacked on usually is not going to set your pulse racing. It's ironic, then, that computers now have reached the point where they can handle the elements needed to create a scary gaming experience, but no one is making scary games.
Until now. Frictional Games has released Penumbra Overture for the Macintosh, and adventure gamers looking for a decent scare will finally get satisfactionprovided they're willing to deal with a few annoyances.
Penumbra Overture begins like 95% of all adventure/horror games before it; a mysterious letter from a dead/dying/missing parent/uncle/colleague entices the main character out of his/her bitterness/college studies to explore a mansion/ruins/Nazi mining facility. I certainly hope I never receive such a letter, as my life isn't conducive to packing up and flying to Egypt on a moment's notice so I can light a torch and pull a couple levers in some unexplored catacomb that could lead to space/Atlantis/space Atlantis.
Don't take this as criticism, though. I found the familiarity of Penumbra Overture's plotwhich is revealed through scattered letters/journals and through radio transmission from a fellow named "Red"to be endearing, actuallylike dusting off an old book for another read. The one problem, though, is that I felt no real attachment with Phillip, the main character you control throughout the game. He starts to question his own sanity almost immediately after he begins his descent into the mines, which rang false to me. Dude, if you're scared already, just leave. There's a big area between "I'm kind of frightened" and "Get out my head before I lose my mind! Or is there? Next time my daughter tells me she's afraid of the dark, maybe my first question should be, "Do you think you're about go insane an start eating spiders?"
Thankfully, the game's structure and style compensate for the lack of a logical/involving story. Adventure games may pretend to be about adventure, after all, but they're really just about solving puzzles. Penumbra has some fun and unique puzzles, many of which are based around the physics of the game. For instance, early on, an electric fence is blocking your path. In the old days, getting around it would've required finding a MacGyveresque combination of a paper clip, yarn, electrical cord and rat food to disable the electricity. In Penumbra Overture, you just need to stack a couple boxes, place a wooden plank from them to the fence, then walk across the plank. In other words, most of the puzzles here are meant to be solved the way you would in real life, because the game utilizes a more realistic physics engine.
This isn't a hypercard point-and-click adventure, after all. You navigate the mines in real time with controls similar to what you'd expect from a first-person shooter. WASD for movement, mouse for looking around and choosing your direction. You can pick up objects to use as weapons or to place before you in whatever position is needed. Although these controls are tricky at first (it took me multiple tries to properly place the wooden plank mentioned in the puzzle above), you will get the hang of it. You have to, really, or you'll die. No abandoned Nazi mine is without its dangers, after all, and you'll find yourself fighting rabid mummy wolves, giant spiders, etc. You have no gun, though, so you're stuck fending them off with whatever objects you can find: wooden planks, a hammer, slabs of meat, etc. The meat isn't for beating them, but for distracting them, which you'll have to do a lot. Penumbra Overture is more about stealth than action, so you'll find yourself crouching behind boxes quite frequently. This gets boring after a while, but you really have no other choice because the combat system is a mess. Knowing where and when to swing at a fast moving wolf was almost impossible to figure out, and the constant restoring of saved games was extremely frustrating. In the soon to come sequel, I hope Frictional Games either irons out the combat system or does away with it altogether, as it's currently ruining an otherwise effective adventure.
Is it scary, though? Depends upon your definition. It's heavy and creepy, and startling in places, but I can't say I was every actually scared. Most of the chills come from the wonderfully detailed graphics rife with darkened corridors and moving shadows. The whole game plays out like a slow walk through a haunted house; you know something's going to jump out at you, you just don't know when. The audio is very effective, too, with low whispers and odd echoes pushing along the madness. With the right speakers, you'll be wondering, "Did someone in the game say that, or is there someone behind me?" It's quite cool.
Unless someone actually is behind you, I mean. That's not so cool.
Sadly, the experience doesn't last long. Penumbra Overture really does play out like an overture, in that you'll miss everything that matters if you quit the series after this game. It's just a taste, a teaser for what's to come, and is therefore quite short. Depending upon how you play and whether you're ever able to effectively swing that hammer in self defense, you could very well spend as much time crouching and restoring as you do solving and exploring. But the game is only $20.00, which makes it cheaper than many shareware games available these days.
And anyway, what else are you going to buy if you're looking for some puzzle solving and a few good scares? Inventing the time machine to go back 10 years is going to cost way more than $20, I'm guessing. So try out the demo, purchase the game, and take it for what it is: an introduction to bigger and better things. Judging from the screens and teaser for Penumbra Black Plague (out now for the PC, coming soon for the Mac and Linux), that game could singlehandedly remind me of just what I used to find so scary about the dark.
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