I've played quite a bit of this game's "unofficial" demo before and knew I had loved it.
By unofficial I mean to say my buddy made me play it from somewhere in the middle of the game before it freaked me out something silly huddled up in a corner wanting my mommy.
Today (October 17th, 2010) another good buddy of mine from Canada (The ever charming character of the BU - This IS Goliath
we are talking about here...) was kind enough to exchange a creative writing assignment for three whole games in one single shot on steam.
These three games make up the whole of the Penumbra Series. So lets get into the Review shall we?
So where to start, Well why not the first game titled:"Penumbra: Overture"
Yep that sound like a good place to start.Now imagine this situation for a moment if you would. Your father abandoned you before where born and was for the most part dead in your life. You grown up for the most part fatherless but driven to becoming a renowned Physicist at your University. Your young (about mid 30's) and full of deeper understanding about how the world ideally works. while it doesn't really play into any difference your also British and apparently very charming. After all most British intelligent guys are very charming, right?
Recently your mother passed away, leaving a void in your life and many question unanswered and never asked I would imagine. However, very soon after you receive a letter from your father. In it he begs for forgiveness, tells of his dire situation in as much that he'll likely be dead by the time you read the letter, and all that sort of stuff. Having never really known the man, you skim past all the absolution seeking and into the other part of the letter. It seems he has a safety deposit box with a few things in it as well as a key. Providing you will all the proof you'll need to take claim of the contents. you head to the bank where all this is stored.
It seems that the soon to be, if not already dead man, has been legally dead for almost 30 years already and so in the eyes of the law, everything in that safety deposit box has been your all along. no need for the proof your father provided.
Inside are some papers and a book along with a few other details written in some strange language. you take the book to one of your colleges at the university who is the foremost expert in linguistic. He is rendered totally useless and is unable to figure it out. however the Illustrations, and diagrams in these documents and books are right up your ally as a Physicist.
the letter begs you to not seek him out, and that you need to destroy everything you find in the safety deposit box, however, your a smart guy and after all that, you are also only human. Your curiosity is peeked...
You know what they say about curiosity and felines right? Well apparently you are just arrogant enough to think your somehow better then a cat, and that somehow his fate couldn't possible befall you, right?
So you set sail to where the clues are leading you. Deeply norther Greenland, far from any semblance of living.
Soon after you get off the chartered fishing vessel and heading in the general direction of where you suppose you need to go, a blizzard sets in. first your resolves starts to falter, then you spirits start to drop, then you realize, you can't feel your limbs and that if you don't find shelter soon, your a dead man claimed by hypothermia.
As you scramble for shelter, you stumble across a strange hatch in the middle of nowhere. it's wheel is frozen sealed with ice. Using a rock to brake the ice you open the hatch and start to climb down the ladder inside hoping that it warm enough inside to survive. after a few steps, the ladder fails and you plunge into the shaft and to the ground below. Battered bruised yet still alive and with only what you brought with you from the boat.
A note book, a flashlight, a Padlock (used to secure your belonging on the fishing boat in the berth's locker) and most of all questions to which there may very well be no answers.
Where ever this is, it's dark. it's old. and it very very scary...
Penumbra Overture is a scary as hell adventure game inspired by and in the tradition the works of HP Lovecraft (of the 1920 and early 1930 before dying of cancer in his mid 30's and before his popularity took off in the form of a small yet valid cult following.) the mind has the ability to cause far more fear then the sights and sounds have. and to place some one face to face with the unknown, well you can pretty much give some one a heart attack with a few subtle cues and maybe just a dash of cheap scares for good measure. even the Game engine Developed by .frictional games (the Developers and designers of the Penumbra series) pay special homage to HP Lovecraft by calling their in house game engine the HLP Engine or HPL1 as for their latest advancements with their latest game using the more advanced HPL2 engine. HPL stands for HP Lovecraft. So basically it's the HP Lovecraft Engine.
The tone of the game, and the situation the player/character find them selves in, is set very early on with the quote "Heroics are for Hollywood action heroes." and for this game it is very painfully true.
Apparently you didn't think to bring a gun with you, and why not. After all your a scientist, not Rambo. What you do have to defend your self with are a series of crude weapons and/or tool. Like for instance a claw hammer. In this game, you'll never see a gun or a laser weapon that is portable. Your real weapons are Light (or rather the lack of it) you wits and reasoning skill (both of which the player better have) and basic knowledge of stealth (which you better learn to use effectively very most ricky tick) if you hope to survive.
This game is 100% from the perspective of the character of Philip, a young and haunted English Physicist. It never deviated from this prospective like seen in games like the half-life series. this is so that the story happens to you rather then around you the player. you know as much about whats going on as the character does and no fancy PhD is going to save you where you find yourself in the here and now. this is a highly effective narrative.
Your character doesn't have very much to say in the form spoken dialog in the game. Mostly because there is no one around to talk to. in some cases talking would likely get you killed for that matter. Rather then voicing the character. the characters inner most thoughts (used as game hint's and story progression at time) is handled via text on screen. this is for everything from Tutorial on how to play the game to when the player inspects object or has triggered some event to happen that they can guess as to what is happening or at least just happened. Again this is very effective for a game like this.
Wandering the tunnels and the caverns of this underground/underice installation is very dangerous. There are things here that are alive and should not be. Mutated monsters and utterly alien creations and creatures. worse yet, your hearing and seeing thing that are just not there. they may have been but they are not now. worse yet, they maybe be there and you just can't fully perceive or see them, yet. and it get a lot worse the further you explore.
Unlike most other First Person game (or any other style of game for that matter) you are not given a Heads Up Display of vital information like health, Sanity, ammo or items you have with you. There is no mini map or map at all for that matter that you can have on screen as you explore. rather you note book and inventory are separate menus that you can access with a keyboard button press. You health indication is in the form of a little man illustration in you inventory screen which changes colors and poses the more health or injured you are.
There are visual and sound cues while real-time and exploring that you can pay attention to if your observant that can tell you your status both in terms of physical health and of your characters mental state as well. but these might likely happen to you as well in reality if placed under the same deadly dire and horrifying circumstances. so that fits in well also.
You are given 3 main tools for fighting off the effects of the lack of light right off the bat in this game. the first two are the flashlight (or torch for you European fellows), the rave favorite green chemical fluorescent green Glowsticks (Handy for when you run out of D-Cells batteries for you Flashlight) and finally the emergence style road flares.
All these these are all finite in nature and won't last forever. Some last longer then others however. So the game is as much about Light source and for that matter resource Conservation as it is about survival horror, and in survival horror, Light is a boon to maintaining ones sanity and seeing what is in fact going bump in the dark. Just because you don't believe in demon, ghost and monsters don't make them any less real, or dangerous.
Now on to the technical side of thing.
This game is 100% based around logical Physics puzzles, Note/clue collection/taking, and general explorations. It's also a stealth game much like The Thief and The Splinter Cell Series of games. You have to hide to stay alive and get the task done much of the time. direct Confrontation and Physical fighting skills will not serve you very well here. Some thing is the games dark environments just can not be killed no matter what you do to it. better to avoid it or at least avoid drawing it's notice then to go hand to hand with it. you are no hero here. you an intellectual and a scalar. I just can't stress this fact enough for this game.
The game has it's flaws, as do most game. While most of the enviroment look fairly realisting and are some time detailed, this is one of those older game.
The next great thing about this game is that it was built without a dedicated Level Editor. It wasn't until the introduction of the HLP2 Engine when the Frictional Games Developers made it's own propitiatory Level Editor for it's propitiatory Game Engine. There is only one Game from this group that uses the HLP2 Game engine. and that game is the recently released (as of September 8th, 2010) "Amnesia: The Dark Decent" which while not a Penumbra title, has much the same focus on exploration of a Creepy and supernaturally haunted location with a very muck like, if not way more advanced, physic manipulation system in place.
The Team is now well into Development of the HPL3 engine and a New Game that is still secret and untitled (at least publicly titled) game that will be using more outdoors environment requiring more realistic day and night lighting systems.
Just a little while ago the boys at frictional Games, have released the whole game engine under the GPL3 Open Source Liscens, allowing others to take their game engine and use it as their own for free. the game is still commercial and you will still need to buy it, but you can download and compile the engine.
So how you may be asking did the boys at frictional Game Make the game's environments? Using 3rd Party 3d Software. anything that can export a Collada dea file in fact. This includes blender as we all know. but Maya and 3DS Max users along with any other 3D modeler can also do the same job so long as you follow a few guidelines.
Then they also made a few support programs for managing the files and packing them into content they can make into their games contents. Textures materials and on. All the Level/Map files are in fact raw dea files. that and carefully labeled object and clever material creation.
Frictional Game is one of the true Independence Game studios out there. they had to solve a few big problems with a little budget and a very small, in terms of industry standard, sized team. What they built was an major achievement when you consider it's was done primarily as a labor of love and done very well and with some pretty major professional polish despite it's humble origins.
It's received some fairly high marks in the Indie circles and in part also the mainstream circles as well. and with good reason. This game truly is horrifically fun and truly crap in shorts educing scary.
The one major down fall of the game engine is that it is in fact what some in electronic gaming circles call a "Corridor" game engine. meaning it not meant for games where the player can get out side and explore a huge open space. examples of Corridor engines areas follows:
- Doom 1-3 and quake 1-3 with the idTech line of game engines
- Half-life series, Counterstrike, Team fortress and Left for Dead Series with the Source engine
- Some of the earlier version of the Unreal series up to and in part into the Unreal Engine 3 based games.
So it's not very suited for outdoors areas. that not to say that you can't make a convincing outdoors area with the engine. Because the above games have these simulated outdoors environments as does Penumbra Overture with it one that I've seen thus far.
So what I am getting at it that this game was a great achievement for a small indie game development team building their very own propitiatory game engine and making the scariest game I've even crapped my pants for.
While it's not 100% perfect, I award this game 9 out of 10 and further place this game on my I recommend you buy this right now and play it list. If your into scaring the willies out of yourself, you will not be disappointed. But a word of warning. Have several pair of extra undies handy while you play it, and play this game in a dark room for full effect. if you have to scream, better to let it out then to have you eyes pop out of their sockets trying to hold in your impression of a 5 year old girl screaming for her mommy.