Monday, June 15, 2009

Penumbra Overture: Initial Thoughts

Steam had a sale on the Penumbra games a week ago, and I picked them up. I'd had my eye on them, and just couldn't justify not buying them. So I'm a couple of hours into the first game, Penumbra Overture, and thought I'd share some thoughts I've had as I got into it. Yes, the game is three or four years old, but I think it has aged extremely well, and it's an indie effort, so I figure there's no excuse not to talk about it.

I'll steer clear of any spoilers, and being only a couple of hours in I'm not sure that I'll have much in the way of forbidden knowledge to impart anyway.

Penumbra is a first person horror adventure game. You solve puzzles, and sneak around avoiding monsters, explore the environment, and try to piece together what is going on. It's wonderfully atmospheric, with sound, music, and lighting all working together well to make the thing scary.

The interface works like a regular FPS, WASD to move around, and the mouse to look around, but when you look directly at something you can manipulate a hand or eye icon appears. You can then right click to look at the item, or left click to pick it up or otherwise manipulate it. Now this sort of thing has been done before, but what I haven't seen is how you have to use your hand icon to manipulate everything. If you want to open a drawer, you grab it with your hand and pull it open. Want to turn a crank? Grab hold and give it a spin.

Interacting directly with the game objects like this makes me feel more like I'm in the world, and it makes the physics based puzzles much easier. Instead of picking up and stacking boxes like a forklift (like most games), you pick up the box and can see exactly where it's going, and carefully adjust its position in the stack. The best part though is when you're opening doors. I've always hated in games that a door is either open, or closed, especially if it's a scary game. I want to slowly open the door and peek into the next room, which you can do very naturally in Penumbra. Or if you want you can quickly throw the door open. It heightens the suspense when you're trying to quickly close the door before the monster sees you, but you don't want to make a lot of noise.

Unfortunately the interface, while great for exploring, is not so good for combat. You pick up various weapons in the game, so far all I've found are things like pick axes, hammers, and push brooms. You swing these by clicking, and actually swinging the mouse around the screen. This works really well when you're just trying to beat down a door with your pick axe, but when you're fighting an undead wolf it's not nearly as enjoyable. I'll try to make an attack, and end up looking in a different direction, or try looking in a different direction to target the enemy, and end up swinging my weapon. It feels pretty clunky. Fortunately, as I did some last minute research to confirm that buying the game was a good idea, I noticed that people complained about the combat, so when it asked me how hard I wanted the combat to be I swallowed my pride and set it to easy. I am so glad I did. Overall though, it isn't too bad, I'm glad it's mostly a game of exploration and puzzle solving, rather than combat.

This post has gotten kind of long, I'm surprised at how much I've had to say about the game. I don't want to make this into an impenetrable wall of text, so I'll pick up on this tomorrow.

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