Frictional Games' indie survival horror series Penumbra encompasses three games (Overture, Black Plague, and Requiem) and a whole lotta shriekin'. The series follows a man named Philip who gets a letter one day from his father. Not unusual until you consider that Philip has never actually met his father, and the letter pleads with him to retrieve the contents of a safety deposit box and then burn it all. Curiosity gets the better of him, however, and Philip follows the coordinates on a map to Greenland, and a mine deep beneath the ice where the constant threat of a cave-in might be preferable to what else shares the darkness with him. Hope you brought your flashlight...
While most of the keys can be configured to your taste, including the default [WASD] movement, the game is largely controlled with the mouse. Not only do you point and click, but you click and hold on objects to pick them up and toss them around, and some objects actually respond to mouse movement. To use levers, for example, you click and hold on them, then push the mouse towards or away from yourself. It works really well... except when it doesn't, and you have to spend a few frustrating moments fiddling with your orientation and waggling the mouse around experimentally to find out what you should be doing. (Valves or anything you need to spin can be fairly vexing if you're not facing them properly.) The rest of the time, it adds a nice touch to the atmosphere; pushing and shoving furniture into place to block a door, or flinging bottles of ketchup around a freezer to watch them shatter. What, come on, that's totally useful!
Philip is a lover. At least, we're going to assume he is, because he sure ain't a fighter. There is an enormous emphasis on stealth in the series, from throwing objects to distract or mislead enemies to quietly extinguishing lanterns so you can sneak around. You'll learn to utilise cover in your environment by peering around it or through cracks, and most areas are well designed enough as to allow the careful player to sneak through undetected. A relief, since the Pushme-Pullyou mouse movements that generally serve the immersion so well when exploring sadly fall more than a little short of presenting any decent combat capabilities in Overture. I assume you, sirs and madams, I can swing a pickaxe much more competently than this game would lead you to believe. Thankfully, only the first title features combat. The other two largely encourage you to run your butt off, or hide like the little rabbit you are.
As you go along, Phillip jots down notes in his journal to help keep you on track, as well as catalogue the various documents you'll find. While the game autosaves for you from time to time, the only way to manually save your game is by finding and using a
Pier 1 Import Decorative Patio Lantern mystical artifact that glows with an eerie orange light. (... and looks like a decorative patio lantern.) They're not very common, and you can't take them with you, so make sure to use them whenever possible.
Analysis: From start to finish, the Penumbra series manages to improve quite a bit as it goes along. The story that evolves feels a bit like someone left the script for their Resident Evil/Silent Hill crossover fanfiction too close to a copy of Eternal Darkness, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Certain elements to the story will be familiar if you've followed the horror gaming scene at all, but Penumbra presents them with style. You never feel safe, and in a survival horror title, that's incredibly important to the experience. You find yourself second-guessing choices, or crouched in your hiding place wondering if it's safe to come out, and the game delights in messing with your perceptions.
The first in the series, Overture, has more than a few frightening moments. Hiding is always preferable to fighting, and as such you'll spend a lot of time crouched in dark corners hoping whatever you can hear snuffling nearby doesn't wander too close. Picking up directly where it leaves off, its sequel, Black Plague, features an extremely tense sequence right from the get-go and doesn't let up. I found myself dreading every corner and closed door, and was genuinely terrified when the cat chose an inopportune time to brush against my bare leg. Frictional Games has a wonderful gift for psychological horror, feeding you little glimpses and soft sounds so that your mind fills in the blanks with the worst you can dream up. What's making noise behind that door?! Clowns and squid? Clownsquid? NooOOOoOoo!
The puzzles are mostly fair, relying a bit more on logic than switch-flipping the further you go. More often than not, the physics engine plays a part in solving problems. At one point in Black Plague I was presented with a locked cabinet the game informed me I couldn't open with my bare hands, and I cannot tell you how thrilled I was when I discovered that, yes, I could bash the sucker open with any nearby heavy object if I swung it hard enough, rather than having to track down a particular item to jimmy it open. I was immensely impressed to find that more often than not my instinctual reaction to a puzzle would turn out to be correct; use debris to build ramps and pathways, sparks from malfunctioning equipment to light fires, and so forth.
Visually, the games are... well, functional. The looks certainly aren't bad, with some terrific use of lighting to cast shadows, but some of the textures are disappointingly muddy even at a medium distance. But hey, graphics? We don't need no steekeeng graphics, and you don't come to Penumbra to be woo'ed with fancy cell shading. The series is tremendously clever in its use of sound to enhance the experience, everything from whispers you aren't quite sure you heard, to something skittering through the walls, to something unpleasant happening to someone else close by.
Of course, once you're done with Penumbra, you're done. There isn't really much reason to replay, since most of the atmosphere will be lost once you've seen everything the game throws at you and know what to expect. But for me, at least, the lack of real replay value doesn't matter because Penumbra was a great experience; the sort of experience that makes you realise you've been holding your breath or sitting uncomfortably tense for the last five minutes... and, okay, maybe I screamed. Once or twice. While the narrative does feel like it loses steam midway through the series, it's a frequently scary, incredibly tense, and a wonderful treat for when you're home alone at night. Depending on your play style, the first two games will probably run about six to eight hours apiece, with the last maybe half that. Penumbra is a series you should definitely check out if you've been bored by the endless parade of shooty-growly action horror titles that have come down the river. At the very least, the next time someone says "Bring me a saw," it'll send a chill up your spine.
If Penumbra's fragrant blend of oppressive horror is up your proverbial alley, you may be interested in checking out Amnesia: The Dark Descent, which is available this August by the same developers.