The world of video games might not have produced as many indie horror classics, but the next best thing might just be Penumbra: Overture -- Episode One. This deeply creepy first-person action adventure from Frictional Games may be so low budget that it first crept out of the grave in 2006 as a free online demo, but it delivers in the shivers department. Although there isn't much here for action-first splatterfest fans, and a few technical glitches make some aspects of the design more frustrating than frightening, a constant sense of peril and isolation mean that you shouldn't play this one unless you're happy to sleep with the lights on for a while.
As with all effective horror, atmosphere is paramount here. Penumbra gets off to a Lovecraftian start with the lead character, Phillip, getting a letter out of the blue from his long-missing father. The old man was apparently declared dead some 30 years before, but that didn't prevent him from licking a stamp and directing his son to a safety deposit box filled with indecipherable notebooks and a map of northern Greenland. All of this is more than a tad surreal. None of the backstory is explained, there is no character development, and you're not even clued in on why Phillip decides to head off to Greenland and wander around by himself in a blizzard. While this style of storytelling won't please fans of rigorous plots, the vagueness gives the game a gauzy, dreamy vibe. All of the action takes place in a mausoleum-like abandoned mine, too, which heightens both the weirdness and the sense of being detached from the real world.
Yet at the same time, this adventure is down to earth in many ways. Interacting with your surroundings is courtesy of a standard point-and-click interface, but you also have the ability to manually manipulate just about every object in the game. Doors, for example, aren't opened simply by clicking on them. Instead, you have to click on them and then pull them open by drawing back the cursor. You can similarly shove, carry, and pull just about every object in the game, from rocks to barrels of TNT. This gives you a tremendous amount of control over the environments and provides the game with organic puzzles. The developers haven't gone too far with this concept, either, so you're not constantly turning wheels or pulling open drawers. There is always a good reason for manipulating objects, and this usually involves solving commonsense conundrums by constructing a ramp over an electric fence with boards, sliding shelves out of the way to reveal a passage, stacking boxes to make a jumping platform, and other tasks that are similarly equal parts brainwork and busywork.
Combat is a bit iffy, though. It works along the same lines as what's described above, which means that you fight by mimicking actual movements like swinging a hammer or a two-by-four. The feel is similar to the mouse-swing mechanic in a golf game. This makes battles more intense than in the usual click-to-kill game, as your occasional bouts with creatures like undead dogs and giant spiders are realistically frantic and desperate. Unfortunately, fights are also so frenetic that it's almost impossible to control your movements. The camera angle locks when you hold down the mouse button and go into attack mode, which is a big headache because the nasties you battle never stay fixed in one spot and can take a lot of punishment before shuffling off this mortal coil. You eventually get used to combat (the trick is to keep hammering enemies when they go down), but it would have been much more sensible for the camera to lock on and move with enemies.
But maybe that would have made things too easy. The end result of the difficult combat is that you feel like an average Joe who wants to avoid zombie dogs with glowing eyes, not a video game superman out to stack dead canines like cordwood. In some ways, Penumbra is a cross between an adventure game and a stealth game like Thief or Splinter Cell. Phillip sure isn't much of a warrior. Staring directly at an enemy for too long causes him to go into a panic attack and the screen to get fuzzy and shaky, which can result in him standing up abruptly and revealing himself. Phillip's very good at hiding when not freaked out, however. He can crouch down for a few moments in the shadows and become invisible to passersby. There is no gem or similar interface gimmick to let you know when you're safely tucked away, although the screen takes on a blue hue and your vision improves whenever you're hidden from prying eyes. Many creatures in the game have fixed patrol routes as well, which further lets you play the game as if Phillip were Garrett or Sam Fisher.
Other aspects of Penumbra are similarly low key. Visuals are sparse but effective. Yet even though the visuals are a bit rough, the grainy textures, smeared brown-and-gray backdrops, and heavy shadows clouding details everywhere seem calculated to enhance the sensation that you're in a nightmare. If the graphics were sharper and more realistic, the creep factor wouldn't be nearly as strong. The game's audio is stellar. This game may have been made on the cheap, but the developers didn't cut corners when it came to dialogue and voice acting. The actor voicing Phillip does a great job of capturing the fear of being stranded alone in the dark, and your insane tour guide, Red, is one of the craziest, most memorable characters you'll ever meet in a game. Sound effects in the game are extremely creepy. The only noises you hear much of the time are the creaking floorboards, the echo of stone under your feet, the lionlike growl of the zombie doggies, and the chittering of spiders around the next corner. Music adds chills, with pianos and drumbeats underlining discoveries and the approach of monsters.
Even with the solid presentation, Penumbra is exposed as the work of a small time developer in spots. The biggest issue here is length. Even with a number of tough fights and lots of exploring, you can finish the game in six or seven hours. That's good enough for the $20 price tag, but it's not a stellar deal. The game is overly sensitive to changes made to the video and audio settings, as well. Enabling something as straightforward as hardware support for a sound card can cause the game to crash when loading, and there is no way to go back to the default settings without manually deleting the settings configuration file. From the same "Why the heck did they do that?" department comes the decision to lock out saving on demand in the default configuration settings. To enable this undocumented feature, you need to edit the config file with a text editor. Doing so isn't rocket science (all you need to do is change a "false" statement to read "true")--and the default autosave and option to save manually at artifacts in specific locations actually work great--but a feature like saving at any time shouldn't be hidden or require any messing around outside of the game itself.
Even with these eccentricities, Penumbra: Overture -- Episode One remains a great spookfest. The physics engine, the unremittingly grim and bizarre storyline, and the fact that you can be killed at almost any moment by some creature lurching out of the darkness really get into your head. Bring on episode two.