Penumbra: Overture

Penumbra: Overture
Penumbra: Overture Cover
Platforms Windows, Linux, OSX
Genre Physics-based Survival Horror
MtAMinutes to Action 3
Keep Playing? Yes

Just in time for Halloween, we have a special first hour of Penumbra: Overture. Released in 2007 by indie developer Frictional Games, Penumbra: Overture is the first in a trilogy that promises to be a uniquely frightening experience. As part survival horror, part puzzle solver and part first person shooter, initial previews evoke thoughts of Half-Life 2 infused with terror, which is just fine with us. I've heard great things about the game for a while, mostly from flattering word-of-mouth. This is as good a time as any, after purchasing it from the Humble Indie Bundle several months ago.

For this first hour playthrough, we've trying something a bit different. I played through and recorded the initial first hour and then sent the video to Greg, who then watched and wrote what he saw and felt during the run. I was curious in seeing how his experience would differ from mine, especially since third-person impressions are so important to overall game opinion, especially when it comes to making purchasing decisions. So I'll hand this off to Greg (while adding some extra comments I deem appropriate) and then bring it back for the conclusion.

If you wish, you can follow along yourself with the provided Youtube videos. Apologies about the graphical and slight sound sync issues, but you can blame Youtube for those.

Minute by Minute

00 - The game opens with some white text on black background. It’s a letter, from someone to us, the gamer. The letter warns us not to repeat his mistakes. “My name is Philip. If we are lucky, then by the time you receive this, I will be dead. If fate frowns, we all perish.” Ominous. The title screen appears and disappears, Steve selects a New Game with medium difficulty and the game begins.

01 - It all started in 2000, Philip is narrating now, he’s describing the day he received a letter from his dad. His dead dad. He wants him to go to the bank and get some security box.

02 - After picking up the documents from the security box, he’s told to burn them. But, of course, Philip’s human nature takes over and he starts poring over the documents. He follows their hints and he heads to northern Greenland on the last flight he’ll ever take.


03 - Looks like in game graphics now, we’re on the boat and Steve can pick things up and investigate objects from a first person perspective. Physics apparently work in this game as a bottle dropped from high up will bust.

04 - Some on-screen instructions are flashing by giving a quick tutorial on how to play the game. The physics engine does look pretty good. Steve picks up a flashlight and some extra batteries. That is not a good sign! Battery management!

06 - After reading a love letter now written for Philip (or Steve, or even me!), I’m starting to wonder what he’s supposed to do. Oh, so he has a flashlight and a glowstick. Interesting.

07 - He leaves the cabin of the ship and finds himself in a very, very cold outdoor area. Snow is blowing heavily and he’s going to need some shelter quickly. Steve decides to pick up a rock and carry it around for some reason.

08 - Oh, he used it to bust some ice off an in-ground hatch. I get the feeling he knew the solution to that puzzle already. Now he’s trying to slowly open the hatch by turning its big wheel. I can’t tell if it’s actually hard to open or if Steve just sucks at using the mouse.

10 - Maybe he was turning it the wrong way? Righty-tighty, lefty-loosey, right? Oh oh, now Steve is starting to apparently die from being out in the cold too long.

(This was really frustrating. For one, the turning mechanism didn't want to work correctly. And it apparently wasn't even supposed to move very much, which wasn't clear)

11 - The edges of the screen are going red and you can hear his heartbeat, but he finally gets the door open after dropping the rock from a high height a few times. Guess you never actually had to turn the wheel.

12 - There’s some evil sounding whispering as he falls down underground. He’s in some kind of mine shaft now, or something. Not quite sure. When he looks up at the shaft entrance you can hear the wind outside. Good effect.

13 - His flashlight reveals more of the area. There are a variety of crates and barrels around, some holding flares. The game apparently writes notes for you as you discover stuff that are supposed to be hints on what to do.

14 - He picks up a hammer and the game tells him he can swing it around by holding down a mouse button and making a hammer swinging motion. Reminds me of Zack and Wiki.

(Again, really frustrating with the controls as well, at least until you get used to it for a while)

16 - Steve spends a few minutes whacking at stuff with his new hammer. He busts open some barrels but they’re apparently empty. Oh, there’s some empty ammunition packs. A lot of them.

18 - I guess he’s trying to open a locked door, but to no avail. Ah, he finally found a boarded up hole in the wall behind a bookshelf, that’s his ticket out of there... and into some creepy looking, narrow purple cave.

20 - He’s wandering around some more, there’s another hatch in the floor but this one is “seriously” boarded up. There’s also some device with a hole in it, like he should plug a crank into it to turn something.

23 - Still chilling out waiting for something to happen. Steve is experimenting with a few different things to try and open that new hatch. Oh, he finally stuck something into that hole I mentioned and now he’s turning the device. The hatch has opened! He descends.

(This was just me being a noob and forgetting that I had the pipe...)

24 - Oh oh, the game has just warned about turning off light sources and staying quiet. Umm... is he gonna run into a local? The music suddenly becomes noticeable (to me). Very eerie.

26 - He’s being very sneaky, I’m steeling myself for the worst. Geez, just him opening a door makes almost like a growl sound.

27 - Steve touched an artifact and Philip has a moment where he remembers the father he never met. But the father who sent him down into this frigid hell. Now he’s reading a note about the mine from maybe World War II? Something about rations and stuff.

28 - Another note, this one mentions some chemical in the rock that has caused a high suicide rate for the miners. Great.

30 - The music has all but disappeared, I don’t like the (non-) sound of that. Steve is going through a bunch of filing cabinets finding a few minor health items along with a key.

31 - He finds some instructions on how to make dynamite, Philip is a scientist, I suppose he could handle constructing some.

32 - A wolf howls, oh crap. Now I can hear it growling. Is it going to attack? Can Philip fight back? All he has is a hammer.

33 - I don’t see it, but we can still hear it. A bit tense, has Steve even saved?!

(The artifacts thankfully save the game, also not mentioned though. Actually any red flash seemingly means the game is being saved, like when you enter a new area)

35 - Well, he made it out of the growling area without ever seeing anything, and he’s in some other storage room. Wait, I can hear something panting maybe? Another artifact triggers something that overwhelms Philip’s senses for a moment.

38 - Investigating a locked door triggers a thought from Philip that he can hear “chattering” on the other side of the door and wonders why they won’t open it. I’m just hoping they don’t!

39 - No, Steve. The door won’t bust even if you hit it with a hammer 100 times. Or throw cannonballs at it for that matter.

(Lies! Actually though, I was just kinda playing around with the ball physics. But I was hoping the door would open, and shortly after the first hour I did just have to bash on a door for a while...)

40 - Maybe he needs to blow the door up with some homemade dynamite? I’m a backseat gamer watching a video of someone playing a video game.

42 - He’s now dual-wielding a hammer and glowstick. Take that Master Chief! Oh, he’s underneath the floor now hammering away at some more things.

(I don't know why they even have a flashlight since the glowstick seems to work pretty well for almost all purposes. Well, except for the nasty green glow everywhere... Maybe the flashlight will have more of a purpose later ala Alan Wake? Uh oh, spoilers for a future article :P)

43 - He’s crawling through a tunnel now, it’s very dark and the creepy music has started up again. Philip mentions how he hates spiders. There’s some skittering sounds to accompany the rest of the awful atmosphere.

44 - A note about how the mine is cursed, or at least theorized to be cursed. Probably cursed. Yep.

46 - People always write diaries when they’re deep underground. Oh dang, Steve gets caught in a burst of steam and he’s really injured. Don’t die! He eats some painkillers and recovers his health.

47 - Oh no, killed by steam! It appears the game auto-saves so he only lost a few seconds of progress. This time he dodges the steam successfully.

50 - Another puzzle room or whatever you want to call them. About the only thing he can interact with in here is a knob to turn. He heads back into the steam caves... but I guess the knob turned the steam off. That would make sense.

51 - I never noticed an area that screamed “come here when the steam if off,” and apparently Steve didn’t either. More cave wandering.

(Yeah... no idea what the point of that was...)

52 - Oh snap. Some guy could just be heard wheezing and struggling, it looks like he cut the ladder off that would let us get back up from under the floor. So there is someone here!

53 - Like the experienced Half-Life 2 player he is, Steve is on a mission to stack things to get back up to the main level.

55 - While the physics seem true, by the difficulty he’s having I don’t think this is the correct solution to his problem. What is the correct solution, I have no idea.

58 - He’s now poking his head above floor. Grab on with both hands, man! Prince of Persia, Philip is not.

(Ugh. Frustrating. I thought it'd work.)

60 - The first hour of Penumbra ends with Steve still struggling to get out of the basement. Will Steve ever escape? Will Philip ever figure out why his father called him to Greenland? Will I ever play Dragon Age: Origins again? Find out, next time on THE FIRST HOUR!

First Hour Summary

What I Liked: I really liked Frictional's take on survival horror, on how they could keep you sufficiently on your toes through minimal atmospheric cues alone. I also have faith in the story to step up in an interesting way, but it currently seems a bit stagnant in the first hour. But overall, it seems a LOT like Doom 3 (technically and otherwise), with a focus on fear instead of fighting.

What I Didn't Like: I still wasn't particularly comfortable with the controls by the end of the first hour. You'd think mouse controls would work perfectly for this kind of motion-based physics gameplay, but it just seemed a bit off. I also didn't like how simple things such as saving weren't explained. I'm sure that decision was made to try to keep you engrossed in the gameplay instead of taking you out of the mood for a brief moment, but it's even more distracting when you realize "hey, I haven't saved. And there's not a save option in the menu. ...Am I going to die?"

Keep Playing? Yes. Even though the first hour wasn't spectacular by any means, it's done a very good job at keeping me sufficiently tense and I have faith in the game to step things up. Now if I could just get out of this basement. Oh here we go...

Penumbra Overture Basement Ladder