In the face of massive games, big money publishers and the whole tilt the industry seems to have gone for bigger is better - Indie developers are often swept under the carpet, hidden like some old dust or plainly tossed aside in favour of something with a bigger budget and a massive development team.
I've always been a fan of mavericks, loud voices that rise above the clamour of the big guns. Who bravely shoulder the responsibility of making a game that rightly requires a lot more money and a bigger development crew than it has. Sometimes the results are a disaster and sometimes you find there's a diamond hidden away in the rough.
A while ago we ran a preview on a game called Penumbra Overture, well; finally we got our hands on a review copy and have been putting it through its paces.
Penumbra is a curious game; a mix of first person Alone in the Dark style horror with physics based gameplay puzzles. The one important thing to remember is: it's a game made by four people on a limited budget, and it's a good one. (So if you don't read below this line, we get that out of the way right now)
The story puts you firmly in the shoes of a gentleman who finds himself alone in Greenland, underground and with no way to get out (it seems) - it's the first episode in a trilogy and lays the foundations for what could be an excellent series of games.
The story is a little clunky in places but this comes from the fact that hey, it's a 3 part story and trying to do a trilogy is an immense undertaking in its own right, so rather than being trashed for it, the developers need to be commended for taking a big and bold step.
Penumbra seethes with Lovecraftian atmosphere and that's one of the strong points of the game. If you are looking for an action title like Half Life 2 or a shooter that lets you play an invulnerable Adonis grunt that lets rip with big guns, Penumbra best stay on the shelf. If you want something a little trickier that will have you reloading your save more often than not because it's quite hard in places, is genuinely creepy and has some innovations in gameplay and puzzles, then you want to snap it off the shelf now and take it to the counter!
Penumbra is a fantastic game for such a small team and in the sea of big budget titles it gives us a sense of hope, that more games like this that ooze love and attention, that are the product of a dedicated group of developers who give a damn about their game are on the horizon. As mentioned previously, it isn't an action game and the character that you play isn't built for fighting, it's best to try and think your way around various enemies.
If a fight is inevitable (as sometimes it is) then you may well take some brutal hits, since the combat system is a bit quirky and takes some getting used to. The whole thing relies on the movement of the mouse, to take objects in the game world and interact with your environment (or an enemies' skull). Pick up a hammer, try and smash a floor, smash an enemy and so on.
I believe that Penumbra Overture is one of the first games to take mouse control in a direction like this, where you can use it to open a drawer by moving the mouse backwards, close it by moving it forwards and so on. Every physical puzzle is based on such an interaction and it adds to the sense of immersion, I won't spoil any of the game at all by explaining this in great detail, suffice it to say that the system works quite well (it does fall down in a couple of places, until you get extremely confident with it).
I don't see Penumbra being a game that you can just pick up and play without making a lot of mistakes.
The game keeps the creepy atmosphere by including fear into the equation and further drawing similarities with H.P.Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos. Look too long at one of the grotesque dangers of the game and your character will react by nearly losing his mind.
So with the innovative (sometimes fiddly) mouse driven interaction gameplay, Penumbra shines as a very thoughtful title. It doesn't quite hit the mark in terms of getting these physics based puzzles bang on all the time, but I didn't really care about that since I was having a good time playing it. I didn't really mind that I was doing the equivalent of searching for keycards in Doom by looking for another way past another locked door.
I've heard people mention that the monster models and graphics in the game aren't quite up to par, again, this is a small team and since they've done something quite unique I don't care too much about that because the game is immensely playable and extremely fun (as well as mentally taxing in places) to play. It's suitably creepy graphics wise, dark and mysterious, as well as genuinely shocking in places. The bottom line is that the graphics are good enough and they immerse you into the game.
You should really play it in a darkened room and a quiet house, not one with cats in though because they have a habit of jumping on your lap when you least expect it.
The game has some suitably creepy music to go along with the visuals, it has some fairly decent dialogue and voices especially Red's voice, but I won't go any further because of spoilers. Your main character's voice sounds suitable; it's got that genuine person feel and doesn't really give you the impression that you're a movie-style action hero (which you're not).
The developers spent some time with the AI; it's not dumb as a brick AI at all and will bring other nearby enemies to your location. Run away, team up and so on. A great achievement for a 4 man team I think, and personally I found the AI to be quite a challenge.
It does have a few problems, clunky story, dark graphics in places and these slightly rugged models - but it has enough innovations and atmosphere to keep me coming back for more, which is what the developers should be happy to know. It's not a big budget production and I think they have done a sterling job and should be commended for it, so I have scored it appropriately since I feel it's a great first part to what promises to be an interesting series.
I look forwards to seeing what they can come up with for part 2.