It takes a special kind of atmospheric dread to maintain a player’s constant state of tension and unease despite no real danger ever being posed. This accurately describes both Penumbra: Overture’s greatest strengths and most disappointing shortcomings.
A host of dreaded dogs, overpowered spiders, and on occasion monstrous worms prowl the ruins of an abandoned mine, which our protagonist Philip ventures through after receiving a mysterious note from his dead father. But not a single instance of confrontation with these enemies elicits any form of personal terror during my entire playthrough. Anxiety sets in when a dog lunges after me, thanks in large part to the stirring score that plays during every encounter; but anxiety does not equate to fear, nor does cautiously maneuvering through the infested halls in efforts to ignore these creatures ever effectively raise tension.
I am motivated to move past these enemies because they represent an obstacle, however tedious. While the ruinous corridors are appropriately arranged for the player to slink past the creatures unawares — which suggests a keen consideration for level design on the part of developer Frictional Games — what truly succeeds as a result is the aim for puzzle design by means of character interaction. Eyeing the dogs and their patrol routes as a means of progressing past them stealthily become a riddle in and of themselves for the player to solve. Which is why the fierceness of the dogs and near-impossibility of escape make for compelling encounters.
There is a slight facilitation of combat; however, it is clunky and obtuse, with every swing from the pickaxe sluggishly forced by sliding the mouse forward. It’s arduous to control, and under pressure often proves disastrous. Whether intentional or not, this awkward functionality actually establishes the idea that sneaking past enemies is a far more effective means of advancement; but the inevitability of backtracking also means that this will make for a more harrowing journey. Spiders, meanwhile work far better as opponents in some regard; both this enemy type and the giant worms force the player to flee and manipulate the environment accordingly to impede their pursuit. It’s just too bad that neither pose menacing enough to elicit genuine fright. There is a significant lack of “fear” to be experienced in this horror-based game.
Part of the issue arises from a lack of consequence. Upon death, the player is immediately transported back to the nearest checkpoint. The game saves upon entrance to any area, and the levels are small enough where little progress is lost. As a result, Overture lacks any real stakes to the player, and fails to emphasize the necessary components to represent a survival horror experience. This is the game’s greatest flaw: its gameplay instances just are not scary.
This would not be as big an issue if the game was not so supportive of its own design. Throughout, it seems so intent on trying to manage a stimulating horror experience for the player but failing to successfully provide such. Instead, where Overture does manage to satisfy is in its intricate and well-formulated puzzle design, especially when situated within the contexts of enemy confrontations. Racing down a decrepit mine shaft, avoiding obstacles and fixing the environment around you to allow for a means of escape, all the while an enormous worm maliciously hunts you down; this is the most exciting moment of the game’s entirety. An oppressive tension forces the player’s mind to calculate quickly and efficiently, as the game throws numerous miniature puzzles to be solved directly in their way, one after the other (ie. pushing boxes into poisonous ooze to jump across; obstructing entrances with boulders to fend off the persistent spiders; etc.).
The game’s most successful method of facilitating unease is through atmosphere, which it so cautiously conceives. A mostly-linear experience, with backtracking aspects proportionate to its methodical construction, Penumbra: Overture drags the player into the dark unknown of a forgotten underground base, sealing them away from the equally-oppressive snowy desert world above them. It plunges them deeper and deeper within its shadowy, mysterious sequence of chambers, frequently hinting at the abhorrent history of the forsaken realm, all while maintaining a suitably-subtle approach to forging the haunting ambiance. These decaying mines feel authentically cursed, housing whispering spirits intent on influencing Simon out of their secluded home any way possible — from impeding his progression through raucous cave-ins, toxic territories, or harrowing situations.
A beacon of hope does shine through the cracks of the cavernous dwellings, however. The motivation to further explore comes from the existence of Red, a voice transmitted one way through a handheld radio, guiding your way down as his own mind descends into utter mania. While Simon’s time with him is short, he comes to regard Red as his “best friend,” a silly plot contrivance if anything, but representative of the disparaging desolation which so afflicts the protagonist.
Overture understands that a further incentive to continue on in search of answers is obligated for the notion to progress; a theory which clashes with the quizzical human instinct to follow through with solving a mystery, only as long as the pieces themselves appear compatible. As a result, the game insists that human motivation is founded upon the very notion of hope; perhaps a simple theme to be emphasized, though accordingly emphasized through gameplay and overall experience. I felt a consistent purpose in continuing forward into the unknown, which is fundamental to a game’s lasting effect.
The game’s persistence on facilitating utter loneliness only adds to the despair caused by Red’s death, and results in his immolation being the highlight moment of the entire venture. Here was the last vestibule of hope and companionship in an otherwise entirely-secluded experience, snatched away at the literal press of a button by the player him/herself. For a title so intent on primarily establishing its rules and functionality to later expand upon in subsequent releases, Overture takes it one step further, providing a key moment that comes to enlighten upon the ghastly effects of cabin fever.
It’s a game I can’t stop thinking about, and there must be a reason why. Though the narrative and gameplay elements fail to elicit little more than illusory suggestions of menace, the oppressively-frightening location itself chills me to the bone and actively stimulates an incentive to progress through its crumbling vestibules. If the situational occurrences fail to frighten, then the puzzle aspects absolutely shine, providing physics-based environmental conundrums to evaluate, all while under constant threat of invading enemies. The developers would go on to perfect this concept of creating anxiety through claustrophobic riddle-solving in later releases; but it is in Penumbra: Overture where this niche was originally flowered. And for its age, what ultimately amounts to a test-run shows everlasting signs of sophistication.
It’s a demo that proves convincing enough to stand on its own merits — which links it closer to P.T. than Outlast. For that, it deserves credit where credit is due: Penumbra: Overture is a flawed though intriguing concept work that succeeds in many regards. Penumbra: Overture is not ‘scary,’ and it fails to fully realise its potential. However, its atmosphere and construction more than compensate for a lack of simulated thrill, offering an experience akin to watching a caterpillar slowly cocoon into what will eventually become a revolting, transfigured butterfly, capable of a twisted beauty all its own.
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