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Baron's Blitz: Review of Penumbra Episode 1

PostPosted: Sat Aug 31, 2013 11:50 am
by Baron von Gosu
As most of you who listen to the show already know, I am a huge fan of the survival horror game Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Not only have I been shilling for this game since the outset of our first episode (shilling, (v)- getting on ones knees to thank the video game production Gods through worship, continuous pimping of the game to everyone a person knows, and potential human sacrifice. And no I can't promise that's why Highlander hasn't been on the show the past 3 weeks......) and eagerly reviewed the latest trailer for its follow up game, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs set to release Sept 10. Amnesia was the first horror game that truly invoked any semblance of fear or suspense since I was 12 years old and played The 7th Guest for the first time. Most games, like bad B level horror movies, tended to instead focus on the occasional jump scare and endless amounts of gratuitous, pixelated blood. Amnesia dared to do one better which is why it constantly remains one of if not THE most terrifying game every created.

Needless to say the expectation for the follow up couldn't be any higher and rest assured I will be reviewing that mother the moment it graces my poor run down pc. But in the mean time I thought we could take a step back in time the next few weeks leading up to the release and take a peak at the earlier horror titles created by Amnesia master minds Frictional Games. The first of these titles is called, 'Penumbra Episode 1.'

Plot

The story begins with a narration by college professor Philip explaining a letter he recently received from his estranged father who he believed to have past away a long time ago. The letter urges Philip to destroy the attached documents, but instead for reasons described by Philip as plain curiosity, he travels to Greenland to investigate just what the hell his father was up to and why he sent the letter.

From there the games starts on a ship allowing you to search and collect items from around the room. Flares, flashlight batteries, painkillers, and glow sticks are a few of the more essential items you find searching the ship and eventually the research facility/mine. The story then shifts to being lost out in a blizzard when you stumble upon a shaft leading down into a mine. The mine ends up being part of a research facility where we find small snippets of journal entries, log books, and newspaper clippings that over time reveal more and more detail of what the place was used for. One of the more interesting aspects to the plot is a character named 'Red.' Early on in the story you find a radio that for whatever reason your character never uses to talk or call out for help. What you do end up using the radio for, however, is to listen to the mad ramblings of Red who is trapped somewhere in the facility. He asks you to help rescue him while at the same cursing and yelling at you for what could best be described as psychotic paranoia probably stemming from spending years in the facility alone. To find Red would mean finding out what your father was up to and hopefully your way out of the mine.

Game play

The game plays from the first person perspective with heavy emphasis on exploration and minimal focus on combat. The game engine runs very similar to that of Amnesia but with a few notable differences. For starters, Penumbra has a combat system. While you explore you find items like pickaxes and hammers which you can set to the numerical keys on your keyboard to be pulled and used as weapons. The engine makes use of the mouse for combat making you click and hold the left button and rolling your mouse to the left and right to create different swings at your enemies. If you don't feel like getting into a combat situation, Penumbra has a sneak/stealth system to help you move around enemies without being seen. One of the more interesting dynamics of the sneak system is when your crouching still the screen lights up with a bluish light to let you know you are perfectly still and silent. Each time you move the bluish light fades or goes away completely letting you know your movements may now make you vulnerable to enemies who may spot you. The majority of the game play though is set around interacting with the environment (moving rocks, barrels of TNT, opening doors, etc.), again using the point and click of the mouse and sliding it in the direction you want to move the object.

Impressions

The detail of the environment and the use of audio to set the mood are done very well. Often you can hear an enemy moving around long before you see them, prompting you to get ready for combat, hide, or run. The level design in a lot of ways comes off being like a puzzle, offering you maps early on that you need to quickly memorize or sketch or risk getting lost trying to find your way. This works well with the monsters being interspersed throughout so there's some sense of danger to getting lost. The musical score picks up during chase scenes and potential enemy encounters, but is appropriately low to non-existent when just walking around and exploring an area. Most of the items, boxes, crates, and barrels you find can be searched or used to help you on your way. The hallways and rooms are typically pitch black forcing you to rely on your flashlight (which needs batteries), flares, and glow sticks to illuminate the rooms enough to move. Also this serves as a beacon for enemies to find you too, so the decision of how often to use them rests on a player's desire to get into combat (which I don't recommend).

The combat and interacting system is my biggest bitch with the game. The movements are not fluid, well graphed, and seem to be better served on a Nintendo Wiimote rather than my mouse. The fighting is blotchy, you have to take ridiculous time to aim your swings which makes fast combat near impossible, and even turning a wheel or lever at times becomes a chore. Couple this with a chase scene designed to make you open and close doors between you and your pursuer and the result is a lot of agonizing repeating deaths because the doors don't respond well to the movement of the mouse. I also tested this to see if it just my mouse and pad by replacing each three times and the problems continued with each one. I can see now why Frictional's later improvements of the game engine focused on better mouse reactivity while dropping combat all together. The latter of which I still argue is one of the best aspects to a horror game ever to make it truly terrifying.

Enemies are basic and for the most part very repetitive. I'd say over 90% of the game you either fight a monster dog or knee high spiders that hatch from eggs any time you get close to them. There's also a giant worm that chases you around periodically. Otherwise there's not much else to see or avoid during exploration. I think this hurt the 'anything can happen' suspense that I increasingly believe is vital to making a truly horrifying experience. Some games design around the idea of random encounters which I'm sad to say is missing from Penumbra. I played through the episode twice and nothing changed from the experience. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it does pretty much make Penumbra a 'one and done' horror experience.

The story itself is very much lacking. The set up serves mostly as a reason to get you into the mine without building any sort of interest or sense of giving a damn as to why your character is there in the first place. There's no real development of the father-son dynamic, why the guy left in the first place, or personal monologues that delve into why the suddenly appearing letter bothers him at all. Sure the character makes mention of curiosity, but I would argue it takes more than curiosity to travel to another country across the ocean, venture into an unmapped portion of a frozen tundra, and risk dying of hypothermia just to satisfy a little curiosity. In my experience curiosity satisfies the debate of whether or not that shirt makes me look fat or if that cupcake really does taste like a chocolate orgasm. That's a far cry from risking life and limb for a guy who up until the letter arrived meant nothing to him. The voice acting of Philip came around flat and uninspired which didn't strike me as a surprise considering how little there was to work with. Red, on the other hand, I felt was done very well, both in terms of writing and voice acting. We truly get the sense of isolation and insanity through his voice and words, and to a degree both loathe and like the guy as we travel through the mine trying to find him. I don't much care for how things played out when you do eventually find him, but I won't spoil the surprise for those of you who want to check it out.

Overall Penumbra is a decent horror experience that runs on an early game engine that would eventually lead to the far superior Amnesia. Most of the skeleton of Amnesia's game play is there, only with a Wii inspired combat experience that left a lot to be desired. The story decently serves its purpose, but there's not much beyond a basic, satisfying horror experience. Out of 10 I give the first episode of Penumbra a 7.

Next week I'll take sometime to explore episode 2 of Penumbra while on the road to Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs.

Until next time, dear reader....