Episodic gaming hasn't really been as big a hit as the surrounding hype suggested it would be. We're still waiting for the next instalments from big hitters Half-Life 2 and SiN Episodes, and even moderately successful ventures like the new Sam and Max episodes haven't been released quite as regularly as fans would like. Next up to flex its episodic muscles is Penumbra Overture, a first-person adventure horror from Frictional Games. While Frictional might not have the budget to compete with the big boys, early impressions of Penumbra suggest that the game is going to provide players with a rather different gaming experience.
The first episode isn't due out until March, but I sat down with a portion from the middle of episode one. Set in a dark, dingy underground facility, you're totally alone as you wander the stone-walled corridors. Right off the bat it's clear to see that Penumbra won't be winning any awards for visual excellence, but the predominantly dark environment that's lit only by torch or glow light instantly creates a chilling atmosphere. And visuals aren't Penumbra's big selling point anyway.
Interaction is what the development has been focussed on, and each of the game's puzzles relies heavily on manhandling objects in the game world. Simple things, like pulling levers and opening and closing doors, feel fresh thanks to the hand-like control afforded by the mouse, but that's just the start of the interaction. A puzzle early on saw a heavy crate lying on the floor of a generator room. Without any means to crack it open, I seemed unable to get to the battery that lay inside.
After aimlessly wandering the corridors for some means to break open the crate, I remembered how interaction with the environment plays a large part in the gameplay. Once again in the generator room, I noticed a deep pit surrounded by a wooden fence. With a few blows from my pickaxe the fence split apart and I was able to push the crate over the edge and to the bottom of the pit, breaking it in the process. The battery lay waiting at the foot of the ladder, and once collected enabled me to power the generator.
A later section demonstrated this interaction, but in a different way. Finding myself in some tight underground tunnels, I encountered some rather nasty spiders. Making my way through the tunnels as fast as possible proved to be completely futile, as the spiders always caught up with me and I'd be a goner within seconds. The correct way to make it through alive is to use the boulders to block passages and light some paraffin that lay at the entrance to one of the spider dwellings. Successfully blocking these areas meant I could walk through the area without any problems.
Notes from long-gone workers are frequently found in the game's numerous rooms, and these more often than not contain clues or information on how to solve puzzles. One note contained a key for Morse code, which later came in useful to decode a message coming in over a radio. It was a nice little puzzle, even if a transmission simply giving a key code seems a tad strange.
While the puzzle aspect is certainly looking extremely promising at this stage, the combat is another matter entirely. Penumbra is still very much a work in progress, but combat at the moment is something best avoided if at all possible. While wandering the corridors I encountered numerous wolves, and taking them on always proved to be a recipe for a quick death. No matter how hard I tried, my pickaxe attacks proved to be hit and miss. Sneaking around turned out to be a more successful approach, although hopefully combat will be a more valid option when the game goes on sale.
Problematic combat and dated visuals aside, Penumbra is shaping up to be a nice little horror themed adventure. How well the story blends into the adventure will be vital to the game's success, but we'll have to wait until the final release in order to judge this fully. Look for more on Penumbra Overture as its March release approaches.