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Penumbra Overture - If You Dare

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I've always liked computer games. When I used Windows I liked to play games like Myst and Riven, but when I switched to Linux I had to be contented with first-person shooters. Fortunately, they do have a bit of puzzle intermixed with all the combat, but I still grow weary of gunfight after gunfight. That's why when I heard of Penumbra, I was quite excited. Penumbra Overture is a 3D first-person mystery puzzle game. It's a bit like the Quakes without the gunplay. Or perhaps it could be likened to Myst and Riven, but lots more frightening.

Introduction to the Game

You will become lost in the immersive atmosphere as you are taken to another place and time. Eerie graphics, terrifying sounds, and even formidable creatures make every turn a new adverture in horror. The storyline propels you into a journey you can not stop, even if you try. The suspense builds with each new challenge. I was torn between being anxious to find the ultimate answer and not wanting the game to end.

The graphics are high quality while still allowing good performance. They are realistic in design while yet giving the feel of surrealism. The creatures are a bit dated in appearance and interaction if being compared with the likes of DOOM 3, however they are good enough not distract from the overall atmosphere. When encountered, they are quite deadly, making them an integral part of the experience.

The Plot

In Penumbra Overture, you take on the persona of Phillip. Phillip is in mourning for the recent passing of his beloved mother when a letter from his long lost father arrives. Each session starts with an ominous confession from Phillip in which he states it wasn't grief over his mother or love of his father that drove him to his fate, it was human nature. Phillip, a physics professor, explains at the beginning of the game that a letter from his father arrived within days of the funeral, with instructions to destroy the contents of a bank deposit box. These contents are a old book, some personal notes, and a map of Northern Greenland. Of course Phillip doesn't burn the materials. Instead he hops a plane bound for the frozen tundra.

Your interactive experience begins in a cabin of an old charter boat. Starting here and throughout the game, you can open drawers, cabinets, doors, chests, hatches, and such - and do. Look in everything that opens. This is primarily where you'll find your clues and supplies. You'll find beef jerky, pain killers, flashlight batteries, and other objects needed in an upcoming puzzle. Supplies are plentiful, I didn't run out of anything except dynamite (which you don't really seem to need, but I kept trying to blow stuff up). You're equiped with a glowstick that never extinguishes, so you can save your batteries. You'll find things like notes, books, instructions, keys, blackpower, fuses to complete your tasks or advance to the next area. You'll encounter creatures trying to stop your trespass or feast on your presence. The only thing you won't have is a weapon. You can still fight these creatures with other objects found, but sometimes I just wished I had a six-shooter.

The Physics and Performance

Many interactive inanimate elements operated smoothly and as expected. For example, opening drawers and doors worked well and realistically. Clicking the game pieces entered inventory as designed. It might be a good idea to refer to the included user's Manual.pdf for how to use items in conjunction with another and such.

Although, I found picking up objects, especially those of a larger size a bit awkward. They bobbed around too far from "my hand" and as if almost out of control. It was difficult at times to place the object exactly as desired. They appeared to almost be control by a ghost. However, it wasn't so bad as to ruin the overall experience of the game. In fact, I became used to it and chalked it up to the gaming experience of Penumbra.

The creatures were a bit rough in their modeling, one in particular. Their animation during interaction was very limited in movement variation and the blood splatter was repetitive and not very realistic. The sounds assigned were convincing and terrifying. Again, like with the large inanimate objects, I soon became accustomed to the style of Anton Adamse and it never did detract from the overall gaming experience. But I would hope for slight improvement in upcoming episodes.

The movements of the main character with his environment were realistic for the most part. Walking, running, and climbing were very much as experienced in most other first-person games. The input controls were as found with other games, for example: W for walk, S for walk backwards, <shift> to run, and first mouse button main interactive control. Penumbra utilized a unique approach in the manipulation of certain movements which developers feel make the game more realistic. I found these movements very inexact and difficult to master. I would have preferred a more traditional approach, but it did not ruin the overall effect for me.

One aspect I found that I liked very much was concerning the health. I could be injured. I could be killed (and was often enough). But injuries were healed auto-magically. I didn't have to worry about running across health packs mysteriously abandoned around the world.

The atmosphere was dark by design to help create the environment and the lighting effects were successfully eerie and effective in building suspense. Overall darkness is one of the aspects that the user can adjust a bit in options. By increasing the gamma setting, one can lighten the environment to their liking. Other options one might adjust include mouse sensitivity, and graphic effects level for optimum performance from your video card and system. Available options are not as extensive as some other commercial games, but I found them adequate. For the .cfg file tweakers, Penumbra's is in XML, and a few more options are possible.

Auto saves are done at intuitive and timely spots in the game, but you can also quick save as desired using the F4 key. In addition, there is a save mechanism built-in the very environment of Overture, and it seems to be located right where one might want to save.

I found the performance of Penumbra very good on my hardware. I use an NVIDIA 6800 on a AMD 64 3700+ and I was able to run the game in full effects without performance degradation. I did identify two areas of the maps where performance was substantially and quite noticeably inferior. One was a short stint, but the other required several movements severely interrupting the game flow and experience. I lowered all graphic effects to the lowest possible for this area in testing and it did not help. Fortunately, it's just the one room, so once you suffer through your necessary tasks and exit, it's back to the normal enjoyment.

I experienced one freeze of the game during a loading. It was in a spot where I was being killed almost immediately after loading the saved game. I suppose I was on about my seventh respawn when the game did not load. It didn't lock my entire system and I was able to SSH into my machine and kill Penumbra, but I also had to kill the current X session. I noticed two or three times that the game suffered segamentation faults upon exit also. It didn't seen to effect anything. Afterward, the game restarted and loaded the saved game as desired.

One other problem I had with Penumbra was a squirrelly mouse. At the very first start of the game I discovered my mouse would behave strangely and my character could only rotate about 45 degrees. This is what kept me from playing Penumbra when it was first released. At that time no one knew the cause, including myself. But this time, it was a Frequently Asked Question. Although I had its suggested fix already in place, it did give me an idea on a workaround. It suggests making sure you have a NULL metamode for dual monitor setups. I have this, other games, such as Quake 4, have no problem with it. However for Penumbra, I used nvidia-settings to turn off the secondary monitor before starting the game and all was well.


Simply stated, I just loved the game. It was fun, fun, fun - which is the point of any game. The few glitches I spoke of were minor annoyances, and if you game on Linux very much you know it's true. It was scary, involving, and suspenseful with an intriguing and addictive plot. I enjoyed playing a game whose main activity wasn't shooting everything in sight, although having to overcome adversaries wasn't completely forsaken. I found Penumbra Overture well worth the meager asking price of 19.99 USD.

You can download a demo of Penumbra Overture, but be warned - if you try the demo, you'll go back and purchase the game. In fact, now that I've finished Overture, I'm on my way back to purchase Penumbra Black Plague, the second episode just recently released. They have an active support and discussion forum as well, including well marked spoilers, hints, and a walkthrough.

I just want to thank Frictional Games for including us Linux users in its gaming line and I sincerely hope they continue to provide exciting gaming experiences to us for years to come.

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