Maybe it was all the coffee we’d been drinking, but Penumbra: Overture (the first in this three-part series) is one of the few games that actually made us jump with fright. Entering the mysterious hatch and opening the mysterious door into all of that mysterious darkness, the protagonist nervously claims he thinks something might be down here in the darkness with him, and that if he happens to run into it, it would most likely kill him. So you crouch, and you hide in the dark from the thing because you’re no “Hollywood action hero,” and through some magical trick of character empathy, you’re actually scared. Then a wolf howls and you promptly shit yourself.
Trouble is, beyond this fantastic sense of fear that Penumbra: Overture so artfully applies through tense music and atmospheric lightning (that is, darkness); it’s actually a fairly average first-person adventure. Secret notes from a dead father, elaborate puzzles and a slowly unraveling storyline aside, there’s at least one interesting feature to be had - a physics system which sees you grabbing door handles and pushing with the mouse to open them, or clutching valves and moving your mouse in big circles to turn it.
This works better than you might think, being accurate enough to let you build ramps and basic platforms, while not forcing you to swing your mouse hand about in a “wax-on, wax-off” fashion. Something as simple as physically holding a lantern with your cursor as you walk, then placing it on a barrel while you use a keypad and picking it up again as you continue onwards just feels really clever.
If that wolf spots you though, Penumbra: Overture’s greatest faults become all too apparent. Not only is the game’s combat woefully bad, the same swipe-your-mouse system being a massive hindrance to actually hitting anything, but the AI is basic, predictable and irritating, turning that feeling of fear into a feeling of wanting to avoid fighting because it’s so awful.
Having come from an excellent little freeware game of the same name, we really wanted Penumbra: Overture to be better than this. That said, avoid combat and it remains an extremely smart adventure game with a lot to offer.