It’s dark. So very, very dark and to make matters worse we’re stranded inside a deserted shack out in the middle of the snowy tundra of Greenland. Leaving the shack you descend into a bizarre steel hatch in the middle of the blizzard. Welcome to Penumbra. Following the death of your mother, your apparently dead father sends you a letter leading you to a book full of clues that he told you to leave well alone. Ignoring his advice, you read the tome anyway and now you're duty bound to go and track him down, leading you into a twisted labyrinth of puzzles, dark winding corridors and advanced physics. And so it begins, with the first in the trilogy, Penumbra: Overture, the game that evolved from a tech demo Frictional Games created back in May of 2006.
Now the complete trilogy is available as a definitive collection - aptly titled Penumbra Collection - featuring the whole complex story in its entirety. More importantly, Penumbra Collection represents incredible value for money, packing in more than 50 unique scenarios to explore, adding up to a total of over 20 hours of mind-bending, physics-based puzzling. All three games are fully patched and updated, including improved Windows Vista support, so if you haven’t already invested in any of the Penumbra titles, then now is most definitely the time. If brooding atmospherics and immersive storytelling is your thing then you could do a lot worse than Frictional Games’ survival horror series. Penumbra Collection includes all three games from Penumbra: Overture to the continuing chapter Black Plague and the fan-service that was Requiem, the final chapter that closed the series by tying up loose ends but doesn’t really link into the overall story.
There's no mistaking it – Penumbra is dark. Possibly the darkest game we've ever played in fact.
You never know what might be lurking in the shadows. Always keep your flashlight at the ready.
Penumbra’s main selling point is the innovative physics model applied to almost every object in the game. Even the most innocuous items can be manipulated, inviting playful experimentation at every turn. Penumbra isn’t the kind of game you normally throw on for a casual blast; this is deep, cerebral stuff that requires an attentive brain to crack each conundrum. There’s no shooting or Resident Evil style brutality here either, just the disconcerting darkness and claustrophobia slowly creeping under your skin. A brilliantly sparse and ominous soundtrack ramps up the tension further, enhancing the subtly foreboding horror that pervades throughout Penumbra. Though not the most accomplished game graphically, sporting low-res textures that are starting to show their age, Penumbra still manages to conjure up some decent moments of genuine trepidation as elusive, unseen monsters gradually develop into something more threatening and your only option is to hide. Luckily, in areas shrouded in complete darkness, standing still gives you limited night vision imbuing your surroundings with an eerie blue light. Under normal circumstances, you’ll come to rely on your flashlight though with batteries becoming a precious commodity.
Still, it’s the tactile nature of the game’s interactive objects that provides the crux of Penumbra’s own gratifying brand of puzzling. Like Half-Life 2, picking up certain items and working out where they fit into the overall scheme can be at once a bewildering and ultimately rewarding activity. Penumbra’s physics start simple, with the opening of a door or cabinet drawer a case of clicking with the mouse and then actually moving it in the natural direction you want it to go. It’s amazing how much realistic physics enhance the sensation of playing with something tangible. However, anyone hoping for a Gordon Freeman Gravity Gun will be sorely disappointed as it’s hands-on only. The only weapons you’ll find in Penumbra are planks of wood to beat back the giant spiders.
'Excuse me sir. Can you tell me the way out? Oh...'
The brightness on my monitor won't go high enough to show me what's going on here. Answers on a postcard, please.
As Penumbra progresses things grow increasingly more challenging with all manner of levers, pulleys and other mechanisms coming into play. Pulling around enormous blocks onto switches, manoeuvring planks of wood to create makeshift walkways and turning valves to stop freezing jets of cold air are just early examples of some of the puzzles that soon develop into ever more convoluted dilemmas with head-scratching solutions. Of the earlier puzzles you encounter, flattening a coin to create a makeshift screwdriver is about as tough as it gets. Each chapter in the trilogy may wring every last drop of tension from its stealthy moments of careful evasion, but it’s the puzzles that take centre stage here, requiring extended periods of methodical thought and consideration. There are numerous ways to solve a puzzle and Frictional have managed to patch the instances where ‘clever’ players may have previously broke the game trying to complete a certain conundrum using unorthodox methods. We don’t want to ruin later puzzles by revealing them here, but let’s just say they more than fulfil their criteria and provide rewarding moments of elation when deciphered.
Top game moment:
PENUMBRA COLLECTION VERDICT
Penumbra Collection is an essential purchase if you failed to experience any of the previous games. Its own unique breed of first-person survival horror demands to be played by anyone with even a passing fancy for a dose of atmospheric and challenging puzzling. Having all three chapters together allows you to digest the suitably gripping and complex narrative in its entirety, which when coupled with the hugely immersive gameplay that runs throughout Penumbra Collection’s 20-odd hours, makes for a truly appealing package that’s worth every penny.
TOP GAME MOMENT
That opening section in Overture, ensconced in the shack where you discover the physics for the first time and become excited by the possibilities.