Perhaps horror games are not my cup of tea; sure, they can be great, but they just don't sit well with me. And they've never truly scared me, apart from some shudders when a spook jumps out at you. Which isn't really horror, but more of a cheap shot at fear. F.E.A.R, ironically, was one of my biggest letdowns for horror.
Perhaps the problem is in the delivery, then -- games that call themselves "horror" truly aren't scary, but just looking to catch you off-guard. It takes a certain air to really be horror. It isn't enough to simply have something jump out at you, or have blood ooze from the walls. You need a setting, you need to be outnumbered, and you need to be made fragile.
And perhaps, that's where Penumbra comes in. I had been looking for a good horror game for awhile now. I don't flock to these games much, as they haven't been as good as Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem, a game I couldn't finish because (either due to age or true horror) it was too scary. BioShock? Yeah, okay, the setting is a bit creepy for 15 minutes, and the splicers scare you at first. But then it fades. Resident Evil? There comes a point of confidence in your ability to survive, which really breaks it for me. . .
But Penumbra. . . I had purchased this months and months ago, and yet never truly played it much. You play as Philip, a scientist whose mother recently passed away. When you receive a letter from your father, who is presumably dead, Philip embarks to northern Greenland, where he comes across a mine while seeking shelter from a blizzard.
Philip explores this mine for a bit, where he discovers strange artifacts, a babbling scientist, and creatures that have been effected by a strange psychoactive toxin. And this is where the "survival" comes in -- Philip is not Solid Snake, nor is he Master Chief. He's a frail scientist, who falls over in pain after three attacks (if you're lucky), and can barely swing a pickaxe to save his life. And yet, here he is, thrust into this strange environment that is suddenly trying to kill him, with only some crazy scientist guiding him on the other end of a radio, speaking in tongues.
Stealth is key, and is very nearly your only choice for survival. Philip panics at the sight of danger, meaning you spend a lot of time crouching behind boxes, with your face tucked in a corner, hoping, praying the skinless dog you're hiding from doesn't notice you. You hear the soft patter of the dogs footsteps, the growl of it as it passes by, and then. . . You're safe. For now.
No game I have played in the horror genre has ever kept me on my toes this much. Strange, whispering voices coming from the walls, enemies that truly can and will crush you at the wrong move, and a constant drive further into the mystery of the mine make up this truly wonderful game.
Is it perfect? Well, no. . . Combat is like trying to swim through mud. It is based on a system where you click, pull the mouse in one direction, and then swing in the opposite direction to launch an attack. Sounds difficult? It is. But then again, when Philip can be murdered in three hits (again, if you're lucky), the clunky combat doesn't really seem so bad. You're not here to dominate the mine -- you're here just to survive.
The lighting is superb, switching between lighted areas littered with shadows that could hide foes (you never know!) or darkness, relying on either your trusty flashlight or glowstick to guide your way. And the setting never becomes dull; while the majority of the game takes place underground, you never truly feel comfortable where you are. With no map system apart from the periodic sign you may come across, and creatures looming around you in almost every hallway, you feel lost and in danger at all times. It's horrifying.
Which is exactly what I want from my horror game. While I have only tasted the beginning of this adventure (Overture is the beginning of the series, leading into Black Plague and then Requiem), I'm excited to see more. The game draws the player in with its charm and gameplay, yet scares them into discomfort in its setting and sometimes overwhelming odds (Pro tip: Beware the spiders!). This game truly tests your ability to survive, and your resolve against the environment.
No game I have played since Eternal Darkness has come close to doing that. But Penumbra, so far, seems ready to take this throne.
(Penumbra: Overture is a game made by Swedish developer, Frictional Games. Their most recent survival horror game, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, was recently released on Steam.)