Saturday, February 20, 2016

Game Review - Pneuma: Breath of Life (Xbox One, 2015)

One of the things I love most about video games is the discovery.  A new game brings all kinds of things to uncover: new controls and mechanics, new characters to meet and a new world to explore, new challenges and puzzles and strategies.  In my mind, testing the boundaries of the rules and learning to use those rules to your advantage are some of the greatest joys in gaming.

Pneuma: Breath of Life is almost a perfect embodiment of that particular gaming pleasure... briefly.  It's way too short, and the story goes deep into pretentious and annoying territory, but it offers a thoroughly fulfilling gameplay experience (while it lasts, anyway).

The Basics

Pneuma starts with the narrator and player character asserting rather confidently that he is god.  He commands the world, creating the corridors and decor surrounding him.

Or something like that.

You can tell it's a puzzle game from the glowing eyes!
Despite the grandiose introduction, Pneuma is just a first-person puzzle game that reminds me pretty strongly of the Myst series - you're thrust into this world with no real setup (aside from the narrator's mostly inconsequential rambling), and your only focus is to push your way through.

As you progress through the stages, you'll uncover new puzzles with new mechanics, but you have to figure out how they all work through trial and error.  Nothing is every spelled out explicitly (at least, not in advance - there are a few places where the narrator will remark about something you just did), so you're left with your wits and details of the game world to make progress.

The Good

And honestly, that's awesome.

It adds an interesting element to the problem solving necessary to move forward - not only do you have to figure out the solution to each puzzle, you also have to spend time playing with it to learn how it works.

In some cases, the solution may be clear, but the way you manipulate the puzzle may not be.  Other times, the situation is reversed, and you'll find yourself struggling more to find the right path to the answer.

More eyes! But this one's in a little maze...
It's generally a nice change of pace from most modern games, and I really wish we'd see this kind of gameplay more often.

The Bad

Unfortunately, Pneuma isn't the best vehicle for this particular gameplay experience, and the major flaws come down into three big categories.

The first is the one that's least important - the narrator is exceptionally long-winded and the story tries way too hard.  The end result is that common monologues are really annoying, and the game's finale seems... blunt.  The developers clearly tried to do something interesting with the storyline, but it falls completely flat.  It was terribly executed all around.

Second, the game is incredibly short.  I completed it in about two hours, and because it's completely reliant on puzzles, there is zero replay value.  Obviously your mileage will vary depending on how quickly you pick up on each puzzle, but I imagine the majority of gamers will finish between one and four hours - not really worth the $20 price tag when compared to some other games on the market.

It wouldn't be a puzzle game of the modern era without a light beam puzzle.
Third and finally, the most damning flaw: most of the puzzles are relatively simple.  The developers had the freedom to change basic gameplay mechanics for each puzzle, which opens a huge range of potential interactions, but the game hardly explores that space of possibilities.  Most of the puzzles are fairly straightforward, and you can easily brute force your way through some of them that are not.  I was expecting larger, more complicated puzzles as I progressed, but that big payoff just never happened.  It reduces the game to a series of brief puzzles when it could have been so much more.

To be totally fair, there are a few optional puzzles that definitely qualify as "larger, more complicated puzzles," though it's easy not to notice that they're even there.  It just leaves this huge void between the single-step puzzles of the main story and the incredibly opaque optional puzzles.

Overall, Pneuma could have been an amazing game with a few more difficult puzzles to lengthen the whole thing a bit and if they'd just cut the narration.  As it stands, it's great if you're looking for a unique gameplay experience, but even so it provides relatively little bang for your buck.  It's definitely worth checking out if you can get it heavily discounted, but otherwise you're probably better off investing your time and money elsewhere.

My Rating: 5/10 - ok.

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