First-person games where the main focus isn’t the soldier/alien/robot/demon in your iron sights are becoming increasingly popular. Early titles like Dear Esther and Gone Home, as well as more recent examples – Ether One, The Talos Principle and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture – have proved that there is an audience for the slower-paced exploration of these arguably more narrative-based first-person experiences.
Or proved, at least, that independent developers are capable of turning out some compelling adventures that are not viewed down the barrel of a gun. Pneuma: Breath of Life is another of this genre. Created in the ever-popular Unreal Engine 4, it opens with the titular Pneuma coming into being and declaring himself the god of this world of shiny, marbled corridors; of vast, pillared halls.
One of the first things that will grab you is Pneuma’s excitable narration. He believes himself to be god of this place he inhabits and continues to wax philosophical reasoning on why this must be the case for the first couple chapters of this game. As the game progresses however he begins to doubt this initial assertion, graduating to worry about why he exists at all. As the player you’re essentially tasked with solving a selection of puzzles to open doors, moving forward until you reach the end point of each level.
These puzzles begin with eye-shaped ‘switches’ that react to your presence (or perhaps their presence on your screen?) – opening doors only when in view, or shifting aspects of the scenery to correspond to your movements, again only when in view. These evolve to include binary state switches, either on or off, switched by looking at them. The timers then activate in the same manner, and when combined with the original eye switches, this leads to some really enjoyable brainteasers.
For some reason though, part-way through the third chapter these ocular motifs are jettisoned for a series of puzzles that don’t appear to be connected even loosely. While there are recurring themes of light and vision, it’s almost as if the designers ran out of ideas, resorting to mazes, mosaic re-creation and color matching. By the final third of the game the eyes are all but forgotten. It’s a shame, since other than Pneuma’s stream of consciousness and the promising start, there’s no real common thread tying the journey or the puzzles together.
Though the narrator was a welcome constant, Pneuma’s inane ramblings were an unwelcome presence overall, (for me at least.) Maybe if you’re a fan of philosophy, you may enjoy it more, but it tends to leave me a little cold. The script possesses wit on occasion, but for the most part, voice actor Jay Britton sounds like he’s reading directly from a philosophy textbook. He veers into scientific and mathematical territory too, but still manages to make Pneuma sound like he’s showing off. He came across as an arrogant, wannabe Danny Wallace (see Mike Bithell’s Thomas Was Alone or Volume) – an easy character to take a dislike to.
Thankfully, the journey is a relatively short one, consisting of six chapters book ended by a prologue and an epilogue and none of the essential puzzles are so obtuse as to confound completely. So, provided you don’t get sick of Pneuma’s attitude before then, there is enough of a pay-off at the game’s conclusion to recommend finishing it. Concerned as it with the nature of existence and what it is to be a game, Pneuma’s musings are given greater weight and context at its end. You could well be convinced that you were too hard on him.
From a technical standpoint Pneuma: Breath of Life is sound enough. Environments are often stunning, albeit a little sterile. Pristine halls and hallways, grand staircases, arches and pillars, are all lovingly rendered, but are then liberally sprinkled with rather generic crates, barrels and urns. There are occasional hints at something more interesting (a massive library; stacks of framed but unhung paintings) but otherwise, outside of the puzzles themselves, the contents of these attractive environments is underwhelming, verging on dull.
You see, while environments are often wide open, inviting exploration, they contain little other than a puzzle and a door leading to the next puzzle room. There is nothing to see or interact with beyond the obvious. It’s a distinctly linear experience. Every so often, Pneuma does branch into multiple options, but ultimately they feed back to the same doorway that’s barring progress. As far as replayability goes, there is a single collectible – a small red jewel – hidden within each level, and three optional puzzles dotted throughout, but there is little incentive to seek these out beyond ticking trophies/achievements of your list.
Impressive though as it is, perhaps Pneuma’s level of fidelity has been achieved more by virtue of the fact that there isn’t a great deal going on dynamically. Beyond surface detail there is rarely anything else happening in each scene. The game’s environments are more akin to the static screens in Myst than a genuinely convincing three-dimensional game world. But, whilst far from perfect, there is some minor clipping here and there on the occasionally moving parts, as well as the odd audio hiccup. Once or twice the background music dropped out altogether but on the whole it’s a mostly sturdy construct.
At a lower price point I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it, but as it currently stands, it is being out-performed by its competition. Pneuma: Breath of Life is not the most expensive way to spend a few hours puzzle solving, but at £12/$15, I believe there are lengthier, more challenging and more story-rich experiences available for smaller wedges of your wallet.
Though if you have already been over there and done all of that, you could well find something to enjoy here. A more likable, central character, (one that knew when to keep quiet) along with a series of connected puzzles that felt like they were evolving with your understanding of them, could have made it a greater first-person puzzler. As it is Pneuma is just an OK one.