Played on: Xbox One.
Available on: PC & Xbox One.
Deco Digital’s Pneuma: The Breath of Life is a first-person puzzle game that is, I’m happy to say, probably the breath of fresh air you have been waiting for. Whilst Pneuma doesn’t quite live up to the high standards of the world’s most famous first-person puzzle series, Valve’s Portal, it does provide some good, challenging, and thought-provoking entertainment providing you can see past its shortcomings and brevity.
In Pneuma you play as a disembodied ‘God’ on a journey initially of discovery, and latterly of uncertainty, as you explore and question your self-proclaimed status as a world creating deity, with the game’s narrative being told through the voice of Pneuma, the ‘God’ you are playing as. Pneuma’s slowly building paranoia and realisation about the world around him is interesting, and at first genuinely funny, though towards the end of the game the philosophical nature of Pneuma’s questions moves the edge away from amusement into more serious areas of debate. By the end of the game Pneuma asks questions about life, existence and what it means to control a game character without thought of consequence, ultimately confronting the question that every gamer has had at one time or another: what if my game character is alive?!
The Breath of Life is a game about perception and so puzzles usually centre around what you are, or are not, looking at. For example, some doors will only open if you aren’t looking at them, whilst bridges might rotate in accordance with your shifting viewpoint. It’s an interesting mechanic, but at times it can be a little frustrating. In Portal and Portal 2, the only other first-person puzzle games that are similar that I’ve actually played, puzzles sometimes take a lot of thought, and trial and error, to solve, but once you do solve them the answer becomes as clear as daylight. Not so in Pneuma, where I’ve managed to solve some puzzles whilst jumping up and down and randomly shifting my view without knowing what actually helped me progress further. Sure it worked, and it didn’t happen that often, but it’s still not very satisfying.
Additionally, the controls can make some of the puzzles overly tricky, as they require a lot more finesse than a gamepad can allow for. One puzzle tasks you with turning square floor tiles upside down by not looking at them. However, as you try to line your vision up exactly with the next tile, you often catch another tile on screen, in the corner of your vision, quite literally putting you back to square one. It’s an experience I imagine works better with a VR headset, an option you will have if you own an Oculus Rift and opt for the PC release. More traditional lever- or button-based puzzles cause less problems for the gamepad, but they’re also not as interesting or unique as Pneuma’s vision-based puzzles.
Visually Pneuma: The Breath of Life is a beautiful game. Unreal Engine 4 does a great job of showing off the vibrant, Garden of Eden style outdoor environments, and marble has never looked so shiny in a video game before, with only the rain in the Epilogue really disappointing in the looks department. Even on Xbox One, Pneuma is a visual treat, although it should be noted that on Microsoft’s console the game does have a tendency to stutter and drop frames fairly frequently. These momentary dips can be forgiven though, thanks to the game’s aesthetics and the fact that fast reaction times aren’t often needed by this slow and steady puzzler.
Pneuma: The Breath of Life isn’t really a God- or religion-based game, despite some obvious thematic crossovers with religion. In truth Pneuma’s questions are actually a lot more philosophical at heart, asking sweeping questions about how we control and influence our environment and conversely are controlled and influenced by it. More so it challenges the thought-process on games, throwaway media, and even the nature of AI. At its core Pneuma is all about perception, both visually and philosophically, and it is a thought-provoking game that encourages problem-solving. It’s just a shame that Pneuma, a game that claims not to be about a player’s skills with a controller, is so often held back by the input hardware.
The sketchy frame-rate, at times ambiguous puzzles, and precision tasks knock Pneuma down a peg or two, but it’s the high price of £15.99 for roughly 4 hours of not-replayable gameplay that makes Pneuma: The Breath of Life a tough sell. Still, if you fancy giving your brain a work out, want some thought-provoking and at times genuinely deep dialogue, the kind of which is rarely found in video games, then Pneuma could be worth a try. And of course it helps that it looks great too.
I perceive an inevitable price drop in an Xbox Live sale deal later this year, so it could be worth waiting until that happens to download Pneuma: The Breath of Life. That said, the 4 hours I spent with the game were worth every penny, and ultimately and ironically whether or not you enjoy Pneuma: The Breath of Life will come down to your perception of it. That, however, is a puzzle that you’ll have to solve on your own.
Images from http://www.pneumabreathoflife.com.