Pneuma: Breath Of Life holds the unenviable position as being the Xbox One’s first Unreal Engine 4 powered game. The console timed exclusive also hits PC the very same day, with Oculus Rift support to boot. With all of this new technology being brought to bear, the question is, have Deco Digital and Bevel Studios created something genuinely enjoyable, or merely technically impressive?
The game’s vaunted set-up is as an exploration of the ontological mystery of The Breath Of Life. What that translates to is a journey through various motion-driven puzzles, witnessed and affected by the actions of a God, whose monologue ponders upon his own existence, and of that around him. You start in darkness, only to have the world form around you as you progress, with creation of the world seemingly in your character’s nature.
That disembodied monologue, for many, may be a defining factor of the game, and whilst occasionally amusing at the outset, very often I found his philosophical musings annoying and flippant. After a while the voice began not to fit with the game’s other design elements, with both the visuals and the music lending a relaxed but grandiose atmosphere that seems out of sync with the increasingly hyperactive theoretical spoutings of the central character.
Some of his later speculation actually sounds like a rushed reading from a philosophy textbook, and is gone so fast that the player is unlikely to have taken in whatever meaning the designers were aiming for. However, a pivotal moment later in the narrative sees the voice reassert itself as a character, and though I couldn’t quite forget my earlier annoyances, some of them were forgiven.
The inital gameplay dynamic is that ‘as the door is watched, it can be opened’, with your progress halted by various gates and doors. The simple dynamic requires you to find the corresponding glowing eye which causes doors to open as long as you’re observing them. This results, at least at the outset, in a portion of walking through doors backwards, which though clearly the answer to the puzzle, didn’t feel particularly clever. However, as with all puzzle games, the tougher moments required some serious consideration, with their completion certainly empowering me.
All of the puzzles are based upon your character’s motion and interaction with the world, with nothing more than your observational skills and the occasional in-game button to press. Sometimes I did find the method of controlling the moveable elements to be a bit troublesome, and with the only way to stop observing many of the puzzles to be to look away, you will spend some time intentionally staring at the floor or the ceiling.
There are definitely sticking points, and the difficulty level is inconsistent, but overall it’s not an particularly taxing affair. I spent approximately three hours making my way through the game, and with the runtime being relatively short across the six main chapters as well as the prologue and epilogue, it’s clear that the designers want you to experience the whole of what they’ve created, rather than give up before making it to the end. It’s a decision that makes sense in context, as that final narrative payoff is hugely important to what you take away from the game.
Those Unreal Engine 4 visuals are a big selling point, and in Pneuma they’ve been put to use in classical fashion, with your controllable God finding his way through the remarkably reflective marbled interiors and exteriors of impressive Romano-Grecian temple architecture, with a brief sojourn through the outside world. From a technical point of view the game runs well on Xbox One, though there are very occasional graphical glitches, screen tearing and the odd dropped frame when swiftly panning the camera. All in all though, and especially considering its indie status, Pneuma is a very attractive game within the confines of its design.
One of the earliest taglines that drew me to the game was that it was ‘a story that could only be told through the interactive medium of video games’. That premise holds up, though to be any clearer would rob the game of its defining strength. It’s an enjoyable puzzler, though not one which should tax you too much, but its overarching premise, and its use of the God’s monologue to tie it all together, are really the main reason for playing. I can’t help but wonder though, that, as with all philosophical thought, people’s responses to the game will be entirely individual and that the central character’s imperfection may not sit well with some players.
Pneuma: Breath Of Life is a game that I urge you to experience. It’s not perfect, but in a way that fits entirely with its own outlook, and its effectiveness as a story is both thought-provoking and surprising. Pre-conceptions aside, it is certainly an intriguing and unique title that explores elements of philosophy and life often left untouched by gaming.
Version tested: Xbox One