In the beginning of Pneuma: Breath of Life, you are birthed as the narrator, a being with no prior recollection of anything that occurred before its conception within the game. The narrator repeatedly insists that it is a god as highlighted by comments on the creation of the world before its eyes and how it moves around the protagonist. The concepts of the narrator’s exploration of self and perceived divinity are at the center of the story for Pneuma.
As the game progresses, the narrator begins to question its level of control, authority, and the meaning of existence. Within this ongoing internal struggle, the narrator explores perception, spirituality, inspiration, meaningfulness, isolation, and other existential concepts. Players are kept in the dark along with the narrator while being asked to complete one task/puzzle after another.
The art design in Pneuma is, to put it bluntly, gorgeous. There’s a prominent Greco-Roman aesthetic throughout the game that seems to match the protagonists philosophical narration. Many of the floors, walls, and ceilings are adorned in marble and gold plating. The Unreal Engine is on full display as each environment, whether inside a massive, decorative temple or outside with trees and pillars, is covered in well-crafted textures and elegant displays of lighting. The details considered around the environment compliment the artistic vision as light bounces off reflective material and shadows cast upon notches and lines in the frames of paintings. It’s the type of presentation that sticks in your mind well after putting the controller down, which says a lot.
While the aesthetic is largely a great compliment to the game, I experienced a few very minor technical issues during my time playing (on the Xbox One). I could occasionally see light inexplicably coming through corners or edges of walls, reflective surfaces did not reflect the surrounding scenery accurately at times, and textures and environments would occasionally pop-in to replace the sudden presence of white nothingness if I turned a bit too quickly. These were not bothersome or really intrusive but stood out as blemishes against beautifully crafted setting.
The music in the game, while relatively forgettable, is often fitting as choirs are frequently used to match the “heavenly” context. A noteworthy inclusion concerning sound design is its implementation within puzzles. Although there is no hint system, I found myself stumbling upon a few clues given away by helpful sounds in the environment.
The gameplay mechanics in Pneuma are very straightforward. The player uses the left analog stick to move (WASD on PC), right analog stick to look around (mouse), a button to jump, and a button to interact with the environment. There is no crouching, no items to pick up, and no sprinting (but don’t worry, the movement speed is great for the size of the environments).
The majority of the puzzles deal with perception and physical presence. Many puzzles are dependent upon what the player can see onscreen and where they stand in the world. For instance, a gate will only open if the player is able see all important focal points (usually shaped as glowing eyes) onscreen at once. Another puzzle may require the player to gaze upon an eye attached to a moveable structure and then adjust the location of the structure by walking side-to-side, jumping, or moving the camera’s POV up or down. There are also more traditional, concrete aspects such as levers to pull, buttons to push, and stepping on floor panels, but it’s within the puzzles that are dependent on perspective in which Pneuma’s creativity really shines.
The overall design is a pleasant surprise as I haven’t often seen such unique strategies used in previous puzzle games. The puzzles are innovative and often exhibit intelligence. They can certainly be fun to explore as a result of the originality and are almost never frustrating. The fundamental design is also a great choice by the developers as the concept of perspective lends directly to the narrative within the game.
There is an inherent difficulty in reviewing a puzzle game. Some will find puzzles too difficult while others will find them too easy. While another individual may play Pneuma and think that the puzzles are too abstract in concept and fault the game for not having a hint system (as I’ve seen people say about the game), I, on the other hand, find the puzzles lacking any real challenge and therefore fault the game in the opposite direction.
With the simplicity and limitations associated with the controls, the puzzles became more about figuring them out rather than execution. During my playthrough, I understood finding the strategy to each puzzle was the only difficulty involved. With a game like Portal, I would spend an incredulous amount of time figuring out how to execute required demands and would subsequently feel a great reward for completing each task. In Pneuma, I simply felt like I was completing one task to get to the next. Without that intrinsic reward or satisfaction, puzzle-heavy games lose a large portion of their appeal (for me, anyway). I also recognize that this experience may be different for others.
The writing is great at posing existential and philosophical questions for the player. It’s a great reminder that video games can occasionally address meaningful subject matter. In saying that, the writing does have occasional flaws. The pacing is heavily flawed, particularly when analyzing the difference between the second and third acts of the game. The middle act heavily stalls while the ending seems to come out of nowhere. It felt as though the creators wished to tell more of a story but ran out of time and resources. There appears to be a full stop where the narrative should have continued.
There’s an interesting juxtaposition between the writing in Pneuma and the gameplay. While the writing is purposefully complex and thought provoking, I find the puzzles of which players are asked to complete relatively simple. As a result, the actual challenge of the game comes from the internalization of the story/narration and I cannot figure out if this was intended through the design.
Now, do I believe this is enough to not recommend the game? Absolutely not. I believe Pneuma has a lot to offer and is something that everyone should absolutely attempt to experience. It’s a thought provoking game and filled with unique, fun puzzles, especially for those who enjoy playing puzzle-based games. With the game clocking in at around four to five hours to complete, it also wouldn’t take a lot of time to invest in the experience. And knowing that Pneuma is Deco Digital’s first game, I will certainly keep my eyes on the developer in the future.
Pneuma: Breath of Life is currently available to download on the PC, PS4, and Xbox One.
An Innovative, Existential Puzzler
Although its puzzles are a bit too easy, Pneuma has writing that will make you consider some of the more meaningful aspects of life.