Review: Pneuma: Breath of Life (PC, Xbox One)

pneumaPneuma: Breath of Life, a short downloadable puzzle game developed by Deco Digital and Bevel Studios, is a beautiful world of contemplation that, while sometimes muddied by overly poetic and philosophical narration, drives players forward on a unique quest to understand their purpose within the game’s meticulously crafted environment. The game puts you into the shoes of a character with deity-like aspirations. You start in the dark, and as if through your divine proclamation, light guides you forward until you reach a gorgeously rendered Roman-esque temple. What lays ahead of you are a series of puzzles of varying intricacy married with a narrative that asks questions of control and the very nature of player and character agency. Does the player do what the game wants or vice versa?

pneuma1First, it must be stated that the visuals of Pneuma, built on the Unreal Engine 4, are spell-bindingly gorgeous. As you meander through a series of temples, gardens, ancient ruins and forests, you can’t help but be taken aback by the reflections of light that shimmer on every piece or marble and stone. Through the interiors of the various temples and monuments, gold finishes give the Greco-Roman aesthetic an opulent sheen. One cannot help but marvel at the outstanding use of colour as it creates memorable spaces that stand-out in an industry that falls heavily on gritty shades of brown all too regularly.

As for the puzzles, the central theme required for solving them is vision. Many of the puzzles require lines of sight for you to progress. At times this will mean the manipulation of the environment; at others, it means the manipulation of your own movement. The puzzles are never overly unintuitive, that is with the exception of one puzzle where floor tiles must be painfully switched from black to white through a constant back and forth of looking at and away from each object. Tilt your head ever so slightly in the wrong direction and serious repercussions can be felt throughout the rest of your navigation of the puzzle. That one puzzle aside, I actually found many of the obstacles to be between the levels of simplistic and tolerably difficult. It is an uneasy balancing act for the developer, no doubt, for the game is meant to be heavily experiential. Almost Zen-like or medatative. To create too difficult of a puzzle system would have frustrated users and ultimately would have done a disservice to its greater meta-narrative.

pneuma2So then let’s get into the meat of the subject matter: the story as told through the dialogue/narration of your controlled character – our so-called ‘God’. I can tell that the dialogue espoused by the sole voice actor is going to be divisive. At times it has issues of base-level pretentiousness. The game has a bad habit of asking questions of simple problems, only to wax philosophically for 3 minutes on that very question – dialogue that ultimately passes you buy as you are too busy trying to figure your way through some of the games more perplexing puzzles. Had the amount of dialogue been reduced to its punchier and more fundamentally interesting parts, it would have fared far better against my capacity to ignore what was being spoken.  All of that being said, the dialogue of the protagonist has been written with specific purpose. His questioning, though at times obtuse, creates a sense of general mystery as the assumptions our God has at the beginning of the game (as well as our own), are put to the test toward its climax. He begins to doubt his role in this story while you as the player begin to question your own simultaneously. It is an interesting power dynamic that, while not wholly original, is done well enough in the games ultimate act that it gives your 2 to 3 hour experience a completely new meaning. It is clever and impactful writing that ends up in a fascinating space, if only it hadn’t made a few too many wrong turns en route.

In the end, I cannot help but recommend this game. It is short and impactful, though not without its faults. Its breath-taking beauty and interesting play on the role of character and player agency are just unique enough to outweigh some of the games less lustrous cons. In all, the game’s charms are just good enough to not let it pass you by. Pneuma is not a game changer, but certainly a wonderful pallet cleanser. It may be completed in an afternoon, yet it will also stay with you long after your play-through.

Follow Tom on Twitter @thomaskagar

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