Pneuma: Breath of Life is a first-person puzzle platformer that offers an interesting mechanic based on staring at objects in each room, while beating gamers over the head with a philosophical voice over.
In the post-Portal world, puzzle-platformers that cost gamers less than twenty bucks seem to be a dime a dozen. When a game fits into that genre and comes equipped with a wise-cracking voice-over narration, it’s hard not to compare it to the Valve Orange Box all-star. Pnuema: Breath of Life attempts to stand out from the crowd by acknowledging itself for exactly what it is and lecturing the player on the meaning of its existence throughout the entire campaign. If you can stomach the crash course in existentialism, the somewhat pretentious meta approach works out better than many gamers might expect.
Pneuma: Breath of Life launched on Xbox One and Steam (with Oculus Rift support) in February 2015. A few months later, the first-person perspective puzzler is now available for PS4 owners. Fair warning: Players sitting down with Pneuma should brace themselves for the longest monologue they’ve heard in some time. The game puts players in control of Pneuma, who seems to be the last being left in the universe. As players walk around the marble castle (and its surroundings) that Pneuma wakes up in, they must solve a series of visual puzzles to navigate through each room or area in an attempt to learn more about the mysteriously empty universe.
The game starts off with quite a few laughs. Unlike Portal, which had a silent protagonist listening to the constant talking of a third party, Pneuma’s main character is the one running its mouth in this game. The character has no memories and thinks of itself as a God, who is exploring the world around himself and testing the limits of his power. The Stephen Merchant-esque wit and banter is good for quite a few laughs throughout the game, but does occasionally just become background chatter as players attempt to concentrate on the puzzle at hand.
The narration leads off with lots of philosophical jokes about the meaning of existence and offers some pretty insightful observations without ever jumping all the way through the fourth wall. The game’s narrator stays in character and leaves the player with the responsibility of applying the philosophy 101 lessons to game design and play theory. We’ll avoid spoilers, but it’s safe to say that the tone does shift, rather abruptly, a few times throughout the game. As Pneuma starts to run into doors that don’t open immediately upon his command, the character starts to question his own power and begins to worry that maybe there is some ominous force watching over and controlling things. The meta commentary is interesting, but not quite as entertaining as the light-hearted jokes that the game starts off with.
As for solving the puzzles themselves, the player relies almost entirely on the power of vision. Looking at certain objects in a room, like a door for example, will trigger a certain reaction in the environment. Some doors will only open when the player is staring at them, while others will only open if the player’s gaze avoids the door. There are also some buttons and levers involved in manipulating each room, but the main mechanic in the game is the power of vision.
Navigating the game’s labyrinth requires the ability to solve some increasingly difficult puzzles, but Pneuma doesn’t include as many new skills as some of its contemporaries. The challenges definitely scale, but the core mechanics do not do a lot of growing throughout the game’s campaign. Things get very interesting when sound begins to take on power in the game as well, but we would have loved to see Deco Digital offer more opportunities to become more powerful and tackle more complicated obstacles.
The game may not scale the puzzles to impossible difficulties, but it does leave the burden of figuring them out on the players. The narrator offers a clue here and there (especially early on), but there are no road signs or hand-holdy demonstrations to help players solve the challenges. This is one of the game’s best strengths and the difficulty level of the challenges scale with the player’s experience level. It shouldn’t take more than five hours to work through all of the game’s challenges, so depending on how quickly gamers catch on, they should be reaching the hardest puzzles within just a few hours.
Although the game boils down to a walking sim with a puzzle component, the unique setting and mechanics make it worth a playthrough. The game suffers a bit from the power of its primary mechanic because looking around becomes a real risk in the middle of puzzles. Averting the player’s gaze to admire one of the room’s beautiful lighting effects or intricate marble stonework could set off a chain reaction that closes a door or makes a staircase fall out of place and forces players to start over at the beginning of the room. Proceed with caution and keep your eye on the prize.
Pneuma: Breath of Life is available now for PS4. It was released in February for Xbox One and PC. Game Rant was provided a PS4 code for this review