We weren't quite sure what to make of Pneuma: Breath of Life before getting our hands on it. Early trailers gave the impression that it was to be a Myst-like puzzle game that took itself very seriously. The visuals looked stunning and, although certainly having an artistic spice to them, appeared to primarily be concerned with realism. Basically, the video footage led us to believe that Pneuma wouldn't have a funny bone in its body, with intense moments that would require players to desperately race against a clock — but that's not how it turned out. Sure, it's profound and complex due to the existential themes that it explores, but, largely, it's a go-at-your-own-pace puzzle adventure with a surprisingly playful attitude. And it's rather enjoyable for its brief duration.
Taking control of a being that awakes into consciousness at the start of the game, it’s your responsibility to push him through a series of environmental puzzles as he embarks on a quest of self-discovery. Early on he presumes that he is some sort of God because he’s able to move and manipulate the world around him, but the player isn’t to be sure of exactly what is going on. Through cheeky observations and often humorous monologue, our actions, which the character interprets as his own, are discussed and dissected at nearly every step of the way. It’s all scripted as you push along a linear path, approaching puzzle after puzzle and figuring out how to interact with each without assistance. Of course you’ll have to work out solutions, also.
Speaking of puzzles, there are some real mind-benders. Outside of walking, jumping, and being provided with a single contextual action button, it’s your physical movements that are often the key that puts the mysterious devices and odd contraptions in motion. For example, looking away from certain doors will cause them to rise, while looking directly at them leads to their closing. (spoiler alert: In a scenario like this, you’d need to approach the door while walking backwards) For the most part, this organic design works rather well, but there are a couple puzzles that we found ambiguous and far too obtuse for their own good. Thankfully these frustrating moments didn't end up being major blemishes when reflecting on the big picture.
As you may have noticed from trailers and screenshots, Pneuma is a very smooth and shiny looking game. By utilizing the Unreal 4 Engine, the developers, Deco Digital and Bevel Sudios, have created locations and settings that often feel dreamlike, similar to a painting or work of art. The Greek architecture and otherworldly machinery can occasionally feel a touch sterile and lifeless, possibly since there’s no other form of life inhabiting the surrounding space, but it doesn’t really detract from anything. We should mention that the frame-rate did sometimes take a noticeable hit when swinging the camera around quickly; when viewing the world at a steady pace, though, it's stable and fluid.
Pnema is a short experience – about three-ish hours if you keep plugging along and don’t get too held up. With our review copy of the game, we were provided a guide to help us bypass any section that gave us problems. We’re happy to admit that, even though we did get stuck a couple times, we never even had to open the guide. A little bit of persistence – and sometimes luck – ended up being all that was required to reach the end of our character’s journey. And, while we expect the conclusion might not satisfy everyone, it certainly resonated with us. It’s subtle yet thought-provoking, ever so slightly unsettling but also simple. It’s the kind of thing we probably should’ve seen coming, yet somehow didn’t. When our little adventure was all said and done, we were left reflecting on not only our in-game actions but also the real world around us. It’s always impressive when a video game can elicit a reaction like that.
Pneuma: Breath of Life didn't completely rock our world, but it did make for a captivating and satisfying afternoon in front of the television. If puzzle adventures are your thing and you don't mind linear progression, there's a lot to like here. From clever challenges to sleek visuals, playful humor to a stimulating theme, as long as you can stomach the thought of your hand not being held, it's a pretty entertaining ride from start to finish. But it should be clearly stated that this isn't the type of game that will appeal to everyone, so be sure that you've read our review thoroughly before spending your money.