It’s considered brave nowadays for a game to severely limit the means you have of interacting with it, but that’s exactly what Pneuma: Breath Of Life does. Look around and jump. Aside from rare exceptions, that’s all you can do. Not that that’s a negative – far from it. In fact, the minimalist means of communication you have with this first-person puzzler reflects quite brilliantly the sleek and efficient way it presents its challenges. Few games manage to incorporate their control scheme into the fundamental experience of playing a game, but Pneuma manages to capture exactly that.
The majority of puzzles are solved by looking in the right places; sometimes at the correct time, sometimes from the correct position, sometimes in the correct order, sometimes all three. Quite literally, focus your attention on a certain orb, floor tile or lamp and progression is granted. It sounds easy, but the skill and ingenuity with which some of the included brainteasers have been designed can make certain areas of Pneuma’s six full chapters unpredictably taxing. Figuring out how to correctly position three doors, for instance, to allow a beam of light to penetrate a glass prism is less straightforward when said doors are interconnected through different orbs. All three doors must remain open simultaneously, but their associated orbs (which act like switches) act to open one door whilst closing another.
Another puzzle tasks you with simply standing in the correct place to see a set of lamps shining through the correct lens in the correct quantity, a puzzle that is genuinely more difficult than it sounds. Outside-of-the-box thinking is required regularly after the first couple of tutorial-esque challenges. You will get stuck on occasion and have to refresh your mind by taking a break and re-approaching the same conundrum later with a fresh outlook. However, what’s on offer here isn’t as challenging as the likes of Portal – which Pneuma is surely destined to be compared against ad nauseam.
That comparative ease of progression is a bit of problem once you’ve mastered the required patterns. After a certain point you’re so keenly zoned into what how the designers have constructed these puzzles that working out what you’re supposed to do can become easier rather than harder. That’s not to say that the final areas are simple or under-developed, the issue is more aligned with the fact that the limited interaction options prevent the solutions to later puzzles taking you by surprise. If you’re experienced with Portal or other first-person puzzle games – The Talos Principle, for instance – then you will breeze through Pneuma in a day. As mentioned, you will come up against a brick wall or two, but it’s nothing a walk around the block or a trip to the shop won’t fix.
Puzzles are not the only thing on offer, however, Pneuma also acts as a philosophical lecture of sorts. As you’re solving puzzles and entering new areas, you’re enticed forward with questions and ideas as to the nature of being, the idea of the ‘self’ and what our perception of reality might mean from a wider, objective perspective. In this aspect, Pneuma feels not overly dissimilar to The Stanley Parable – not least because both games convey a comparable degree of irony and often deprecating humour. The commentary here, though, lacks the quality of wit and humour required to pique your interest through the entirety of the experience and by the final chapter you’ll have had your fill.
Both the commentary and puzzles fail to hold your full attention, then, which is a shame because the core ideas underpinning this project are smart and original in equal measure. Despite such flaws of pacing, it’s difficult not to like Pneuma for managing to present a strong self-identity in the face of its obvious similarities to other, well-respected, games. It’s more homage than plagiarism, a game designed by individuals that have developed an exhaustive understanding of how puzzle games of this ilk work and have decided to express themselves within its formula. The effort to achieve something as impressive and impactful as its genre peers is admirable, but the end result is lacking the polish and quality of finale required to make it stick in your mind once the day has been won.
Fans of this type of game will not be disappointed by the content on offer here, but for newcomers there are better options already available. Unless, of course, your gaming world is exclusive to the Xbox One… in which case there really isn’t anything else like Pneuma presently available. There’s a great idea here, but it’s not one that manages to capture and retain that initial sense of awe all the way through to the end. Puzzles can be difficult and, at times, unique enough to provide you with jolts of satisfaction, but ultimately the structure fails to distinguish itself.