In Pneuma: Breath of Life, you are a god. Not a deity, not a Kanye West-style god - you're the creator of the universe, omnipresent and omnipotent in all your glory. Yet for some reason, you don't have access to all of these powers; you merely walk around jaw-droppingly rendered Roman-style chambers and halls, pulling levers, pressing buttons, and completing puzzles. But why? Surely, as a god, you're in control of the world, so why are some areas locked away from you?
This is just one of the brain-melting questions that Pneuma aims to answer, and the main way that it tries to tackle them is through the absolutely brilliant narrator (and main character) Pneuma, who, of course, has a delightfully chirpy and easy-to-listen-to British voice. While not always consistent, Pneuma comments frequently throughout the game, asking philosophical questions as you tackle puzzles and being hugely witty throughout it. Many games have broken the fourth wall in new and innovative ways (see Tearaway) but Pneuma seems to do it as masterfully and obnoxiously as possible.
Pneuma's development as a character is hugely entertaining to listen to - the amazement and whimsy of discovering his powers, the questioning and revelations of discovering his limits, and crushing acceptance as he discovers the truth. The first and last acts in particular are mind-meltingly cerebral and complicated, and make the game all the more meta. It's simply a stunning end to the game that'll leave you contemplating not only what it meant, but how genius the title is.
Sure, we could go on about how well the story is told, and how well the solitary character is developed, but this is a game after all - something that Pneuma himself has to come to terms with - and so, does it have good, innovative gameplay?
While rusty at times, especially in the earlier, more boring puzzles, the release offers a mechanic we've seldom seen used this much before: sight. Sure, in all games you can see, but it's always been taken for granted; it's something that we never really notice. Here, while levers and buttons come into play, the main mechanic is Pneuma's sense of sight; he is a god, after all - he doesn't need to touch things to manipulate them.
Depending on the sensor, sight is used in many different innovative ways: it starts off with simply looking at sensors in order to open doors, but as it starts to develop, the sensors almost begin to distrust you as you venture throughout the divine world. Firstly, doors only open when you don't look at the sensors next to them, but it progresses to puzzles that require you to keep track of certain patterns, because as soon as you look away from them, they change. This mechanic sets up some great puzzles, as well as some great dialogue from Pneuma as he interacts with these objects.
There are also puzzles based on your sense of perspective, puzzles involving light, shadows, and rotation that require you to look at the obstacle with different angles - literally - in order to solve them. It's an ingenious way to reinvent a mechanic that's been used time and time again.
Of course, for sight to be such an important mechanic, the game has to be nice to look at, and Pneuma fulfils that criteria. The lovingly-rendered Roman halls glimmer and shine, with the marbled floor reflecting beautifully. While water doesn't look the best, the outdoor sections look bright and vibrant, but it's the end chapter that really stands out - the grey sky, rain, and muddy ground looks remarkable for an unremarkable thing. It's a shame that Pneuma has some huge framerate drops upon the start of the game, but it's worth noting that we played a pre-release version, so that should hopefully be fixed upon release.
The graphics are accompanied by some pretty average but fitting music - the usual orchestral fare. You'll mostly want to turn it down, though, in order to hear Pneuma's dialogue. That said, you won't have to put up with it for long, as the game only lasts about an hour and a half. That may seem bad for its relatively expensive price tag, but if you're a sucker for a good story and a mind-bending philosophical adventure, Pneuma is perfect for it.
With fantastic dialogue, beautiful graphics, and some truly innovative puzzles, Pneuma: Breath of Life is a great buy, even for a short game. Though it does have some boring and frustrating moments - as well as some framerate issues - it's all worth it for the incredible ending. Pneuma may not breathe life into the puzzle genre, but it certainly gives you a new perspective on it.