Review: Penumbra: Black Plague (PC)

Penumbra: Black Plague
Genre: FPS/Horror
Developer: Frictional Games
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Release Date: 02/13/08
Minimum System Requirements: OS: Windows 2000/XP, Processor: 1Ghz or better, Memory: 256MB or more, Video Card: Radeon 8500/GeForce 3 (GeForce4MX not supported).
Buy it Here: Gamer’s Gate


There are generally two extremes horror games tend to gravitate towards: Alien or Aliens. I know, those are movies, but the comparison stands: in the film Alien, a group of poorly people were set to face off against a lone force of evil that wiped them all out horribly until only one person survived, while in Aliens a group of well-armed people face off against an army of death, and the fear comes more from “BOO” moments and the overwhelming odds than any sense of legitimate dread. Video games tend to do this thing, though to a different extent: with the exception of games like 7th Guest and anything with Roberta Williams’ name on it, most “horror” games either pit you against an unstoppable force of malevolence that wants you dead with no way to survive but running like a bitch, or they stick you in front of a ton of zombies with a machine gun and ask you to murder everything you see. The differences are obvious: one need only compare, say, Clock Tower, Hell Night or Haunting Ground to something like Doom 3, Resident Evil, Silent Hill or Dead Rising to see the differences.

As you can imagine, numerous games have tried to cross-breed these sorts of concepts, with variable results (games like Eternal Darkness, the Fatal Frames and the Silent Hills tend to (arguably) do this reasonably well; games like Siren and Rule of Rose, not so much), but in most cases games either lean towards running from monsters or braining them with a bullet, and most players have their favorite genre picked out: gamers who like puzzling their way out of certain death will lean towards the Alien design, while players who like killing stuff will lean towards the Aliens motif.

I’m explaining this because I want you to know up-front: Penumbra: Black Plague, despite the FPS design, is a strictly Alien sort of experience. You will spend far more time avoiding confrontation than you will engaging in it, and the few battles you will find yourself in will be solved by manipulating the environment rather than by using weaponry. This is a game about solving puzzles and survival, not a game about killing things, and you should know that up front; not because it should in any way color your opinion of the game, but rather because you should know that when the phrase “one of the best horror experiences this year” is applied to this game, it’s not because I like running from enemies more than shooting them, as I am agreeable towards games that involve avoiding death, but am more comfortable with killing things.

So, speaking to you as a reviewer who prefers to shoot things in the face over running from them, Penumbra: Black Plague is one of the best horror experiences to come out this year, and perhaps in several years. Not that it’s not flawed (it is), but what it does right, it does REALLY REALLY right, and at the budget price it’s listed at, it’s easily well worth every dime.

Part of the reason for that is the story and its tone. The story sees you take on the role of Philip LaFresque for the second time (the first being Penumbra: Overture) as he continues the long search for his missing father, Howard. Howard apparently sent Philip a letter of some sort explaining his long absence, and Philip has opted to seek his father out in hopes of him still being alive. As setups go, this is fairly reasonable, if unoriginal, but it’s less the setup and more the delivery and execution that make P:BP interesting. After recapping the events of the first game to a reasonable extent, you’re then let loose in the research facility your father worked at… which is presently under lockdown due to an unknown threat… that is still in the base… and looking to kill you.

Again, pretty basic as far as video game stories go, but this is the thing: P:BP manages to do something things with its narrative that many games do not: inspire emotional response. The game is a very lonely and hopeless experience, so each time the hand of hope is held out to the player this, in a sense, actually is done in such a way as to make the player feel hope for whatever is going on at the time. There are also several situations where the player encounters something that is VERY terrifying in context because it WILL kill you, and rather than simply having said thing jump out and scare you, you’re fully aware that something is there, which somehow makes the whole situation worse. In fairness, there are several situations where the game is ripping off (off the top of my head) The Thing, the sequence of events leading to the ending is… well, it really just comes out of nowhere and feels a little silly in context (though the ending more than makes up for it), and the experience is very depressing and morose overall, so if you’re looking for the happy ending, you won’t find it here. For most of the game, the experience generates the sorts of emotional responses needed to make you “feel it”, though, which is more than one can say for a lot of games, so overall what’s here is pretty good.

Visually, Penumbra is artistically pleasing but technologically primitive. The game environment is well detailed and appropriately mimics how one would expect a decaying, abandoned scientific installation would look, and the lighting and physics effects on display look pretty good, but the character animations and actual visual quality of the backgrounds leave a little to be desired, and you can’t see your own feet (which is annoying, as will be noted later). There’s more good than bad, visually, but P:BP isn’t as good as you might be used to. The musical tracks are mostly ambient tunes that work really well in context to increase the feelings of dread and/or despair one might feel while playing, and the various effects are fitting and solid, though they’re not anything you haven’t heard before. The voice acting is generally pretty good; most of the voices are both well done and well-cast (Clarence, in particular, is outstanding in both regards), though one or two examples aren’t as good as the rest (what is presumed to be Philip’s voice in the beginning of the game, for instance), though they’re not particularly bad.

If you’ve played an FPS game you’ve pretty much played P:BP, which is a good thing; the controls are instantly familiar and respond exactly as you’d think they would, which allows you to just jump in and get to work. By default, the movement is assigned to the WASD keys, jumping is assigned to the Space Bar, and the various other actions (using your flashlight, going to the inventory, running and ducking) are assigned to various other keys. The mouse looks around, as you’d expect, and the left mouse key interacts with the environment while the right key inspects it. Left clicking on items that you pick up or use initiates that action immediately, but for acts like opening doors and interacting with cranks and switches and such, you instead hold down the left mouse button and move the mouse in the direction you want to move the device, which is mostly functional; doors and switches work fine, but cranks and wheels can be a bit of a pain, especially in one section where you have to do this while under attack. In many cases you’ll also have to move around items in the environment, which is also a simple matter of holding down the left mouse button and moving the mouse around (you can also bring items closer to you or further away from you with the mouse wheel, and rotate items by holding down a keyboard key and moving the mouse around). Most all of these controls can be changed in the options menu, in case you prefer to have the actions on different keys.

Much like more modern FPS titles (and a whole mess of horror games), P:BP asks you to solve a bunch of environmental puzzles of various types, but UNLIKE those games, the puzzle solving is the focus of the game and the puzzles themselves are quite natural and understandable. As an example: in the very beginning of the game, you find yourself locked in a room from which there is only one exit: a grate in the wall that is screwed into the wall with flathead screws. The only items that are of any use are a document, a couple of powerups, a coin, and a vise grip on the table. It’s an easy enough puzzle to figure out, but it’s also a good example of the gameplay, as most of the game is like this: puzzles of various sorts that combine using the environment to your advantage, using provided items in interesting ways, and in some respects, using items you picked up HOURS ago to do things after you’ve forgotten about them. Solving the puzzles is mostly logical, and generates that wonderful fuzzy feeling you get when you solve a complex problem (you know what I mean, the whole “Ooh look at how smart I am” feeling that proves you’re not a complete waste of DNA and carbon). This is good, of course, because that’s a significant amount of the game, so the game is thus quite enjoyable overall.

What time isn’t spent solving puzzles is often spent hiding from the monstrous creatures that exist throughout the game; while you will be tasked to kill two of them at different points (which don’t involve combat so much as further puzzle solving), the remainder of the time you will be avoiding them like crazy while trying to get from one place to the next. Early parts of the game don’t spend too much time with the monsters, instead leaving you to be terrified by the CONCEPT of these things bumbling about looking to shank you (as they’re almost all armed), but towards the end of the game you’ll encounter three or four at a time in some sections, thus making stealth a necessity… mostly. If you’re looking for less “sneak around and avoid monsters”, you can always play on Easy difficulty, which pretty much makes the monsters not very much of a threat except in rare puzzle-oriented circumstances, thus allowing you to simply solve the puzzles without a problem, though those looking for the added fear of being killed by stalking beasts can play on higher difficulties without it being a problem. The game also provides a decent amount of curatives (painkillers, essentially, ALA Max Payne), as well as various different light sources (a glowstick, flares, and a flashlight with replaceable batteries) to assist you in traversing the area.

So, in essence, the entire game comes down to solving puzzles and avoiding monsters, both of which are generally made to be quite engrossing BECAUSE the game is designed the way it is and BECAUSE it’s so incredibly atmospheric. But this is not to say that it’s a flawless game, unfortunately, and one of the biggest problems is the end game sequence itself.

Now, at one point in the game, about a third of the way through or so, the game sticks you into this Silent Hill-esque delusional nightmare sort of scenario that is quite obviously a product of your imagination; the game makes no attempt to pretend otherwise, though the explanation for why this happens is quite interesting. In any case, this starts a long chain of events that essentially culminates in resolving a plot point in what should be a satisfying fashion, only to realize that “it’s not over yet”, inspiring a chase that should, in theory, culminate in something satisfying.

And instead, it’s Deus Ex Machina followed by the Q test, totally slamming on the brakes and disconnecting you from what you’ve been doing up to this point.

Now, the plot remains strong in spite of this because of how things ultimately resolve themselves, but the gameplay in this section of the game is, frankly, not as engaging as it was prior. You feel a distinct sense of disconnect, like you’re not trying to survive and move forward so much as you’re trying to get the correct answer when presented a series of questions. There’s no sense of terror or fear or isolation here; it’s all just a case of thinking “what in the hell am I doing now and why am I doing this?” and it leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth, even if it really did kind of have to be done.

The experience is also quite short (only about four hours or so), which, while good in the sense that the game doesn’t overstay its welcome, is bad in the sense that it leaves the gamer wanting more (though the upcoming expansion pack Penumbra: Requiem should solve that). One can go back and play through on a higher difficulty to challenge one’s ability to survive against more lethal monsters and collect the strange artifacts that dot the landscape (collecting all of them unlocks a small shooter mini-game and some extra media content), but the meat of the experience, the puzzles, don’t become any more complex or different, which is most of the appeal of the experience.

And in the minor complaints department, timed puzzles and jumping puzzles are generally tolerable, but not here: the timed puzzles require you to work around the controls in such a way as to get where you’re going quickly, which is fine but annoying, and jumping puzzles in a FPS title are, I’m sorry, asinine and should have never been conceived in the first place. In P:BP they at least have a PURPOSE, and they’re easier to swallow than in something like Doom 3, but they’re still annoying, if infrequent. Also, while most of the puzzles are “solve this puzzle using only the things you are provided in this very room” sorts of puzzles that make Penumbra fantastic, a few are “fetch quests”, IE “find this keycard to open this door” or “find a head and a hand to open this door (no, really)” and such, which stand out in stark contrast to the environmental puzzles; again, they’re not BAD, but they are less enjoyable than the puzzles that simply ask you to break open a door with a bar or build a makeshift bridge or whatever.

Even so, Penumbra: Black Plague is a veritable steal: for $20, you get a game that isn’t overly taxing on your PC, is incredibly rich with atmosphere and awesome puzzle-solving, chock full of horror style, and quite enjoyable to play overall. Yeah, some elements don’t work as well as others, and certainly it’s a little short, but it’s economy priced and overall the experience is out-and-out fantastic. The pacing is strong, the puzzles are creative and natural, and the overall experience is an enjoyable one, and overall, enjoying a game almost in its entirety is infrequent enough that Penumbra is definitely a game worth picking up, if only because it’s honestly quite good.

The Scores:
Story: GOOD
Graphics: ABOVE AVERAGE
Sound: GREAT
Control/Gameplay: GOOD
Replayability: MEDIOCRE
Balance: GREAT
Originality: ABOVE AVERAGE
Addictiveness: GOOD
Appeal: ABOVE AVERAGE
Miscellaneous: GREAT

Final Score: GOOD.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Penumbra: Black Plague is an interesting take on the horror genre that mostly works quite well. The storytelling is solid, the puzzles are intuitive and complex, and the overall experience is quite good; as a full-priced retail release it’d be decent, but at the budget price of $20 it’s a veritable steal. Some of the mechanics don’t work as well as expected, it’s a little on the short side, and the ending gameplay sequence seems like it comes out of nowhere, but the story makes up for that well enough to still make this a recommended purchase.

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