Review: Penumbra: Requiem (PC)

Penumbra: Requiem
Genre: FPS/Adventure
Developer: Frictional Games
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Release Date: 08/27/08
Minimum System Requirements: OS: Windows 2000/XP, Processor: 1Ghz or better, Memory: 256MB or more, Video Card: Radeon 8500/GeForce 3 (GeForce4MX not supported), Penumbra: Black Plague is required to play this game.
Buy it Here: Gamer’s Gate.

About five months ago, I was given the opportunity to review Penumbra: Black Plague, a game that was surprisingly adept at its craft and, at that point, was easily the best horror themed title I’d seen all year. With Silent Hill: Homecoming and Deadspace around the corner, that assertion may yet have something of a challenge to surmount, but it’s still easy to say that it was easily amongst the best horror experiences of the year, and again, is well worth your money if you are a fan of the genre at all. Frictional Games, perhaps realizing they still had something of a story left to tell, has opted to release an expansion pack, dubbed Penumbra: Requiem, in an attempt to resolve the story, and in most respects, it succeeds: it provides definitive closure to the story of the trilogy, and provides an interesting play experience for fans at an economical price (ten dollars for the pack alone, twenty dollars for the game and the pack together, which can also be purchased here). That said, while it provides an interesting experience, it doesn’t really fulfill the expectations set by its predecessor, largely because in most respects, it doesn’t even feel like the same franchise.

Part of the reason for this is due to a dramatic shift in the storytelling. As Penumbra: Requiem begins, you are once again cast into the role of Philip LaFresque, the protagonist from the prior two games, as he has more or less resolved his journey to find his father and is now more or less trying to get… somewhere. He is knocked out in the introductory cinematic, only to awaken in a strange room with no idea of how he got there, where he is, or where he’s going, with his only motivation being to move forward. Now, Penumbra: Black Plague did a lot with a little, story-wise, by placing the player into a lonely, hopeless story with the occasional nugget of hope scattered about for them to find that made the experience resonate with the player, but Penumbra: Requiem doesn’t really follow that path, instead offering up a few pieces of narrative here and there that don’t really relate to anything you’re doing and a few pieces of dialogue aimed at you directly that don’t really mean anything in the end, either. The experience is still very atmospheric, absolutely, but it’s no longer as hopeless and terrifying as it once was, as you no longer have any specific goal other than “escape”, there’s no longer anything seeking to kill you, and there’s no longer anything going on in the game world that really seems to matter. What little story is presented is well written, certainly, but it doesn’t really do anything for the player, and by the time the ending comes rolling around, you’ll be so totally without hope of anything good coming from the experience that the ending will only serve to prove that feeling correct. It also doesn’t help that the whole experience feels… familiar, though we’ll get to that in a bit.

Penumbra: Requiem is using the same visual engine as its predecessor, so it more or less looks similar, if not the same. The environments are generally cut from similar cloth, but are designed and arranged in different ways, especially later in the game, where the office and boiler room environments make way for some more creative, sci-fi oriented designs that are significantly impressive. The lighting and special effects are still as impressive as ever, and while the backgrounds are still a little less impressive than one might expect, the layouts more than make up for that. The music, again, is made up of mostly ambient tracks meant to amplify the dreadful feeling of the game, and once again, they work well, even if they’re not outstanding. The voice acting is once again quite solid, though it means less in this expansion than it did in the game prior, and the odd sound effects that pop up here and there generally work well enough for what they’re expected to do.

Insofar as the gameplay mechanics go, to more or less quote the Penumbra: Black Plague review:

If you’ve played an FPS game you’ve pretty much played Penumbra: Requiem, 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. 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. 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) to assist you in traversing the areas.“

And that’s where the similarities end.

For one thing, in Penumbra: Requiem, puzzle solutions are no longer “organic”, so to say; you can easily puzzle your way through the various puzzles presented, but they are no longer natural so much as the levels are designed to be puzzling on purpose, IE instead of being in a position where the environment simply makes up the puzzle, the puzzle was purposely made in the environment. This isn’t specifically a BAD thing, you understand, so much as it’s a different way of doing things, which may or may not appeal to you depending on whether or not the natural nature of the puzzles was important to you or not. Further, unlike in Penumbra: Black Plague, there are NO enemies in this expansion. None. Every stage amounts to you versus the environment, and any deaths you encounter will come from falling to your death or drowning or what have you instead of being struck down by enemies. Again, this changes the dynamic of the experience somewhat, but isn’t entirely better or worse so to say. Also, while in the prior game you were simply looking for whatever item you needed at the time in order to progress, collecting inventory items, and so on, in Penumbra: Requiem you are instead simply looking for keys (that look kind of like little glowing beehives) that unlock transport doors to the next level, and any items you find, aside from the occasional painkillers and strange artifacts that pop up, will need to be carried in-hand to move them instead of going into your inventory, meaning more than a few puzzles amount to carrying, say, a lever or a bomb or a box somewhere to resolve some puzzle or another.

In other words, Penumbra: Requiem is basically trying very, very hard to be Portal. This does not work out as well as you might think.

First off, again, from the Penumbra: Black Plague review:

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).“

Nope. Penumbra: Requiem is, depending on your control skill and mental acumen, about a two to four hour expansion pack, and while, yeah, it’s only ten dollars, it’s still more of a time waster than an actual game. Second off:

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.“

So, of course, almost all of the puzzles in Penumbra: Requiem are either jumping puzzles or fetch quests. Whether you’re jumping over broken grates, hauling around ketchup bottles and logs, or jumping across platforms with an explosive barrel in your hand, you will spend over half of the game fetching and jumping, which is annoying on multiple levels: for one, anything you’re carrying impairs your field of vision, making seeing where you’re going a pain; for two, holding down the left button on the mouse for upwards of five minutes is outright irritating when simply adding something to my inventory would have accomplished the same thing; and for three, even Portal wasn’t as belligerent about its jumping puzzles as Penumbra: Requiem is; for a game that’s about half as long as Portal, you spend twice as much time bounding around, jumping up, around, and over everything you see, over and over again, which ends, more often than not, with you dead because you mistimed a jump AGAIN. At least in Portal you had the innovative gun and the amusing story concept to keep you entertained; in Penumbra: Requiem you’re playing a less-involved version of Penumbra: Black Plague with a storyline that isn’t as interesting as either the game it’s an expansion of or the game it’s trying very hard to be.

Now, if you liked Penumbra: Black Plague or Portal, you’ll certainly be able to have fun with Penumbra: Requiem, so long as you don’t come into it with any unreasonable expectations. Taken on its own, it’s a thought-provoking puzzle game with decent controls that’s reasonably fun while it lasts, and it has a creepy enough atmosphere and a solid enough design to make it worth playing through it for as long as it lasts. However, it’s disappointing when compared to the above games; it lacks the oppressive dread, organic puzzles, solid storyline and player immersion of Penumbra: Black Plague, and it lacks the personality and innovation of Portal, making it feel like less of an experience as a result. Penumbra: Requiem is by no means bad, mind you, and it’s certainly worth playing if you’re a fan of either the prior game or if you’ve never played the prior game at all (since you can get both in a twenty dollar package), but it’s simply not as good as it could have been. Taken on its own it’s moderately entertaining, but in comparison to what it’s based on and what it’s trying to be, it’s just not as good as it wants to be.

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

Final Score: MEDIOCRE.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Penumbra: Requiem tries to be a combination of two things, but doesn’t manage to entirely succeed in this attempt, and while it’s not a bad game, it’s obviously not as good as it’s hoping to be. The experience is certainly atmospheric, the gameplay is solid enough, and the puzzles are certainly challenging, making it worth the ten dollar asking price if one owns Penumbra: Black Plague, or the twenty dollar asking price for both games. However, thanks to a heavy reliance on jumping puzzles and fetch quests, combined with a lack of an interesting storyline, lack of any real dread or terror, lack of length, and the sneaking suspicion that it’s trying, and failing, to be Portal, make the game feel less like a worthy expansion pack to one of the best horror games of this year and more like an inexpensive add-on product meant to cash in on one of the best puzzle games of LAST year. Penumbra: Requiem isn’t so much bad as it is disappointing; it’s certainly fun and playable, but you can’t help but feel it could have been better than it ultimately is, and that’s a shame.

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