Review: Penumbra Collection (PC)

penumbra-coverName: Penumbra Collection
Developer: Frictional Games
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Genre: Adventure Horror
Release Date: 02/17/2009


Penumbra Collection
takes the previously published episodic games Penumbra Overture, Penumbra Black Plague and the expansion Penumbra Requiem and bundles them up conveniently for download or in a nice shiny case. Two of these games have been reviewed by us before, and Penumbra Black Plague was nominated for last year’s Best Horror and Best First Person categories here at DieHard GameFAN. This is the first time I’ve sat down with any of the games in the series, so let’s see how they go from one to the next. Yes, for some reason the box art on the game case has Overture last, but it’s the first one, I swear!

Story
The game starts off with a brief dialogue of our lead character, explaining of your mother’s death and your inheritance of some of your father’s papers through a safety deposit box in a bank you’ve never heard of before. The papers talk of something dark and terrible in the ground in Greenland and beg for you to destroy the papers and forget all about it. It would have been much simpler for you to do just that, but then there wouldn’t be much of a game or story would there?

You take a plane and charter a boat that dumps you out in what seems to be the middle of nowhere, and nearly freezing to death find the opening to some kind of underground that you have to smash your way into as it’s frozen shut. After a long fall, you realize you’re stuck underground and have no food so you start to look around. Rummaging about you find a few small caves that lead you to another door in the floor that will take you underground, but before you can open it it shakes at you unexpectedly, throwing you about the room. I was hesitant to open it but went in anyway and found an old abandoned military base that you could explore, but you weren’t alone.

penumbra-screen004You’re left to wander through the close and dark corridor dodging the nasties you really don’t want to look at as your try to unravel the mystery of why your father was here and what went on to drive the military men here to the brink of sanity. You also keep finding these bizarre artifacts that seem to speak to you but don’t make a whole lot of sense. Then there are voices, soft whispers at the edge of your consciousness that you can’t really understand.

The first episode, Overture leaves you hanging a bit, and Black Plague picks up from there, answering some questions, but giving you even more and really delving deep into the mystery of what’s really going on in this deep underground base. Things aren’t always as they seem. Requiem picks up where the other two left off, but isn’t nearly as satisfying as the previous entries, but being an expansion I wasn’t expecting as much. They do tie up many of the loose ends fairly neatly and overall the plot and story are well done and keep you moving through the tunnels and darkness looking for more clues.

Story Rating: Very Good

Graphics
Two things this this game does well are atmosphere and looking amazing, especially since you don’t need a powerhouse of a PC to run it well. What they’ve been able to push out of the game engine is nothing short of fantastic. From the cramped caves and underground, to the lighting effects and dingy areas of a lab or a cell, this game looks fantastic and really pulls you in. There have been a few since that have done better, but Penumbra really delivers on the visuals.

I lost myself several times and got quite caught up in hiding behind a few barrels while a blood covered wolf stalked by, afraid to look in case my fear would get the better of me and I’d be spotted. A lot of that had to do with the look and atmosphere that they created with this game. Much of THAT has to do with how well the graphics were crafted.

That being said, there are a lot of games that do this type of thing better, and it does feel a bit dated. I’d put this up against quite a few games out there, but unfortunately there are several older games that can beat it out visually. Still, you can tell that Frictional got a good run on the game engine they’ve got here.

Graphics Rating: Enjoyable

Sound
penumbra-screen003There isn’t much music in the game; mostly just the ambient sounds you’d expect to hear in an underground cave or a lab. On top of that there are some great monster sounds and other sound effects that help pull you in, especially if you’re wearing head phones while you play. The first two games really make great use of this and it reminded me a lot of Silent Hill or House on Haunted Hill where the subtle use of voices or little sounds in different areas would give you that chill or have you looking around for an attack that may or may not come at any time.

The voice acting, where the games have some, is pretty decent, convincing and it won’t have you cringing every time you hear them. I wouldn’t be out clamoring for a soundtrack any time soon though.

Sound Rating: Great

Control and Gameplay
Penumbra is first and foremost, first person. Most of your movement plays out like a first person shooter would for your control scheme, only there is a lot more mouse interaction involved. As far as moving around and crouching goes the game does that well, except when you get to the jumping segments, which I have to say were not handled all that well, since it’s very hard to tell where your feet are at any given moment as you can’t see them. Luckily jumping isn’t always the way to get around something, but it was used more than I’d have liked.

They’ve got you using the mouse a bit differently than you would in most games. You can look around, and in Overture you can actually use it to attack creatures with objects, although not very effectively at all. The attack option disappears in Black Plague and would have been totally pointless in Requiem due to the lack of any opponents. They really stress running and hiding in this game and I recommend it. Attacking is terrible.

penumbra-screen002The puzzles can get a bit weird, and using things like a hammer to smash wooden planks blocking your escape route can be a bit hairy with the mouse. The controls on that end are a bit sluggish and it takes a bit of patience to get the swing down. Then you have to learn it all over again by the time you need the hammer or wrench again. The puzzles though are well done and it’s great having so much interactivity with the world you’re in. Pretty much anything not nailed down is something that you can interact with. I thought that was a lot of fun, especially tossing everything on a shelf on the floor in a fit of frustration.

Some of the puzzles are a pain with the mouse. In Overture, before you get into the underground you have to smash some ice blocking your way. There are rocks you pass before you get there, so I grabbed a rock and went to smash, but like attacking, the mouse movement and physics didn’t translate well in game. The rock smashing bit almost got me turned into a frozen ice husk before I got it smashed and managed to get the hatch open. There are a number of these puzzles with a bit of a time limit and they can be a bit frustrating. It lost some points with the quirky controls but overall it’s a decent experience.

Control and Gameplay Rating: Good

Replayability
Most of the fun of Penumbra comes from the story unfolding and once you know how it goes, there isn’t much more to it. I can see myself playing this again in awhile because I did have fun while I was playing and it sucked me in, but I’m not rushing to load it up again any time soon. It was definitely worth the first play through, but I’m not quite ready to face the horror again, especially when it lacks any different endings. It is what it is and it was fun while it lasted.

On the other hand, the collection being short means that I can replay it over the course of a weekend or on my days off and actually finish it, which is something I rarely get to do in a timely fashion with any of my games and a full work schedule. There are also other difficulty levels to consider and a brief mini-game, but overall you’re still playing the same game over again.

Replayability Rating: Decent

Balance
penumbra-screen001This game collection is really worth it for the money. For $20 you get three games with a decent difficulty level that will take an overall of about 12-14 hours to complete. There isn’t a lot of filler and Requiem kind of breaks quite a bit from the feel of the other two titles in the collection. It was a lot of fun moving through each of them. Combat in the first game was terrible, but it wasn’t meant to be about combat at all and they pretty much flat out tell you to run and hide. Most of the mechanics are well done and the puzzles don’t make you go running to an online strategy guide to figure it all out.

Balance Rating: Great

Originality
While the setting is a bit different, I’ve played something like this before, or seen it in a film. The puzzles and the interactivity with the environment is refreshing but it’s also been done before. There is a something to be said for the way they put it all together though. That is a new element. I have to give points for how all the elements work together, but the tingles in my spine and the way the plot moves feels like a strange blending of Silent Hill and The Thing (John Carpenter’s, not the terrible original.).

Originality Rating: Decent

Addictiveness
I remember those nights when I’d sneak down to watch horror movies while everyone was asleep and tucked in their beds while I watched Alien, The Thing, and Evil Dead II. This little gem of a game harkens back to that and had me totally engrossed for long chunks of time letting me get so absorbed it took my wife hovering over me to snap out of it.

The story in the first two episodes is really engaging and keeps you going. The gameplay of trying to escape in the third episode makes you want to get it all over with. Through all the 13 hours I was playing though, there was just me and that little hole in the ground and the ruins of a lab. So yeah, I’d say it was fairly addictive.

Addictiveness Rating: Great

penumbra-screen005Appeal Factor
It’s cheap, it’s the whole set, and it’s fantastic first-person horror. There’s a lot to appeal here, but it’s not in the “mainstream” and it’ll be hard to find if you’re not looking online. I hadn’t even heard of Penumbra before we’d reviewed it and the collection is only up for pre-order on one site at the moment. It’s definitely worth getting, especially for the price and there’s a reason it was nominated for horror game of the year.

Appeal Factor Rating: Good

Miscellaneous
I can’t say enough that this is a great deal. $20 for the complete set of games in the Penumbra collection. It plays great, runs really well in Vista-64 (Not a single glitch!) and was a blast to play. The puzzles are well done and while challenging you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to solve them.

Miscellaneous Rating: Great

The Scores
Story Rating: Very Good
Graphics Rating: Enjoyable
Sound Rating: Great
Control and Gameplay Rating: Good
Replayability Rating: Decent
Balance Rating: Great
Originality Rating: Decent
Addictiveness Rating: Great
Appeal Factor Rating: Good
Miscellaneous Rating: Great
FINAL GAME SCORE: VERY GOOD

Short Attention Span Summary
Gaming Rexes are sad!Penumbra Collection is a great trio of games that puts a lot of what makes a good scary horror story work into a decent first person engine with only a few faults. It’s priced well and can run on most systems out there. It might be a bit hard to find, but anyone who can appreciate good psychological horror in a video game will love this one. As a set you get the whole story all at once instead of piecemeal with each episode and the expansion.

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