Who are you?! Get out of my head! What’s that sound?!
Penumbra: Black Plague is the sequel to one of the best horror games around, Penumbra: Overture. Not so much a sequel as it is the next “episode”, so keep that in mind if you’re planning on buying this game. You need to have played and completed Overture to have any idea of what’s going on in this horrific trek through insanity, psychosis and mortality.
Much like its’ predecessor focused on isolation, fear and survival, this game focuses on the mind and reality. How can you be sure of what you see? Are these horrors in the corridors real or constructs of your deteriorating mind? Are you even in control anymore? Is it possible to live through this?
The narrative presented in Black Plague is as I said a continuation of Overture; it starts right where the previous game left off. It’s also fleshed out quite a bit more, which I feel is a minus for this game.
One of the reasons Overture was so good was the player’s almost absolute ignorance of what the hell was going. Sure you knew the protagonists name, you knew why he went to this damned mine but you had no idea why there were creatures lurking in the dark and where the mad man was leading you. There was a sense that the events weren’t revolving around you so much as you were revolving around the events.
Is it possible to live through this?
This sequel explains what was going on in that damned mine and what’s going on around you now. Where in the previous game the protagonist and yourself were being propelled forward by fear of the soul crushing isolation and terrors surrounding you, this game propels Phillip and yourself forward knowing you have a goal. Ultimately, this takes away from the final experience, especially since it’s such a divergence from the original game’s feel but the events are such a continuation of it.
It’s like if they made a sequel to Cloverfield but instead of focusing on a group of people who don’t know what’s going on they instead focused it on the military and scientists trying to kill the monster. It just wouldn’t seem like the same franchise would it?
Insanity is where this game takes us and I believe it gets us as close as it can for the medium. The methods used are fairly unique and unexpected; they’re the kind of thing you’d expect to come from a big developer pushing new ideas. It’s great to instead see them come from a little developer like Frictional Games. You won’t soon forget how this game showed you insanity and in parts, made you question what you thought you knew was happening and in one specific event, curse yourself for not knowing what was happening. (I wish I could spoil that part but I won’t).
But that’s all to do with the narrative – Gameplay wise, this game is a massive step up from Overture. The biggest difference is a complete inability to fight. That’s right, absolutely no combat. One of the most annoying things from that damned mine was trying to club spiders with a broom. That was a lesson in frustration and futility which I’m sure everyone who experienced it would’ve felt the same as I did: that it would be better to have no combat, especially since the rest of the game focused on exploration and puzzles.
The puzzles haven’t changed much. There are still a few physics based puzzles but there’s a bit more cerebral work involved at times now. Nothing on par with a Mensa membership exam or anything but enough to make it a puzzle rather than a chore (You won’t get stuck wondering what the game wants you to do).
For those not familiar with the previous game, it’s probably worth mentioning that it’s a first person based game. The thing that sets it apart is the way you interact with the environment. You see a rock? Click and hold to pick it up. See that padlock? Move your mouse up and down to bash the rock against it to open the gate. Steam valve? Click on it and move the mouse in a circular motion to turn it.
Opening doors works the same way. You need to click on the door and actually move your mouse like you would your hand to open it. I know that doesn’t sound very impressive but it definitely makes this game feel so much more immersive than otherwise possible. And immersion is key to the type of horror in this game, specifically, the psychological kind.
Sound is a fairly well done part of this game. Like most good sound design you don’t even notice it, it’s just a part of the equation, which is probably one of the better comments you can give it. One particular section has you constantly looking around behind you because you just heard something there. Another has you keeping away from the walls because you’ll be damned if you can’t hear something skulking around in there. But then there’s….
The voice acting is unfortunately a little distracting. One of the main characters has such a ridiculously clichéd voice that you actually wince a few times. Another character on the other hand is so well done that it makes the event that I wouldn’t spoil before all the more upsetting.
You’ve got nothing to write home about in the graphics department. They’re functional and the environments are fairly well populated and constructed. There’s a lack of detail in some areas but it is pitch black most of the time so you probably won’t notice.
Your flash light zipping around the room and the motion blur as you turn your head take the graphics up a notch. The visual effects during a couple select sequences really help sell the experience the protagonist is going through. As I said though, graphics aren’t a highlight but they certainly don’t take away from this game.
Overall this is a good game. There are some improvements over Overture but there are also a couple steps backwards or rather, kind of to the side. If Penumbra: Black Plague could stand on its own it would be a better game than it is. Unfortunately it is far too closely tied to the previous game which makes the changes all the more noticeable and if you’re buying this then you probably liked the previous game, so these changes might not be all that welcome.
But hell, I liked it.
The Bad: Graphics could be better. Doesn’t seem as good as it’s forebear.