Penumbra: Black Plague  - Brian
Director: Frictional Games
Starring: Bram Floria Lani Minella Sam A. Mowry Nancy C. Roberts
The first installment of the Penumbra Series
, featured an interactive real-time mechanic for manipulating objects and a unique sanity system which favored flight over fight, despite the game’s would-be FPS trappings. You were tempted to fight, but ultimately learned that it was futile in most cases. As Philip followed Red’s voice on the radio to his presumed destiny, the twist came when Red’s final request was revealed. The story ended on a devilish cliffhanger with many mysteries left unsolved. A year later, Penumbra: Black Plague
was released in February of 2008, and while many elements of the original game were present, there had been a few changes and a generous facelift to the physics and sanity systems.
From the start, the player will notice that the narrative is much more involved with an almost overabundance of expository reading material. This is largely due to the fact that the series was intended to be a trilogy. Since Black Plague
marks the second and final chapter (excluding the expansion), all the details and plot elements from both of the final installments were crammed into one game. The resolution feels truncated and rushed, but it’s better than no resolution at all.
After being subdued by an unseen assailant, Philip awakens in captivity when his heroics prove futile. Finding himself in a prison cell of a subterranean research facility, Philip must attempt to track down his father while avoiding the infected humans that stalk the halls. Early in the game, Philip becomes infected as well, but instead of turning violent, he is haunted by a second voice in his head named “Clarence.” Initially regarded as a mere voice, Clarence is far from benign and continuously torments the player with hallucinations and betrayals for the remainder of his occupancy in Philip’s head. Fueled by his overwhelming desire for the truth regarding his father, Philip struggles to find the answers…but ultimately learns that some things are better left unknown. It’s classic Lovecraft from start to finish and it only gets more interesting the further the game goes.
Much like Overture
, Black Plague
never deviates from the first-person perspective with every plot element and every twist experienced through Philip’s eyes. A further de-emphasis on melee combat is prevalent as there are absolutely no melee weapons to obtain this time around. If you’re the sort that favors the elimination of enemy targets over observation and espionage, you might want to steer clear of this game. Enemies are armed, watchful, and difficult to lose unless you’ve taken some time to familiarize yourself with the lay of the land. In this way, the game favors reconnaissance and planning as opposed to the clumsy combat of Overture
The same physics engine from Overture
makes its return in this installment with a generous tweaking to make it all the more accessible. Players operate cranks and pull open doors by holding down the mouse button and either pulling the mouse towards them or moving it in a circular motion. It doesn’t sound like much fun, but this added layer of depth and interactivity actually serves as a strong catalyst which draws the player deeper into the game. The sanity system makes a return as well and, in addition, full-blown hallucinations. These occurrences are instantaneous and completely unpredictable when first experienced; nothing you are doing at any given time prepares you for when you are suddenly and inexplicably transported to the first level of Overture
. It only gets more bizarre when sinister nightmare versions of these familiar locations take root and you find yourself adapting to the abstract logic of these abstract realms in order to return to normality. Unsettling and illogical, a combination of both color and sound make the experiences all the more visceral as you scurry about trapped in Philip’s head, clawing at his psyche for a way out.
In terms of the look and the feel of the game, there is absolutely nothing new here. The graphics aren’t too pretty, but they aren’t too ugly. If you played Overture
than with the exception of the continued plot, you’ll feel like you’ve played this before. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but we would have liked a little more bang for our buck. Maybe some new gameplay mechanic or more variety in enemies. However, Black Plague
does manage to trump Overture
both in game time and presentation. While the ending may not be everything that the player hoped for, the ride from point A to point B is both a thrilling and enjoyable adventure with lots of twists and turns. In the end, the Penumbra Series
is a classic example further solidifying the fact that you don’t need fancy graphics or tremendous production values to make a truly terrifying experience. Here’s hoping their newest endeavor, Unknown
, is just as horrifying.