I’m crouching in the dark. I have a flashlight, but I dare not turn it on. I’m trying to keep quiet, and huddle close to my inadequate cover. I can hear the creature growl softly as it gets closer. Will it see me? I don’t dare look, because I know I’ll panic and it will be on me in an instant. I steal quick glances at it, then huddle behind the crate to calm down, like a kid hiding under a blanket from the monster under the bed.
Is it a dog? It’s might be some kind of a dog. I dare not face it. Maybe it was a dog … once. I don’t know what it is now.
I don’t dare move. The sound of its feet stops. It sniffs the air and growls softly, a bit like a dog, but something is very… wrong about the sound. It snuffles and I think I hear it move away. I steal a terrified glance. It’s moving away from me now. I creep as fast as I dare into a cross tunnel, and head for where I think the store-rooms are. Anywhere is better than here, right?
Penumbra: Overture, Penumbra: Black Plague, and Penumbra: Requiem form a trilogy, telling a single story from start to finish. Collectively, I’ll just call them Penumbra for simplicity.
Penumbra, then, is an adventure game in 3D, from a first-person perspective. You are Philip, the recipient of a mysterious message from your missing (and presumed dead) father. Being more curious than dutiful, you neglect his instructions and take the last journey you will ever make, to seek him out.
Penumbra is proud of its physics-engine, and makes good use of it during the course of the game. Puzzles throughout are generally logical, and environment-centric, up to a point. You’ll be moving furniture, looking for fuses, making explosives, building makeshift bridges, manipulating machinery, deciphering the startup sequence for a heavy-duty generator, and decoding Morse code. And that’s just within the first couple of areas.
Penumbra is broken into a series of areas. Ultimately, the goal of each is to move from the area you are in, to the next one. That’s a bit of a simplistic view of the gameplay, but it works. Within each area, there will be a series of puzzles that you will need to accomplish to overcome the obstacles and actually achieve that goal.
Some of the puzzles that you’ll face are simple physics-based things, while others are inventory-based (use the right item on the right thing). You’ll rarely be completely stumped, and each area is fairly self-contained. You won’t be playing any hunt-the-pixel like with many point-and-click adventure-games, but it pays to explore your environment, open every container and move objects aside to see what is behind or below them.
Additionally, there are things roaming the dark places. Philip will panic if he gets a good look at something horrifying, so you’ll have to avert your gaze. Stealth and avoidance works well.
The horror theme is strong, and the atmosphere is deliciously creepy. Additionally, humour is put to good use as a counterpoint. You won’t split your sides laughing, but there’s occasions to smile, or laugh ruefully.
Save-points are relatively frequent (and well integrated into the story), and the game saves automatically at key places and events during the narrative.
By the end of the second part, Penumbra: Black Plague, the story reaches a satisfying moment of closure. The mysteries, and their implications are laid bare, and Philip takes his final action, based on what he knows, fears, and suspects.
A satisfying end to the story.
And then, paradoxically, there’s a third part: Penumbra: Requiem.
It’s a bit baffling, really. It feels like you’ve been dumped into a homage to Valve’s Portal game. A series of puzzle-areas without any conceit of story to fit them into the overall narrative, and a quirky computer voice. Requiem offers three endings, none of which seem to be as satisfying as the moment of closure at the end of Black Plague.
The text, however, has a bunch of peculiar little typographical errors and spelling mistakes. Not so many, but they really rather spoil the mood when they come up. Frictional Games, the developers, could stand to have scrutinized the text more closely.
Overall independent developers, Frictional Games have done well, though the third part, Requiem, doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the story. That’s not to say that puzzling through it was unpleasant, but it was quite a conceptual jump from the first two parts of the game. If you stopped at the end of Black Plague, you wouldn’t feel that you’ve missed out.
System requirements aren’t very low, but you will likely meet them with any modern hardware and frame-rates are good throughout if you do. You will be subjected to a few short action sequences, where you will have to do things carefully and quickly – sometimes figuring out what it is you must do as you go – but the automatic save system is very forgiving about this sort of thing, and you can quickly retry these as often as you need.
Penumbra is published by Paradox Interactive for Windows, Linux and Mac or by Frictional Games themselves through Valve’s Steam. Demos are available from their Web-site. The game itself can be purchased from there, or via Steam as well as a few other places. It’s not expensive.
Overall, I’m thinking that this is a good effort from Frictional Games. I admire what they have accomplished as an indie developer, and would like to see more of their work.