Play it now – Penumbra: Overture, Black Plague and Requiem

Play It NowI’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 2009-07-17 00-39-53-99

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 2009-07-17 00-41-04-02Wheels have to be turned, doors pushed or pulled open with your hand, recalcitrant things bashed with a tool or a handy rock. Objects in the environment can be pushed, pulled, thrown or stacked.

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.

penumbra 2009-07-17 00-42-17-65Some 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.

penumbra 2009-07-17 00-38-46-41The 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.

penumbra 2009-07-17 00-46-54-03It’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.

penumbra 2009-07-17 00-46-44-57Philip never speaks aloud throughout the three parts, but during the course of things there are a few other voices. The voice-acting ranges from decent, to quite good.

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.

3 thoughts on “Play it now – Penumbra: Overture, Black Plague and Requiem”

  1. I loved Penumbra: Overture. The fear was well-crafted, favoring unseen noises and horrifying implications, rather than the usual gore and waves of monsters that jump out of the walls.

    I loved the dearth of weaponry; it makes you feel helpless and vulnerable, and forces you to be stealthy, which enhances the fear even more. Indeed, the game became a lot less fun once I realized how easy it was to dispatch of the dogs using certain objects in the scene (anyone who has played it should know what I’m referring to). The fact that I could kill the things — that I wasn’t helpless after all — spoiled it for me.

    I tried the demo for Black Plague when it came out, but it felt like the developers had lost sight of what made the first game so deliciously scary. And the mindless, simplistic AI, which could be forgiven somewhat when it was driving dog-zombie-things, suddenly seemed horribly inadequate when it was driving talking, human-ish things.

    My suspension of disbelief was snapped like a twig when I got stuck in a room with an enemy who just sat there staring blankly at the wall, and I had to escape by slowly dragging a crate along while I hid behind it, inch by inch towards the door, hearing things like “What was that? … Hrm, must have been nothing,” every time I moved. I almost felt like jumping out and saying “It was me! It has been me the whole past 5 minutes! I’ve been behind that moving box, you stupid git!”

    That was a deal-breaker for me, and I decided not to purchase the full version. I might give it another try, though, to get to that satisfying ending you speak of.

  2. Hahah! $5.

    Downloading DMG file now.
    Since my internnet is dead at home (hopefully fixed Saturday, but won’t hold my breatrh) – will give me something to keep me enetertained!

    Fortuitous timing.

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