Penumbra: Black Plague PC Review

Penumbra: Overture, the dark psychological horror has had a big episodic baby, and it’s looking up at you dripping in fresh birth juice, telling you its name is Penumbra: Black Plague.

Penumbra: Black Plague slips you into the eyes and disembodied hand of a fellow named Philip, no last name here, there’s no time for a last name where he’s going. After receiving a message from his father (Howard… whatsisface), Philip has trudged his way through the Antarctic’s ever so hospitable environment, and has found himself inside a secret installation underground, stop me if you’ve heard this before. After some exploration and puzzle solving Philip has become aware that there is a slight chance his father is still alive somewhere in the facility, and is going to do his darndest to bring him out alive, stop me if you’ve heard this. Unfortunately the facility has been overrun by a mysterious virus, which turns everyone infected into “for lack of a better word ‘zombies’, please stop me!

Give me a shotgun and a zombie horde, and I will quite happily empty shells for a number of unspecified hours, with little variation in game play or surroundings. But a funny thing happened while I was playing Penumbra Black, I forgot all about guns, I forgot all about my instinctive healthy urge to kill, and I started to enjoy being scared and even more shockingly, enjoyed thinking.

Fear isn’t one of my favorite emotions, and as a rule I don’t try and seek it out. For that reason, I was unaware of how to get the most out of this type of game. Sitting in my PC room with the sunlight glaring in through my window, with a pile of fruit pastels in front of me, didn’t scream emersion in a horror universe to me. So I resolved myself to only playing this game at night, with the lights off and with my headphones on. I don’t mind telling you, there were a fair few times I almost got up to put the light back on. And I rather pathetically put off playing it for a day or two, after my first attempt. Although that was half due to the ridiculously poor experience I had in my first sit down with the game.

The first room in Black Plague has you escaping from your jail cell, which I am told is where the last installment leaves off. You escape your confines by squashing a coin in a vice, and then using its slender profile to unscrew a vent. The next room group stumped me for quite a while, and I even found myself picking up items within the rooms, and smashing them against things like some kind of Neanderthal ape. After regaining my composure I “figured out” (read the walkthrough) that I was supposed use the coin from the first room, in a drinks machine in the second room. But my brain had discounted the coin as a solution, knowing it was misshapen from the vice. Anyone who has put the same 50p into a vending machine 8 times for a particularly appetising looking Twix, knows that those machines aren’t that forgiving. I was a victim of my own overly realistic mind, but after I settled into that knowledge and got to grips with the fact the game was calling me an idiot, everything got good.

Have you ever been vulnerable in a game before? The answer is probably yes, bosses killing you in several hits, clear cut traps that are instant death, self botched quick time events, these are all common place in games nowadays. But where other games cop out, and feel their genre shift from Horror to Action, Penumbra stays true. I don’t want the next statement to sound like an insult, or a reason for you not to try the game but “you will have no way to defend yourself”… Even I made a sigh of disappointment reading that, but hear me out and give it a chance. Your time with Penumbra will be spent running away from confrontation, hiding in dark dank corners of the complex, and hoping not have a flash light shone in your direction. Being unable to fight back heightens your sense of jeopardy, and forces you to think quicker and with more practical purpose. By the time you reach the end of the game, you will find it hard to picture it working as well any other way. Which is probably why the developers took out all make shift weapons, that they tried to implement initially in Penumbra: Overture.

The incredibly intuitive interaction system, (which makes Half-life’s gravity gun feel like a pitch fork with a ham on the end), gives you a more tactile relationship with the world. Box’s moving as you run into them, pushing things off shelves and watching it smash, truth be told this game does nothing original in that sense, everything reacts the way it should do, physics wise. It’s being forced to interact with things on a more personal level, opening draws by pulling them towards you, twisting valves, inserting cards may all seem like pointless wastes of time, especially when the heat is on. But words can’t describe having to pull a slight crack in a door while tilting your characters head, to see what flash light wielding death awaits you gargling and growling on the other side, only to have the door kicked into your face and the only route of escape blocked.

[Editor’s note – skip this next paragraph if you wish to avoid finding out about the story.] Throwing both imminent danger and puzzle solving at you is sure fire entertainment gold, tried and tested by most game making companies out there. Penumbra’s unique take on this is the mysterious virus, the silent hero you inhabit has contracted the virus himself. Although this isn’t your typical zombie virus, there is a hive intelligence behind it, with an agenda all of its own. As the game progresses you will discover from the research of deceased scientists that the virus has various stages, realising that you are becoming a walking check list to an incurable illness, adds a nice sense of futility and urgency to proceedings, made a whole less subtle and interesting, when the virus takes a voice and name inside your head, Clarence. From here Clarence acts as a sort of mental trickster using visual keys and manipulation to hinder you, or to suit his ends. You’ll find yourself harking back to the days of inner turmoil with the Black and White titles, especially when you realize it’s the same voice actor of the Evil conscience.

With next generation consoles dominating the market, it seems a waste for an episodic game such as this to be confined to the PC. With the exceptional hand to world interaction it’s the kind of game that would be right at home on the Wii, and would not only show developers how it should be done, but also would move the Wii’s profile away from the cute and fluffy. As is, the Penumbra series may miss an audience that is jumping ship to the more user friendly consoles. That being said the developers seem all too aware that Black Plague is a PC only affair, littering the game with interactive computers, even going as far as to dedicate an entire section to repairing a server system, where anyone without a knowledge of computer lingo could easily add another hour to already short 5 hour game.

If pushed and I had to condense a description of this game down to a sentence, I would have to say “clever Half-Life puzzles, with that bit from episode 2 where you run from the ant lion, only you don’t eventually get weapons” and I guess that would be enough to put most people off, which I admit doesn’t do it justice. I personally was excited to give this game a play, and even after the rocky start it will be stored in a part of my brain labeled “decent gaming memory”. Although, if you’re a stickler for games of this type, horror/stealth you may find it falls into the corridor-running/shadow-crouching ether, but that’s up to you and your $19.99 to decide. However if you played Penumbra: Overture and enjoyed it, this is a definite buy. Even without the previous games back-story and dotted plot exposition, Black Plague’s ending and Penumbra’s finale was unique, rewarding and compelling even to a 50% outsider.

Everything in this game is terrifying and challenging enough to leave you with a real buzz when you achieve, but is cleverly paced so you won’t feel like there’s a monster around every corner, waiting to beat you into a meat oblong and store you in the dresser draws your character is so fond of opening.

Take a chance, c#@+ your pants.

8 out of 10