Penumbra: Black Plague (PC)

It?s taken me longer than I would have liked to put words to screen in regards to Penumbra: Black Plague. While it certainly stands proud as an original, frightening horror experience, I also have to tread carefully in my handling of its review. Simply, how does one explain to the masses why they should play a game that, ultimately, doesn?t appeal to the masses? In its defense, I don?t believe it was ever meant to.

Review by Carl Lyon

While I certainly adored the previous entry, Penumbra: Overture Episode One, its sequel/finale has done the unthinkable: developer Frictional Games has polished the gameplay experience to perfection, making no concessions to the mainstream in their design. Overture?s intuitive-but-clunky combat has been excised completely, giving Black Plague a surprisingly different and more terrifying tone. While the spiders, dogs and giant worms of the previous entry are almost entirely absent (except for a few brief encounters), the player now has to deal with ?The Infected,? the once-humans affected by the ancient force inhabiting the mine that Philip is trapped in. Being semi-human, they exhibit more advanced intelligence than the prequel?s fauna, investigating sounds and giving chase when they find you. When they do, it?s an experience like no other: you have no means of self-defense, so you?re left with running for your life, or lobbing items in their direction to stun them for a moment? so that you can run for your life. It?s an odd feeling in a game to be left so helpless, and while certain games have ?puzzle bosses? that you can?t defeat under normal circumstances, you at least have the light at the end of the tunnel that you can defeat them with the environment, another enemy?s gunfire, or some other deus ex machina that brings the fear to an end. Black Plague doesn?t even give you that hope. The gravelly, distorted voices of the Infected become a sound that you dread, and when you spot them charging toward you, the adrenaline rush is unmistakable. Their appearance is exceptionally grotesque as well: their physiques have been withered, their eyes are bulging orbs, and they sport umbilical cords looping back to an orifice that should not be feeding them. Hats off to whomever came up with that idea, you sick puppy.

Another interesting addition to the game is Clarence, a voice in your head who names himself after the guardian angel from It?s a Wonderful Life. He?s quite possibly the most obnoxious, grating character I?ve ever encountered in a video game (and I?ve played Daikatana), but his relentlessness in tripping you up both mentally and physically make him a force to be reckoned with. He shuts your vision off, skews your perception so you can?t see doors, and makes you hallucinate. As horrible as he was to deal with (really, I hated that bastard) he proves to be one hell of a villain, especially towards the end of the game where he does something so despicable, I actually felt joy in removing him from my psyche.
Sadly, after Clarence?s tour-de-force, the main ?villain? of the game, the Tuurngait, seems almost an anticlimax. The Tuurngait is a viral colony, a sort of ancient hive-mind (of which Clarence was a part), it?s a little bit Lovecraft, a little bit Borg, and so oddly dispassionate that I felt a little disappointed. Maybe it was the sheer lunacy of Clarence, or the abrupt endgame that the Tuurngait put you through, but after 16 or so hours spread across two games, I certainly wanted more than a few moral questions.

Perhaps it was that these final sequences represented the other complaint I had with Black Plague: the dream puzzles. Whereas Overture had its own sense of reality that rewarded logical thinking, and puzzles that delivered real-world results, Black Plague offers a handful of puzzles that represent the sort of inventory-shuffling trial-and-error that killed the adventure genre in the first place. Why the hell do I have to rearrange the room so it resembles a photograph hanging on the wall? Why do I have to drag barrels to the appropriate glowing circles on the floor? The answer is because the game says I have to. While this sort of illogical puzzle-solving certainly has its place in the genre, it felt forced and cheap in a game that rewarded me for thinking logically for the other 90% of its playtime.

On a whole, though, Black Plague is a marked improvement over its predecessor. The graphics have been tweaked, flirting with photorealism in places, with subtle depth-of-field and blur effects that make everything pop. The physics have also been tightened, with certain loose-bodied objects like mattresses and corpses reacting more naturally to their environment. Even the narrative has been tightened up, with enough subplots and character development to fill a decent-sized novel. Best of all, the pacing of the game is perfect. While originally planned on being a trilogy, Frictional Games wisely decided to shave the plot down to two games as opposed to spreading it too thin across three. While there are certainly a few unanswered questions, the game never overstays its welcome, or bores the player with a plot that extends further than its material allows (Hi Matrix!). It?s a perfect time-to-payoff ratio that few games or even movies can achieve.

However, I simply cannot recommend this game to everyone. It?s fantastic, polished, engrossing, and a hell of a lot of fun. It?s also a fairly uneventful, subdued game, with little in the way of cathartic payoff. If you?re the sort of person whose Xbox Gamerscore is comprised mainly of Halo 3 deathmatch achievements, you may want to pass on this one. If you?ve got a hankering for the sort of cerebral pleasures that one can?t find since the heyday of Lucasarts and Sierra, meet your new best friend.