Over the past few weeks, I’ve worked my way through the three Penumbra games. I took them in their nominal order, thinking that playing them would be important to my eventual enjoyment of Frictional Games’ Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
All three games try to be horror games, in a first person point-of-view with the majority of the gameplay consisting of puzzle solving. The games themselves having a rather advanced physics engine which is itself often leveraged into the puzzle design. The three games, though built in the same engine and part of a single continuous narrative, are remarkably different in tone, though. In a sense, it is thus similar to the three Alien movies.There, Alien was a thriller, Aliens was an action movie, and Alien 3 was crap (I think “crap” is a genre of movie…).
With Penumbra, the first game was most reminiscent of old adventure game, but with the worst parts of the survival horror genre mixed in for flavor. The game had enemies, many of which it was necessary to fight. The game, though, saddles players with a quite horrible control system and weapons which take far too many strikes to kill. This is the kind of thing that Resident Evil, the mindshare leader in survival horror™, gave up years before Overture‘s release. As frustrating as that was, though, perhaps more aggravating were the adventure gaming aspects. The game was rife with the 3d equivalent of the old “Hunt the Pixel” puzzles–the find the single takeable item in a room full of otherwise interact-able physics objects. Oh, and once a player finds it, they’ll then begin the wonderful combinatorial exercise of rubbing each object against every other object they find in a vain hope of solving the badly clued puzzles.
Penumbra: Overture: 0
Black Plague picks up immediately after the events of Overture. Unfortunately, it also begins by creating a large number of never-resolved plot holes. In Overture, you were climbing down through an abandoned mine, searching for your father, in Black Plague, you find a large hidden research lab, apparently at the bottom of the mine. This lab is in active use, despite the face that the only apparent way in seems to not have been used in decades. The game does try to talk around this seemingly glaring inconsistency, but it never quite convinces. Gameplay wise, it is very similar to Overture–more adventure game puzzles–but this time, I would argue that the survival horror aspects are missing.
Survival horror games traditionally require players to have a chance to fight back against their foes–even if their odds are terrible. In Black Plague, though, all of the weapons were removed. On the one hand, this certain removes the problem that Overturehad in which the combat system was awful, but it turns the main character into someone who flees from danger at all times. This makes enemies seem more like just more puzzles rather than threats. It’s probably a net improvement, but the inconsistency between this and its predecessor is quite noticeable.
Continuing with my Alien analogy, this game is much more “adventure” and much less “survival” than its predecessor. It was certainly better than it’s predecessor. The dialog and writing are both improved, and the “antagonist” (such as it is) for most of the game manages to inspire a true sense of hatred. Even so, under-cluing abounds, and I really can’t recommend it.
Penumbra: Black Plague: 0
The final Penumbra game, Requiem, is very dissimilar to its predecessors. Rather than being (or at least attempting to be) a horror game, this one is almost entirely a puzzle game. Rather than having the continuous, logically connected areas, the player teleports from contrived puzzle room to contrived puzzle room. Although the puzzles themselves are usually somewhat interesting, it feels like a step backward compared to Black Plague.
Perhaps worst of all, Black Plague had a satisfying ending. By bringing the protagonist back to run through a rat maze, I think the series itself is harmed. Even the framing story for Requiem feels tacked on and forced.
Penumbra: Requiem: 0