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Full Version: A fan review of Penumbra! (Spoilers)
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OK, so I'll start with a little background about me; I figure that it might be interesting to some, given that horror games are all about immersion (and people have different reactions to immersive atmospheres; some are easier to suck in). I'm a college student living on the east coast of the US. I don't often play horror games, although I've definitely grown up on games, mostly RTS and FPS (favorite game still being StarCraft Big Grin). I consider myself quite jaded when it comes to gaming, having seen every game cliche out there. The best horror game I've played before this (although not necessarily most fun, as I find the best horror games aren't really 'fun') would probably be the Silent Hill games.

So, Penumbra.

This will be a collection of my thoughts on Overture and Black Plague, as I haven't actually played Requiem yet. I hear it's more of a puzzle side-game (like Portal) rather than a true continuation of the series though, so I figure this review will cover most of the series. I dove into Overture with only knowledge that this was a horror adventure game designed by a team small enough to fit into a canoe, and was pleasantly surprised right off the bat by the graphics and mechanics. All of the controls in the game feel tight and intuitive to me, which is an enormous and often overlooked part of any game, but doubly so for games which really focus on immersion. Philip controls well over all and feels a lot like a real person in many ways, from the spartan UI to the crouch-walk-run movement, which even becomes more like crawl-limp-struggle if you let yourself get savaged by monsters. Big Grin I love the switch to Myst-style 'look mode' when opening doors or pulling levers; it lends the game a much more cinematic experience and helps to create some really tense and dreadful moments, such as slowly opening a creaking door or furiously spinning a valve during a chase scene. Both the graphics and the physics in both games are basic but in no way dated, invoking a feel somewhere close to Half-Life 2.

The narrative throughout the games is scattered and indirect, told mostly through notes and documents left behind by the previous inhabitants. The story remains mostly a mystery until the end of Black Plague. During Overture, bits and pieces of creepy evidence are found all over the place, foreshadowing the second game quite well (with words like Xeno scattered amongst the research documents). The second game clarifies a lot of this with the help of Amabel, and finally the Tuurngait at the end, although a lot of it is left unanswered or not fully developed (Who exactly are the Archaic? Where do they come from, and who is funding them? Why is the Hivemind so level-headed while the individual infected are closer to bloodthirsty zombies?). I'm not going to call the game out on this one however, because a) It might be explained in Requiem and b) The best stories leave something to the player's imagination anyway. Over all, I thought the story itself was a little bit far-fetched, but it does an adequate job of pushing Philip along, giving convincing motivations for exploring deeper into the facility. The parts where the story came to the forefront of gameplay is where I thought the game was weakest; notably the beginning (Leaving everything behind and wandering empty-handed into a blizzard in Greenland because of a letter?) and the end (The Tuurngait trials seemed really out of place to me, and Philip betraying it's trust did not fit what I was feeling, possibly because I didn't feel for his father).

Nevertheless, I did really like Penumbra, to the point where I would honestly name it one of the best games of the past decade. Let me explain why. The thing which Penumbra does right which so many games today fail is atmosphere. Many games today approach horror with the idea that it can't be a genre of it's own, and that it needs the help of the bigger, more well-established genres to stand up there with the best (see: FEAR, Doom 3), and thus try to make up for the lack of real terror by throwing a zombie in your face every hour or so in between mowing down legions of monsters with your huge minigun. Penumbra takes that idea and throws it down a bottomless pit, giving you control of a wimpy English professor with only a flashlight and a glowstick between him and the horrors of the dark. Everything truly scary in Penumbra is very subtle as opposed to being obvious, and these little nudges and prods do a fantastic job of chipping away at your confidence until you find yourself huddled in a corner hoping your flashlight won't go out. The game is full of masterful little events (glimpses of things through windows, chittering sounds in the walls as you pass by, ominous notes, etc.) which only get worse as you descend further. There are some truly terrifying parts, notably the dog kennel in Black Plague, during which my hands were actually shaking with fear. The crushing dread of being totally alone is only amplified by the setting (which is quite original, I might add); almost the entire game takes place underground, moving from the remains of a military bunker to a mine, and finally to a secret research facility.

While what you don't see is what really scares you, the game wouldn't be very exciting if you never ran into anything, and there is a nice scattering of enemies throughout both games, keeping you on edge constantly. In Overture, you have several ways of defending yourself should things go south, and this is another point of weakness in an otherwise excellent game. Dealing with the dogs goes from terrifying to annoying once they come out in force and you discover that you can actually kill them without too much hassle, and the dev team wizened up on this account, as your options for self-defense in Black Plague are close to non-existent. I felt Black Plague was scarier over all, and in large part because of the lack of options you have to defend yourself with.

The other humans you run across through the two games are almost universally unreliable, with the one exception of Amabel. The three support characters you interact with heavily through the game are all complex and interesting, and run a wide array of personalities (even mirroring and foreshadowing your experience with the infection; Amabel being uninfected, Red being infected but still human, and Clarence being completely infected). They're all fun to talk to, and even evoke some deeper thoughts and feelings (Just how much of what you're seeing is real anymore? Did Amabel ever actually exist, or is she a delusion of your slowly decaying mind? Perhaps a counter personality to Clarence, representing your humanity?). Every sequence where Clarence started screwing with me made me actually talk to my computer screen ("Oh no... there was a door there before! Stop it Clarence, please!!"), and the ending sequence in Overture was honestly one of the strongest endings I've played through, from the death of Red to the gripping finale in the tunnel.

The puzzles are for the most part fun and challenging. There are a few puzzles early on in Overture which I thought were unfair or had stupid solutions (making a fuse for the TNT barrel), but Black Plague comes back with new and cleverer puzzles, keeping it fresh throughout.

So on the whole, I liked Penumbra. A lot. In my book, it's one of the shining examples of how games should be done; it's a fantastic and emotionally draining adventure of fear and the human mind, constantly leaving you standing still with dread and yet luring you onward irresistibly at the same time. I salute you guys at Frictional Games for making this awesome game, and I hope you can find a way to continue making games in the future. It must be a real labor of love (considering your budget Big Grin), so I just wanted you all to know that your efforts really made a difference to someone halfway around the world. I bought the Penumbra pack at the cheapo discount price through the Humble Indie Bundle, but it really blew me away, so writing this all down was just my way of giving something back. Tongue

Cheers everybody; now I can't wait for Amnesia.
Wow, great great review. You pointed out the flaws in the games without completely putting down the games. Can't wait to read your review for Amnesia, if you do one that is.
Excellent review. I especially enjoyed your theory of the characters in the game being allegories for humanity. The characters' contribution to your character form somewhat of an equilibrium. Clarence being a malevolent, insane, wise-ass trickster meaning you nothing but harm (he offers help, but his intentions remain evil), Amabel being a benevolent, kind person still in touch with her humanity and sanity and finally Red being somewhat neutral (he isn't quite sure what he's doing most of the time; he intended to help you reach your goal and yet was ready to send you to your doom on several occasions).

I also agree with all the flaws you found the games had, although I thought all of the puzzles in Overture were fun, engaging and difficult. The game is definitely somewhat reminiscent of Silent Hill with all of its obscure puzzles that took you days to figure out without a walkthrough, and I definitely enjoyed that. None of the puzzles took me that long, but some of them took a bit of logical thinking and speculating. In fact I would've enjoyed even harder puzzles. Not necessarily obscurer to the point of being seemingly impossible and nonsensical, but complex in their design. What I mean is, having puzzles that have a seemingly pragmatic goal and yet complicated method of reaching said goal. That's why I much prefer Penumbra's puzzles over the puzzles of other games. All of them are straightforward and realistically set forward, but not easy. Again, great review, and I agree with the above poster; I will definitely read your Amnesia review if you decide to do one.