Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Penumbra series

Post-Launch Review
Penumbra series
Developer: Frictional Games
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Released: Overture, March 30 2007; Black Plague, February 12 2008; Requiem, August 27 2008.

Note: I'm reviewing the Penumbra series as a whole because they're short episodic games that form a complete story. Just for reference, the entire trilogy took me about nine hours, or roughly three hours per game.

The Penumbra games are a first-person survival-horror adventure series. You play as Philip, a man whose mother has recently died and whose father, whom Philip has never before met or spoken to, sends him a cryptic letter. Following the clues, Philip makes his way to an abandoned mine, where he is soon trapped by a cave-in. He is forced to search the mine for a way out, dealing with oversized monstrous fauna, an insane survivor, and scraps of history dating back decades. As Philip uncovers more clues it becomes apparent that something sinister and horrific is going on.

At Launch
Overture received average to favourable scores. Reviewers both praised and criticized the physics-based interactions, citing great immersion but occasionally difficult and frustrating tasks, especially combat. Although, the difficulty of combat was also cited as a plus, for making the player feel like an ordinary person who would rather avoid the zombie dogs than fight them. The creepy atmosphere was applauded, but many critics felt it was dragged down a bit by the story elements of Philip and his father when it would have stood better on only the stronger history and atmosphere elements. The character of Red was generally cited as the best part of the game.
Black Plague was better reviewed than Overture, due to Frictional's attention to the criticisms of the first game. The removal of combat meant that the flaws of the physics system became nearly invisible. The plot and interface were praised, as well as the game's “excellent” sound design. The major criticism was that Black Plague ended rather abruptly — this was due to Frictional's decision, at the time, to conclude the series there instead of in a third episode.
As it turned out, the series didn't end with Black Plague — but the expansion, Requiem, received mixed reviews and was the worst-rated entry in the series. Most reviews stated that it was still good and worth buying, but dropped some of the best elements of the first two games and occasionally felt like a Portal clone.

Post Launch
Aside from the fact that Black Plague and Requiem came out, the Penumbra series received no major post-launch support.

The Good
Penumbra does a great job of building atmosphere. The mine is downright creepy. Monsters are built up before you ever meet them. Some of the sound effects are particularly effective, like the creaking of wooden floors as you walk, or Philip's breathing while wearing a gas mask.

The puzzles range from simple to complex, but they're all laid out in such a way that you always have the elements to solve them at your disposal. For example, if you need a password to get into a computer, you don't have to guess the password based on vague clues — you find it somewhere in the level. Other times puzzles can only be solved if you read in-game documents carefully — a caveat or clue might be buried at the end of a document rather than presented up front.

Red is a survivor of whatever happened to the mine and has been trapped there a long time. He's very well written and very well acted. He shows a surprising range of emotion, and even though you know he's crazy and spiteful, you can't help but get at least a little attached to him. There's a fantastic bit with Red toward the end of Overture that's spectacularly creepy.

Black Plague's Ending
Some critics didn't like Black Plague's ending. I didn't find it as abrupt as the critics would have lead me to believe — it was decently set up over the course of the game. The final twist is shockingly brutal and a pleasant surprise, for me at least.
This is a minor spoiler, so stop here if you don't want so much as a hint. All I'll say is that I enjoy stories that aren't afraid to give you a dark ending

The Neutral
The game engine looks a little dated. It's not too serious yet; the main problem is how empty the environments are. Most of the tunnels and large areas are mostly flat bare floor, flat bare walls, flat bare ceiling. Textures and objects themselves are perfectly reasonable, and the lighting engine still works fine.

Some reviewers criticized the game's reliance on notes and scraps of paper to tell the story and progress the game. It didn't bother me at all — the journals are awesome and the rest is okay at worst. The only thing I'd criticize is that some of the notes don't really make sense: I'm not sure that injured, dying miners would have taken the time to scrawl out pages upon pages of documentation on what happened to them and how they feel about it.

Yep, the entire expansion/trilogy conclusion goes into the neutral category.
Gameplay is not very exciting. It's a series of puzzle chambers with no threats or scares. There's the occasional environmental hazard but they're easily avoided. Not that anything here is particularly bad — it's just not great and kind of boring.
Your journey through these chambers is accompanied by three voiceovers: a doctor from Black Plague who had been infected; a female electronic voice that gets weirder and weirder (suspiciously GLaDOS-like), and Red from Overture.
There's very little in the way of plot, but I did like what was there. It was a mostly satisfactory look at a man's spiral into insanity and death.

The Bad
Combat Negates the Horror (Overture)
...but not in the way you might think. Combat is very difficult: you have to make the swinging motions to attack with your makeshift weapons, and doors can only hold back enemies for so long, so combat is pretty stressful and used as a last resort. That is, until you discover the two quirks. If you stand on a crate the zombie dogs can't get to you; and throwing a sufficiently heavy object at an enemy both deals damage and knocks it over. As soon as I figured out the throwing trick the monsters stopped being scary at all because I could safely just toss a barrel at the monster until it died.
Fortunately, combat was removed entirely for Black Plague and Requiem, which works much better.

Large Environments Also Negate the Horror
A second, less obvious issue: much of the gameplay takes place in a series of rooms all in the same facility. That facility has many hallways, which tend to be fairly long and open. Monsters are less scary when you can practically see them a mile away, giving you plenty of time to hide. Of course not every monster shows up in big open hallways, but it's enough to be an issue.

The Verdict
Recommendation: Play it, mostly.
If you played Amnesia: The Dark Descent before Penumbra, it's immediately obvious that the former is the result of Frictional improving and polishing the formula created in the latter. Penumbra is not as good as Amnesia, but it's still a good creepy story and totally worth playing, especially if you're interested in seeing the development process. Requiem, however, is entirely skippable unless you want to know Philip's fate, as it adds nothing of significance to the plot.  

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