RE: Penumbra Collection review
I hope this is the right thread...
Even though Penumbra is a few years old it's still worthy of a review and the devs are still entitled to honest feedback. So here's mine:
From the photophobic cabin dwellers at Frictional Games comes the PC exclusive Penumbra trilogy, consisting of Overture, Black Plague and Requiem.
I’m relatively new to the survival horror genre; the only horror titles I’ve previously played were the F.E.A.R. games and the Shalebridge Cradle mission from Thief: Deadly Shadows (if either of those count). And I can see the appeal of stalking about in the dark surrounded by invisible enemies who might at any minute jump out of the shadows to bite the front half of your body off but you know you must press on despite the danger(!), and the overwhelming sense of accomplishment from conquering your fear by entering the same abyss you just saw a hideous creature disappear into is almost therapeutic. Proper horror games also offer a valuable sense of immersion and tension that you don’t get so much in games nowadays (thanks to the overwhelming plague of casual gamers descending on the industry like a thick blanket made of cement and idiot). Penumbra is a great example of a survival horror/adventure game that blends brilliant level design, intriguing story, detailed environments, an unnerving atmosphere and stealth elements, all connected by an intuitive control scheme. What’s even more impressive is that it was created by a development team you could fit in a phone booth.
Starting with Penumbra: Overture, you play as Philip Buchanon; a professor who, after his mother’s death, receives a letter from his father Howard telling him to destroy some documents he stored in a bank deposit box in Philip’s name. Howard left before Philip was born and was presumed dead for the last three decades, so Philip is understandably confused. Instead of destroying the documents, he instead gives into his human curiosity and reads through them discovering that his father was up to some pretty unusual stuff. So, apparently having nothing to lose, Philip decides to set sail for Greenland to find his father and discover just what was keeping him there all these years. And, as you’d expect, Philip finds a little more than he bargained for.
From there the rest of the story is told through various notes and other bits of information you find through exploration, letting the player piece together what happened and forcing you to use your brain (y’know, that thing between your ears which game developers seem to forget that humans possess). It’s interesting to see how the environments progress throughout the game; you start off by taking cover from a storm in an abandoned mine which turned out to be an old WWII bunker (apparently abandoned since 1945), but as you push deeper underground the setting gradually and strangely becomes more modern with evidence & clues collected becoming more fascinating (and “fresh”). There’s no dialogue in the game, Philips thoughts are conveyed through text messages displayed on the screen at appropriate times. In fact the only time Philip speaks in the whole series is during the intro cinematic of Overture. Oh wait - there is a bit of dialogue in-game: you get contacted by an eccentric survivor named ‘Red’ who communicates through a (conveniently) one-way radio who acts as a guide to the player (although his advice is scarce and hardly useful).
When you first start the game it suggests that you turn off all the lights, turn the sound up (even better with headphones), kick the contrast up as high as you can and set the gamma as low as your eyes will allow. This really is the best way to play it, and as a side note make sure you’re within jumping distance of the nearest toilet. Even though Overture came out in 2007 the graphics look a bit dated when compared to other games like COD4 or Assassin’s Creed (although not Crysis because that’s just being unfair). However the graphics are still manageable, about on the same level as Painkiller, and do a good enough job of setting the scene very well. You’ll be spending most of the time hiding in dark corners anyway so it’s not really noticeable. The dynamic lighting creates an unnerving contrast between light & darkness (and the ‘penumbra’, obviously) and casts eerie shadows across the walls. There’s an interesting visual effect that represents night vision where if you stay still in the shadows Philips eyesight will have a slight blue tinge and the brightness will be increased slightly, which does make it a little easier to navigate. You also have flares & a flashlight for better clarity but most of the time you’re afraid to turn them on for fear of being spotted by an unseen enemy.
Which brings me to atmosphere. Penumbra: Overture does a great job in establishing an unnerving atmosphere which results in a lot of balls-to-the-walls gameplay where you spend most of the time crouched and slowly stalk from shadow to shadow, taking your time to peek around corners examining your environment very carefully and not setting one foot forward until you’re sure there’s absolutely nothing there (reminiscent of Thief). This works even better from being a first-person game; there’s always something uneasy about not being able to watch your own back. The sound in-game has been done brilliantly as well; your footsteps are dynamic and uncomfortably loud, doors creak loudly when you open them and the music/environmental sounds add an extra layer of eeriness & uneasiness to the already spooky atmosphere. There is also tension music when you’re in danger which really makes your heart pound. Since sound is one of the most crucial elements for when creating an immersive atmosphere I’m glad the developers put the extra effort into making the game sound good. Thumbs up to the both of you.
One of the main unique features of the Penumbra games is the way you control Philip and interact with the environment. Rather than just clicking or pressing a button in front of something you actually have to move the mouse to simulate the appropriate action. For instance, if you want to open a drawer or door you have to hold down the left mouse button and pull the mouse towards you to represent the action. I rather like this fluid control as it allows a bit more flexibility as to how you approach various obstacles, and I like being able to open a door slowly while peeking from around a corner rather than just carelessly swinging it wide open in a very un-stealthy fashion as you do in most games. This control scheme takes a bit of getting used to but it does its job. It's a clever use of the Newton Game Dynamics physics engine, which is used to solve various puzzles throughout the game in order to proceed to the next area (or die a horrible death). The level design is fairly linear although due to the exploratory nature of the game it’s not really noticeable. These puzzles do require a bit of thinking but aren’t too difficult; they’re all about the same as Portal difficulty-wise.
This control scheme is also used for combat, should you be clumsy enough to engage in it. You have to swing the mouse horizontally and back & forth to represent the swinging & jabbing of your pickaxe, which does make for some pretty intense scenarios. Combat isn’t easy but then again it’s not supposed to be, and there is an overwhelming sense of relief if you succeed. I’ll never forget my first dog fight... Thankfully stealth is always an option as Philip can hide by crouching low in shadows or behind cover and sneak past enemies while they aren’t looking. Strangely, dogs can’t seem to smell Philip even when he’s within arms reach of them and can only seem to smell beef jerky, which you can find lying around the place and use to distract dogs. Although trying to throw the beef jerky is a little difficult; I remember one time I was hiding behind a box and wanted to throw a piece of jerky out the door to lure a dog away but I ended up dropping it at my feet like an elderly woman with arthritis attempting shot-put for the first time, which resulted in the already angry dog bounding around the corner to make my acquaintance through the international language of violence. There are three main types of enemies in Overture; spiders, giant rockworm things and dogs, and only the latter should be attempted to be given the silent treatment, the jerky treatment or mined for iron in their skulls. With the other two your only option is to leg it like the Prince from the Dahaka.
Penumbra: Black Plague picks up right where Overture left off in that hair-standingly good ending with Philip awaking in a cell deep in the underground complex he discovered in the previous game. He may have lost his sanity but at least he still has his notebook, and he sets out to continue looking for his father and unravel the secrets of the mysterious complex beneath Greenland (dubbed the ‘Shelter’). It soon becomes apparent that the complex has been infected by some zombie plague and the few remaining survivors are working on a cure. Yep, that’s never been done before. Since Red isn’t with us this time ‘round Philip gets inhabited by a malevolent spirit who sounds a bit like George Carlin and essentially plays the same role as Red in giving useless advice, calling Philip a monkey and generally messing with the players head. The game keeps the same mindset as Overture in that you spend a lot of the time moving slowly through the shadows and maintaining constant 360 degree situational awareness like a Spetsnaz operative behind enemy lines on too much caffeine. Occasionally you converse with some of the survivors who tell you where to go next & what to do but for the most part it’s just you, the darkness and George Carlin.
Black Plague seems to have lost a lot of the mystery & ambiguity of the first game that made Penumbra's story great, and the environments became a lot more dull & samey as well. The enemies have been largely replaced by zombies with long dangling umbilical cords that looked like something completely different at first glance. Unfortunately in this game you can no longer rely on your trusty pickaxe for comfort so if you get spotted your only option is to leg it Benny Hill-style with the zombies in pursuit, which I found to be really immersion-breaking. It’s not that I enjoy the combat - in fact in Overture I ended up running away most of the time as well - but if I got cornered I at least had the option to defend myself which is what I’d do in real life as well. But if you get cornered in Black Plague your only option is to let the zombie slap you to death and feast on your eyeballs. And Christ they must be gourmet zombies because they take their damn time devouring you while you sit there waiting to die. Alternatively you could just open the pause menu and reload the checkpoint, but either way it's immersion-breaking. The zombies are also a lot easier to outrun than the spiders & dogs from Overture, something I didn’t realise until I ran around a corner from a zombie only to have it give up the chase and I ended up running around the hallway straight into the zombie’s face again. But the atmosphere is still scary and the ending is a bit of a mindf***, so I can still recommend it.
Penumbra: Requiem on the other hand is a game that has no right to exist, it’s just something needlessly tacked on to show off the Newton Game Dynamics engine which they did just fine in Overture. Being an expansion pack I wasn’t expecting much, but I was expecting something more than this. It continues the story in no way whatsoever and is just a short & insubstantial collection of linear puzzles that don’t require a great deal of thought. The atmosphere has been toned down significantly and all enemies have been omitted from the game altogether, which got rid of the main reason to play Penumbra in the first place. Like other games, the inappropriately titled ‘Requiem’ seems to be trying to copy Portal as well; for starters the game is only about 3 hours long (if you’re incredibly thick and suffer from ADD), there is no longer a decent inventory system meaning you have to carry items one by one across the levels, each level ends with you passing through an orange portal into an even more arbitrary location, you come across markings in ventilation shafts left by previous escapees and this game even has its own GlaDOS. Strangely however no cake is present (although you do have the option to be baked at the end). There’s nothing wrong with physics-based puzzles, but you can’t base your entire game around that alone. Heck even Portal had some comic relief to make the experience worthwhile.
So in short: In order of preference I’d give gold to Overture, silver to Black Plague and to Requiem I’d give a lump of radioactive bronze launched from a bazooka. If you pretend Requiem doesn’t exist, Penumbra: Overture and Black Plague make for an immersive, intriguing and unnerving experience. If you’re a fan of sh***ing yourself, I’d highly recommend these two games. And if you're not a fan of sh***ing yourself, buy them anyway you big pussy!
If fate frowns, we all perish.
Do not fear the darkness, but welcome its embrace.