Penumbra: Black Plague (PC) review
"Everything's received an overhaul. Black Plague looks better, sounds better, plays better and reads better than its predecessor. It's still slightly rough around the edges, as is inevitible for a game built on such a tight budget by such a small team of developers. But it's less clumsy, more restrained, and more effective than before."
I recently interviewed Jens Nilsson, co-founder of Frictional Games, for an evil competitor. During our chat, I asked him about their decision to release Penumbra episodically, and why they opted for that route. He told me it was partially due to budget constraints - very reasonable - and partly so they could improve and refine their title based on consumer feedback.
Yes, you read that last bit right. They actively set out to listen to criticism. I truly wish I could say that of more developers.
Black Plague is the absolute proof that every single games company should take a leaf out of Frictional's book. Not in terms of episodic releases, necessaily, but actually taking note of what their player base has to say about their work, the specifics of what went right and what went wrong, and acting in accordance. No complacency. No checking Metacritic, seeing that they've somehow equated the opinions of 29 different sources, who score on radically different criteria, to a "generally favourable" outcome. None of that nonsense. Frictional did it the sensible way. And then they made a staggeringly good follow-up to their quirky, flawed gem of a survival horror game.
The second in the Penumbra series, Black Plague bravely excises core gameplay mechanics that simply didn't work in the context of their physics-driven engine. Specifically, the combat is gone. How many developers of what is essentially an action title would dare to try something as radical as this? It was the best decision they could have made. The over-reliance on either waiting for unfathomably long periods of time in the shadows, or attempting to swing a hammer by moving the mouse left and right, is no more. When enemies appear in Black Plague, you just run, and hope.
The sense of sheer panic, as a result of this admirable move, absolutely skyrockets. For one thing, in the four hours or so Black Plague takes to see through to completion, you'll only come across a small handful of grotesque and fearsome foes. The tension ramps up impressively in the meantime, and when you do find yourself confronted with a shambling, naked, infected hulk of flesh, the effect is all the more intense for the lengthy stretches of uninterrupted atmosphere. It's scary business.
This move away from combat-orientated survival horror gives the puzzles a chance to flourish. There's clearly been a lot more thought put into these tasks than in Overture. Though they still exist, the straightforward locked door escapades are fewer. Most are more complex, but always logical, and always cleverly worked into the narrative and environment.
Picking up immediately after the cliffhanger conclusion of the first episode, Black Plague drops you once again into the boots of Philip, a curious English fellow follwing in the footsteps of his deceased father. Overture saw little more than you getting hilariously lost in an "abandoned" mine in Greenland, and Black Plague does most of the explaining, leading you on a tantilising journey into the truth of what's really going on down there.
Once again, it's all very Resident Evil. But, once again, it's fabulously written, perfectly paced and always intriguing. Though the diary entries are still awkwardly, intentionally positioned around Penumbra's claustrophobic corridors, there are a couple of new characters introduced, who provide for some agreeably brilliant twists and some excellent psychological torture as the game progresses.
Everything's received an overhaul. Black Plague looks better, sounds better, plays better and reads better than its predecessor. It's still slightly rough around the edges, as is inevitible for a game built on such a tight budget by such a small team of developers. But it's less clumsy, more restrained, and more effective than before. And all because Frictional listened. You'd think it would be common sense, wouldn't you?
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (March 11, 2009)
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