Penumbra: Black Plague (PC) review
"Overture's sequel improves in almost every way."
People seem to have more apprehension towards the idea of sequels nowadays then they used to. I can totally understand that and to some extent I feel the same way. In todayís gaming industry itís all very play it safe, only use established IPs, keep creating sequels with incremental changes and updates etcetera, etcetera. This is one reason why gamers are wary of things being sequelized, but letís not kid ourselves, not all gamers feel that wayÖmost want sequels. I also still get excited at the prospect of a game I really like having a follow up to, so Iím not completely lost on the idea.
Point is, as time goes on it seems like fewer and fewer sequels actually improve upon what the original game built and established. Penumbra Overture was an interesting little survival horror/adventure type game. It had a creepy atmosphere a pretty decent backstory and some interesting if somewhat easy puzzles. Well, Penumbra Black Plague is itís follow up and let me just say it pretty much improves on Overture in almost every way. It still doesnít correct some missteps with the gameplay but generally itís a better game overall.
The gameís story continues following Phillip and his trek further into this mine/dig site/research facility in Greenland just after the first game. Heís knocked out and captured, thrown into a room with a filthy mattress. From that point you start to play the game.
One of the first things youíll notice is that thereís actually a small targeting reticle on the screen so now you have an idea of where youíre moving your cursor to pick objects up and all that, and itís not immersion breaking at all. This is great, because that was one of the nagging issues the first game had. Itís also a bit easier to move and manipulate objects but still somewhat awkward in comparison to Amnesia. Youíll also see that the puzzles are more intuitive and practical in style very similar to Amnesia instead of just being obscure and obtuse like in Resident Evil, Silent Hill or even Myst for example.
You had this to some extent in Penumbra Overture but its bit more obvious here. That doesnít mean all the puzzles are environmentally based or easy though. Frictional Games seems to have gone out of their way to create more difficult and interesting puzzles, things like mixing a complex chemical solution on a broken machine and some pretty interesting puzzles based around what you know or have learned about the story so far. There are two major changes that set this game apart from Overture though. The first being the enemies have changed.
You are now faced with intelligent humanoid enemies instead of just animals. These guys carry weapons and flashlights and they will patrol around looking for intruders. The best part is that if you make any noise at all theyíll hear it and say ďWhatís that?Ē or whatever and immediately come to investigate the sound. Even if you do something like leave a door cracked open just slightly or knock a box over, these things will notice and will comment with ďSomethingís not rightÖĒ and go take a closer look. All this creates some REALLY intense moments in the game where you know that these enemies are intelligent and you have to be VERY careful when youíre exploring whatever environment youíre in.
In some ways, these guys are more intelligent than the enemies in Amnesia, Iím sure thatís by design and on purpose though. They can even break through doors and barricades so the only way to make sure youíre safe from them is to find a really good hiding spot, especially because you canít fight them at all. That would be the other huge change, combat has been completely thrown out the window and thatís for the better. Combat was very clunky and awkward and honestly it barely worked in Overture. Now that itís gone it causes more tension throughout the game knowing that you have no real way to defend yourself and itís all about self-preservation.
But despite all this general improvement in the gameplay they still didnít address the nagging issues when it came to the inventory items and light sources. When it comes to the light sources itís very much the same as it was before with few changes. The Glowstick is still the be all end all, it still has infinite power and gives off enough light to where youíll constantly use it. The Flashlight eats up batteries even more than before now and youíll still only use it once in a while, still I found myself using it more in this installment for whatever reasonÖprobably because I had over 20 batteries stockpiled and didnít care. The Flares havenít really changed at all but you use them a few times to solve puzzles now which is kind of neat. It took me a little while to figure it out at first because in the first game you donít use Flares that way at all.
Your health still regenerates, so again youíll almost never use painkillers and itís still something that eats a little bit of the attention away, knowing youíll be fine if you just wait it out. As for other general improvements I felt like the story this time around was much more engaging and interesting, it took a few turns I didnít see coming at all and you find out a lot more about this place and whatís going on and what happened before. The slightly different story and narrative elements used in this game in tandem with the gameplay changes including the enemies and lack of combat push this game over the edge to be scary, rather than just creepy and Black Plague completely benefits from this. If youíre not worried about the patrolling enemies with weapons, flashlights and curiosity youíre worrying about whatís going on in the story and how itís affecting your ability to play the game.
Anything else compared to the previous game pretty much remains the same which is good. The graphics are still fairly impressive for a low budget indie title and the sound design works a little more to spook you out and mess with you. The music in this entry is particularly more noticeable than in Overture which I thought was an improvement for sure, Iím usually pretty interested in the music of games so itís one way to get me more on your side if you have appealing or interesting tracks rather than just background music or generic sounding epic orchestral stuff a lot of games seem to suffer from nowadays. The music in both games is actually fairly synth and sample driven, it reminds me again of John Carpenterís The Thing.
Really this was a great sequel, it improved on nearly every aspect of the original and pushed further to stand out from other titles. Itís only true weakness is once again, replay value. There arenít alternate endings or anything, but there are these collectable objects you can get, apparently once you get them all you can gain access to a secret email file that clues you in about how to open up a secret fall in the gameís install directory. Iíve looked at it, itís nothing special really, some desktop wallpapers, a short video of one of the staff doing some concept work for animation, and concept art and design drawings for environments and puzzles (though that was somewhat interesting).
If one thing is for certain this game does surpass its predecessor in nearly every way, you may want to revisit this installment more than the others because of that. Itís certainly the most memorable game out of all three. But I think Penumbra Black Plague ultimately showed that Frictional Games has some great ideas and concepts and I can say after going back and playing their earlier games I look even more forward to what else they come up with in the future.
+ A more engaging story and scenario than the previous entry, Overture.
+ The game is actually very heavy with tension due to the removal of combat and the changing up of enemies, while still maintaining that feeling of isolation. The game is scarier rather than creepy now.
+ Puzzles are improved in complexity and even in intuitiveness. There are also some really interesting environmental puzzles scattered throughout the game.
- Design oversights with inventory item balance still persist, especially when it comes to light sources and their usefulness.
- Regenerating health is still here to stay and still cuts down on tension somewhat and item dependency.
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