Penumbra Collection (PC) review
"In many ways, Penumbra is exactly what horror games should be like. In many others, the inexperience of the developer cuts through the mix a little too clearly for comfort. This flitting between terrifying and tiring leaves a little to be desired, but Penumbra Collection has enough interesting ideas to sail on, if only for the first two segments of its sinister life."
Penumbra Collection is a difficult review to take on. Clearly, its episodic nature means it's difficult to know whether to consider each release a separate product, or merely a chapter of a larger game. This would apply to any similar distribution method, but Penumbra complicates the matter further by following a single narrative through three mechanically different experiences. Treating them separately feels awkward because the start of each game follows directly on from end of the last, and the story doesn't reach a real conclusion until the very end-point. Treating them collectively is unintuitive because each episode has its own very distinctive feel. What to do...
I've decided I'm most comfortable with treating Overture and Black Plague as the main game, and Requiem as a bit of a blunder tacked onto the end. After all, Requiem was never even going to be released under the initial publishing deal. The planned trilogy of games was condensed into just two, and the final instalment was written almost as an afterthought when a new distribution deal became available.
It shows. Requiem purports to tie up the story's loose ends, but they were ends that didn't need tying. The meaty cliffhanger ending of Black Plague left things nicely ambiguous while bringing the main bulk of the narrative to a satisfying conclusion. But Requiem doesn't just feel hasty because of its unimportance to the main game. It also completely destroys the sense of place and sinister atmosphere that makes Penumbra so interesting to start with. Removing any overt danger, and instead creating a series of somewhat frustrating environmental puzzles, seems to miss the point somewhat. It even introduces big glowing teleports that transport you from location to location, something completely absent in the main game and poorly contextualised by the extraneous plot. The result feels like three hours of Half-Life out-takes: lots of box-stacking and precision-jumping that goes some way to spoiling the flow. While Overture and Black Plague are indeed puzzle-heavy, the puzzles are at least well-worked into the twisting plot.
It's that which lifts Penumbra beyond its creative yet clunky mechanics and into the realms of particularly intriguing. Not that the synopsis alone would win any awards, and anyone who's played through a Resident Evil game will be struck by the similarities. This isn't even story that excels through its delivery mechanics: I'm not entirely sure why people have ripped out pages of their diaries and left them in a conveniently chronological pathway through the cavernous world, but I'm sure they have their reasons. Despite all this, though, Penumbra remains thoroughly captivating. It's an example of a slightly awkward story being told incredibly well, with an abundance of intelligence and thought put into the script and characters.
These NPCs are few and far between, and - in a piece of budget-constraint ingenuity - are never actually viewed in full. But they're wonderful. Creeping around the relentlessly dark passages of Overture, we're treated to the deranged radio messages of a man trapped within the confines of this foreboding world, desperate to escape from the insanity brought on by years in the company of his own thoughts. In Black Plague, a sinister voice in your head begins to taunt you, twisting your notion of reality and carving his own personality into your psyche. There's a somewhat incidental female character, who serves as a narrative guide later in this second instalment and seems a little out of place, but even she ends up the basis of a rather brilliant twist. Imagining how wonderful this narrative could have been if it was constructed from a more inspired concept is depressing. It would have been astounding.
...Which is a theme continually running through my thoughts while writing this review. In essence, Penumbra is an adventure game full of gloriously creative yet somewhat half-baked ideas, built on top of some rather bland foundations. There are some fantastic sections in Penumbra, undoubtedly. But there are also moments of complete frustration.
Like the fact that almost every puzzle in Overture seems to revolve around finding a way past a locked door. Like how unapproachably awful the combat is. Like how, upon removing the straightforward action sections for the second and third releases, the developers evidently couldn't find another way to keep the tension so frighteningly high. Like the way the story fluctuates between narrative genius and plagiarised nonsense.
But then there's the good. The convincing physics engine, complete with the necessity to 'click-and-pull' with your mouse to open doors or shift objects. The sheer panic of the mines at the beginning of Overture. The gleefully nightmarish 'alternate reality' sections. The way the level design of Black Plague twists and distorts, the layout itself dynamically altering as you succumb to madness. The taunts, and the screams, and the overwhelming sense of real fear...
In many ways, Penumbra is exactly what horror games should be like. In many others, the inexperience of the developer cuts through the mix a little too clearly for comfort. This flitting between terrifying and tiring leaves a little to be desired, but Penumbra Collection has enough interesting ideas to sail on, if only for the first two segments of its sinister life.
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (February 11, 2009)
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