I know it’s been a while since I’ve written to you about the first episode in the Penumbra series, but not even Lovecraft himself wrote the Necronomicon in a week. Therefore, I’m going to ask those of you who were expecting me to be more spontaneous to forgive the delay, for I have seen the light.
For those of you who haven’t played the first episode of the series, Overture, the story describes how Phillip, a fairly cynical young man, takes it on himself to find his father somewhere in Greenland, despite the numerous warnings he receives. The action of the first game takes place in an abandoned mining complex, under the hard tension of all sorts of scary noises and practical logic puzzles.
Thinking I’d play the second episode out of a trilogy, before I got started I was afraid of the “middle child syndrome”. There are very few titles in the middle of a trilogy that are as good as their predecessor, mainly because most of them just try to provide continuity for the story, a link that ties the beginning to the end, with no clear ones of its own. As a counterbalance, though, the abrupt ending of the first episode promised quite a lot regarding the core of it all, given the fact that it hadn’t really explored much of it.
Overture’s ending depicts Phillip getting knocked unconscious and dragged into the dark by a couple of grim silhouettes, after which he wakes up in a small room reminiscent of the movie “Saw”. From the first moment you can notice a very powerful industrial influence on the design, from the way levels are built and to the logical angle one must approach to solve the puzzles. Their majority, especially in the first part, are focused on machinery, computers, explosives and other mathematical challenges.
If the first episode switched back and forth between puzzle-solving areas and sneaking/fighting sections, the border in this one is somewhat blurred. Solving puzzles will take up most of the gametime, but the two open-ended areas that connect rooms to laboratories feel a lot more natural. And the enemies are no longer the impersonal rabid demon dogs, but deformed creatures who were once human. All of these minor changes of shape and background make up a continuity mesh for the story, uninterrupted by any impersonal sections. The tension in the atmosphere accompanies you throughout your adventure, a mature and complex horror story, while the more relaxing bits are few and far between.
A posse ad esse non valet consequentia
What’s notable is the producers’ effort to conceive the game as a response to the feedback they got for the first episode, and this can be seen both from the more professional and detached way the challenges addressed to the player are made, as well as the elimination of the slightly undesirable characteristics of the predecessor. For instance, although Overture had various tools that could be used to kill the demon dogs, this portion of the gameplay was pretty sketchy to say the least. Luckily, Black Plague does not feature any combat whatsoever, and in its stead the sneaking aspect of the game was perfected. I assume you noticed that loads of games in various genres – action, adventure, strategy or RPGs get some kind of half-witted sneaking section that’s so poorly made you’d rather nail rusty screws in your retina than go on?
This is not the case. There are only a couple of sneaking portions, but they’re well made without being the central element of the game. Those trained in the ways of the Thief might be a little disappointed by their simplicity, but considering that their presence is atypical in an adventure games to begin with, I see the stealth sections as being one of the ingredients that make Black Plague an interactive breeze in a sea of linear and robotic games.
Besides, what sets Penumbra apart from any other adventure game is the Newton physics engine, which doesn’t only allow a pretty interesting manipulation of the environment, but also offers alternative solutions to the majority of puzzles. If the first episode had a certain potential that wasn’t exploited, Black Plague has all sorts of puzzles and solutions – from taking a coin through a vice to get a makeshift screwdriver to improvising stairs / pillars / crossings from crates and barrels. On top of that, there are a few included minigames, generally tied to the computers’ and bombs interface. Sadly, they’re not very hard, contrary to the initial impression.
There are also a few cameos from another very popular puzzle games. A particularly polite and pleasant feminine voice announces various protocols and lab rules through an intercom – most of them about a cyanide pill, cruel working conditions a.o. – an obvious reference to GlaDoS from Portal. But even without these juicy cameos, the game has enough substance and direction to hold its own.
As we advance, the approach changes. The logic demanded by the initial puzzles dies out, and something else takes its place. The protagonist goes deeper into dementia, hallucinations and excellently-crafted déjà-vu, while the glitter of hope he retains after the horrors he faces starts to die out. The voice in Phillip’s head, calling itself Clarence, seems to be the very virus that devastated the laboratories we explore one bit at a time. Clarence is not a new character – we’ve seen him in The Shining, possessing Jack Nicholson, and recently in The Dark Knight, interpreted by Heath Ledger. Clarence is an agent of chaos, the spark of entropy, the voice announcing the end of the world. And just like The Dark Knight’s Joker, every phrase of his is filled with substance and life, not just because the lines are very well written, but also because the actor voicing him has a lot of spirit.
During the hallucinations and especially towards the end, the puzzles become deeper, turning into metaphorical statements and proving ingenuity through the use of plain means to illustrate some of the more complex human states. As if the game would delve into mime territory with its hands tied behind its back and still manage to get its message across. The story itself is not unpredictable and don’t interpret the above paragraph as a guarantee that you’ll feel illuminated at the end of Black Plague. If you can live the experience and throw away objective reality for the sake of the game, you should feel just like you do after skipping a night’s sleep – slow and exhausted.