Home Reviews First Person Games Penumbra: Overture / Black Plague
Penumbra: Overture / Black Plague PDF Print E-mail
Written by bobdog   
Sunday, 23 March 2008 02:08

Frictional Games
Publishers (retail): Paradox Entertainment (Overture / Black Plague)
Average Price (at review publication time): USD 20 (each game).

Penumbra: Overture Demo
P:O Walk-through
Penumbra: Black Plague Demo
P:BP Walk-through

ESRB Mature 17+ (Blood and gore, Language, Violence)
Overture rated PEGI 12+ (Violence) and Black Plague rated PEGI 16+ (intense Violence)

I just finished the second game in the Penumbra series -- Black Plague -- and was impressed by what the two-man team of Frictional Games has achieved in pulling together a coherent game and storyline. So much so, that I'm sorry to see it end! So here's a bit more on this series. I've tried to minimize any POTENTIAL SPOILERS for those who haven't played yet.

Penumbra: Overture Penumbra: Overture Penumbra: Overture
Penumbra: Overture

Someone Needs a New Pair of Sneakers
Penumbra is essentially a physics-based adventure game, set as a First-Person Sneaker. By "Sneaker", I mean it's in the vein of Thief, Chronicles of Riddick and to some extent Splinter Cell. It's an adventure game in that you collect items and use them at appropriate times, but the physics engine that runs the whole thing is absolutely amazing and lifelike, so much that it takes a bit of getting used to. You can "grab" a door with your cursor (which turns into a hand), but to open it, you have to hold the left mouse button, and pull your mouse toward you (or back up), which then "pulls" the door open. All objects in the game-world have appropriate physics associated with them: barrels can be pushed, doors and gates can be swung in and out, fires can burn things, rocks can be thrown short distance but break things, etc. To swing a hammer, you have to equip it, and then "draw" it across the screen, useful for breaking down barriers.

The sneaking aspect is well done, as your view changes color and perspective. And interestingly, they have incorporated a "fear factor" into it. You can hide in the shadows, and you won't be seen by your various enemies. However, if you stare at your enemies, you'll start to get freaked out, your vision will blur, and if too much time passes, you'll stand up and blow your cover, and your enemies will see and chase you. And when that happens, it's generally all over for you, because you're a lover, not a fighter. No guns or anything else to stave off the inevitable.

Penumbra: Overture Penumbra: Overture Penumbra: Overture
Penumbra: Overture

Two's Company -- Three's a Crowd

When Penumbra: Overture was first announced, it was listed as the first of a trilogy in the storyline. Soon after release, however, the game designers decided to better clarify the storyline and tighten it up. I applaud the designers for not trying to milk this, even though I'd certainly love to play more in this game universe. However, if you really want to make it a trilogy, you can go play the original demo that was released as a technology demo, which is completely different than the first two games, available here.

Overture starts with you receiving a message from your long-lost father, who somehow went missing in Greenland. You retrieve a package with his diary and a map…. Hmmm, a map…. Wonder if I should -- nah! … Well, maybe …. okay! So, a quick boat trip later, you land in Greenland, where you follow in your father's footsteps and fall into a set of interconnected tunnels in an old mine. You'll gradually get pieces of the full puzzle, and a trapped miner named Red will contact you occasionally on a radio that you've found to continue to guide you. But his voice is mad, as if he's been alone a little too long. You'll traipse deeper through five levels of the mine, using your adventuring skills along the way to hopefully find an exit. The path contains various puzzles that you'll have to uncover, only one of which was not inherently obvious in Overture (hint: hole, broken ladder, ramp….), and there are plenty of save points to get you past the times where you do die (no quicksaves, although I was okay without them for this game, for some reason).

Penumbra: Black Plague Penumbra: Black Plague Penumbra: Black Plague
Penumbra: Black Plague

And then you learn the whole thing was a trap, setting you up for part two Black Plague. In BP, you've been trapped in a testing facility run by a group called the Archaic, which was formed by Leonardo da Vinci to explore xenome infestations. Your father was hired to help with the research, but when the group opened up a "tomb", many of the staff were "infected" by the xenome presence there, which calls itself the Tuurngait. Your path through BP will explain this story, finishing with a plea from your father -- what you will be asked to do may amaze you.

Could they have made a third one? Possibly, if you were able to go to the tomb or do some additional exploring, but as it is, the two-game series was adequate and finished the story out.

Penumbra: Black Plague Penumbra: Black Plague Penumbra: Black Plague
Penumbra: Black Plague

Scare Up Some Chills
Many other games talk about being scary, but Penumbra gives you chills from start to finish. Maybe it's the slightly grainy atmosphere, or the moody music, or the lack of other human contact, or the freaky but plausible enemies that hound you, but it all combines to completely wig me out! When you're hiding from your enemies and see their eyes glow in the dark, when you encounter a huge critter than can't be fought and breaks through every obstacle you place in its path, when you must outrace spiders and other vermin -- but mostly when you realize you're only human -- that's when this game truly succeeds. I haven't been so scared and tense since playing Call of Cthulhu or maybe System Shock 2 -- where you actually dread opening a door or going around a corner.

Short But Sweet
I felt Overture was probably stronger as a stand-alone game than Black Plague -- there seemed to be more to do, and it appeared longer in play-time. Overture clocked in probably at about 10-12 hours, while it would be stretching it to say BP was 8 hours (the official tally was 4 hours 40 minutes of straight play, but I'm adding in all the redo's and puzzle stumpers I encountered). Both games are priced as budget-ware at $20 each. Overall, I'd say they were worth the value, but especially the first one.

Penumbra: Black Plague Penumbra: Black Plague Penumbra: Black Plague
Penumbra: Black Plague

The Fine Print
Overall, Penumbra is a great series with plenty of atmosphere, lots of physics-based puzzles that generally make sense, an original storyline that is coherent with the gameplay, and a good value. I highly recommend the series, especially if you like the Thief genre, because you'll see some similarities in playing style. Some puzzles could have used a bit more elaboration/clues, and the second game could have been a little longer, but for both games I rate them as 8.5 out of 10.

Game Rated 8.5/10


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