As it’s getting colder and darker these first November days, some more creepy games will haunt your dreams and make you relive one or more disturbing nightmares in three very special survival horror titles.
Swedish developer Frictional Games delivers some truly unique horror entries with their Penumbra Collection including Penumbra: Overture, Penumbra: Black Plague and Penumbra: Requiem.
After receiving a letter from his father who was supposedly dead, young physicist Philip takes a journey to Greenland and discovers horrors beneath the surface.
Survival horror is at its best when one has either limited ammo (as in the first Resident Evil games) or when suspense is kept at a finger-biting high, because there are no cheap scares but more subtle hints of what’s behind the next corner. The first episode of the Penumbra series builds up atmosphere brilliantly to a certain extent by making the player walk through the dark and listen to foreboding sounds. The story itself is rather enigmatic and usually explained in notes which are scattered around. This isn’t as effective as the creepy environment with all its visual clues like blood and marks on the wall, while the main protagonist remains pretty faceless throughout the game despite an interesting visual novel-like introduction. Still, going through the fragments of former explorers and piecing together the background story bit by bit makes the experience a more personal matter.
Fight or run against the madness
The world itself is convincing in its subterranean structure but lacks variety. So do the enemies which are more of an annoyance than anything else. The game makes the mistake of introducing some dogs which can either be avoided or clubbed to death, but with an AI the IQ of an hole in an apple, it’s much easier to simply get rid of them and concentrate on the puzzle solving and finding a way out. Fighting is clumsy, and it shows that the developers wanted to have a more stealth-based approach. So it’s disappointing to have these enemies so easily taken care of by violent force. There are also time-based sections which are frustratingly difficult and in some instances almost unwinnable due to the automatic saving function of the game. Running away from certain enemies, then dying and restarting from a point where one needs the momentum to run again is simply a bad design choice. There’s obviously a sense of panic evoked by these parts, but dying again and again with the only option to lower the difficulty curve isn’t much fun.
Puzzling for survival
The puzzles are usually physics-based and rarely challenging, although some backtracking is required. Overlooking certain items can also become a problem, especially since it’s easy to lose oneself in the labyrinthine underground with no map and only wooden signs to follow. It doesn’t help that some objects can be interacted with, like opening drawers, moving furniture around etc., but these don’t have any purpose whatsoever. In some cases, the physics are jarring as well when it comes to moving around bigger planks or bringing items into the right position. Still, despite these engine issues, the puzzle design is overall varied and accessible, even for newcomers.
It has already been hinted at that the sound design is what makes or breaks a horror game. In this case, the use of minimalistic piano music in some scenes and more bass in others plus silence coupled with creepy munching, breaking bones or scream sounds, to name but a few, make for a chilling experience. Only the mediocre voice acting can’t keep up with this, and the graphics which were already outdated when the game was released don’t offer any particular highlights.
An almost classic in the making
Penumbra: Overture is an interesting first game for Frictional Games. Despite its low production value in some technical areas like graphics and a story which develops a bit too slowly and remains as enigmatic as the main character, this is a title which will keep survival horror fans on their toes and even newcomers interested throughout 4-5 hours playtime. If it weren’t for some unnecessary spiky difficulty sections and orientation problems, this could be recommended without any hesitation.
Philip recounts his past experience in an underground facility in Greenland to a mysterious stranger in order to make him finish what he couldn’t achieve.
Moving deeper into the fabric of story and character
Storytelling and character development haven’t made a huge leap forward, but there are some changes in the way both are presented. Whereas the first episode had almost non-existent progression in the former and explained a bit too little about the background story of the environment, there is a much better streamlined narration here. The slowly unfolding background story and Philip’s fall into madness, not being able to decide what’s real and imaginary, with flashbacks is a much more intriguing prospect, although the philosophical ending is weird and seems out of place. This is not only emphasized by more notes to discover and computer terminals with additional information to search through, but by communiqués with a mysterious woman trying to make contact with Philip and leading him on his way through the underground facility. It actually gives a sense of direction and a purpose while fleshing out the environment and its denizens who disappeared or are still roaming the corridors.
Madness returns with no fighting back
Enemies are implemented much better as well this time around, as no fighting is possible. Avoiding, distracting and in some instances getting rid of them in a puzzle-like way is much more intriguing and fair than in the first game, and while the design of the antagonists isn’t anything particularly frightening or new, they nevertheless fit into the environment and add to the tension. What’s even more interesting and what was present in the first episode to a certain degree is the effect enemies have on the protagonist’s state of mind (something which will be a trademark of the later game Amnesia: The Dark Descent). Without taking too much away, but at some point, Philip loses control of his senses and his vision becomes blurred, his movements unpredictable, making encounters with enemies even more nerve-racking and intense.
While plot and character development have undergone quite a change, puzzle design still relies on physics-based moving-things-around, although there’s a bit more variety coming from goals involving computers. Overall, there are more and they are better integrated in the environment, giving the player a sense of immersion. There are still a few instances when items can be overlooked, and navigating through nearly-identical corridors becomes tedious, although in some cases one can find maps in some places. But these are stationary signs and can’t be picked up like all the notes littered around.
Same old techno
Technically, this is more or less the same game. While sound design is excellent throughout with some improvements in voice acting, the graphics aren’t that exciting. But as the corridors and few snowy outdoor sections aren’t much to write home about in terms of colorful variety, this can be neglected. Controls are still a bit cumbersome as well when it comes to picking up objects and dragging them along, but this is almost to be expected in a physics-based adventure game.
Sequels make it better
Visually and aurally, Penumbra: Black Plague seems to be the same game as its predecessor, but with a much more involving story and a character one starts to actually care about, it’s more engaging to play. The inclusion of more varied puzzles and exclusion of frustratingly annoying time-based sequences and unnecessary fighting also helps to create an immersive survival horror experience. It might not be able to compete with the likes of Silent Hill in terms of originality and psychological terror, but there’s a definite improvement here to recommend this without any reserve.
Finding himself in a temple-like test facility, the player is tasked to puzzle his way out and investigate the whereabouts of Philip.
The absence of story or the mind
If one compares the way how atmosphere, characters and background story were introduced in the first two episodes with this one, it becomes obvious that Requiem is quite different, as the player is thrown into a situation without actually knowing what happened before or who he or she is. Only by reading some notes or getting clues from loudspeakers and other sources does one get an idea how the latest installment is connected to the others. This has two effects: identification with the main character and the surrounding becomes either very hard or very easy, depending on if one likes being dripfed fragments of a story which isn’t that complex anyway. A lack of direction and purpose for most of its playtime is also detrimental to the immersion of the player and believability of the world.
Lost in the mind-bending puzzles
Gameplay-wise, this seems to be a complete departure from the survival horror origins of the former two installments, because the game enters the realm of Portal-like conundrums which have to be overcome. The goal in each level is to find a certain number of orbs to open a portal and proceed to the next. This is done by solving physics-based puzzles which become more and more complex. These are of a high difficulty, but they are also more fun than in the other episodes, presenting various problems to the player with lots of forward and abstract thinking. But with platforming sections and sometimes time-crucial actions to be performed this can become frustrating for beginners and as the controls are still not easy in first-person with carrying around objects and throwing them, the engine stands a bit in the way of pure fun.
Horror gone away home
As the puzzle design has been more or less transformed from simple physics-based tasks into more original ideas (despite not having the same ingenuity than the aforementioned Portal), the scare factor is almost non-existent, which also has to do with the absence of enemies. It’s not a stealth or survival horror game anymore which obviously gets rid of the clunky combat of the first episode and some annoying moments of the second one, but it also takes away some of the tense and creepy atmosphere. Losing one’s orientation isn’t a problem anymore in most of the levels, as backtracking is made redundant due to the closed level structure. So the only challenge remaining is to figure out how to get from one stage to the next while uncovering a bit more of the mysterious story which is only revealed more or less satisfyingly at the end.
No changes in the art department
Again there’s not much one can say about the technical presentation other than that the engine is still the same with its good music and sound effects but less than state-of-the-art barebones graphics. Controls are a bit more of a problem with the game relying so much on physics-based puzzle solving and it happens a bit too often that one loses orientation and/or objects on the way.
Penumbra: Requiem is the strangest entry in the series. Despite sharing the name, this isn’t really survival horror, but survival puzzle. The creepy atmosphere is still there, and so is the story to a certain degree, but both take a backseat with all the brain-teasers to overcome. It’s more challenging and lateral than avoiding creepy crawlies or fighting berserker dogs, but the lack of story and character progression makes it lose a bit of immediacy and immersion, even if the ending and some collected notes try to wrap up all the loose ends.
Buy Penumbra: Overture on
Buy Penumbra: Black Plague and Penumbra: Requiem together on
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