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Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Developer: Frictional Games
Minimum requirements: 1.5 GHz processor; 512 MB RAM; 3D graphics acceleration; Windows 2000/XP/Vista
Release date: Available now
Review by: Bob Mandel
In 2007, an obscure Swedish company called Frictional Games developed a title (published through Got Games Entertainment) called Penumbra: Overture, originally scheduled to be the first of three episodes. I reviewed that game, and was so amazed at its quality that I gave it the Adrenaline Vault Seal of Excellence award. Recently, without much fanfare the sequel and final installment — Penumbra: Black Plague — has been released (this time published through Paradox Interactive). Like its predecessor, this new first-person horror adventure-puzzle title defies easy categorization, as it combines elements of the point-and-click adventure genre with the more action-oriented first-person shooter genre.
In terms of story, Penumbra: Black Plague provides a lot more plot details than its predecessor, and does an excellent job of resolving many of the questions and mysteries players discovered in the first game. The protagonist is once again Philip, who based on a letter from his presumably dead father (whom he never knew) goes on a perilous trek far from familiar surroundings to seek answers. Although seeming at first glance to be a stock science fiction premise, in reality the tale is quite novel and engrossing. You do not really need to have played Penumbra: Overture to understand what’s going on in this sequel, but I strongly recommend it because there are several play segments which refer back to the previous episode. The story arc builds nicely, as at the beginning you know relatively little, and then you discover more and more as the game progresses.
The setting for Penumbra: Black Plague is the frozen wastelands of Greenland. You awake in a small, stark room, completely disoriented and hearing strange noises. As you search around, you encounter numerous obstacles, including a strange force that has made people go insane and created bizarre mutated creatures. The action takes place both in the snowy wilderness outside and the ominous tunnels underground. Outdoors, the stark epic grandeur of the vast lonely landscape conveys an unnerving atmosphere. This sequel has greater diversity in physical environments than its predecessor; for example, once underground, within the research facilities, you encounter many different kinds of rooms, including a jail cell, a kitchen, a mess hall, a laboratory, an infirmary, a library and a sewer. You even visit surrealistic dream worlds, which are a real treat for the senses.
At a time when many point-and-click adventures have added combat to games, Penumbra: Black Plague shows its genre-defying distinctiveness by going in the opposite direction. Now you do not get any weapons, and there’s no combat at all, a change that probably resulted from complaints that it was too difficult to use weapons like the pickaxe in Penumbra: Overture (in this predecessor, I preferred anyway to use traps and ambushes to defeat foes rather than fight them). So the deformed enemies you meet in this game can’t be killed, forcing you to hide and use stealth and cunning to evade or neutralize them. Your goal is to survive by escaping from those who seek your demise, not by eradicating them, and so the emphasis is on defensive rather than offensive tactics. At some points during the gameplay this mode creates more exciting tension, as you know that adversaries can and will kill you if you aren’t careful; but at other points it seems detrimental, as you can simply run by most enemies (who seem slightly weaker this time around) without getting hurt. At least if more than one enemy is after you at the same time, you aren’t a certain goner, as you would’ve been in Penumbra: Overture.
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