Playing Penumbra, it’s hard not to think of Portal. They’re different games, different genres, and we’re pretty sure only one of them features naked grey men trying to kill you. But there’s a connection there, just as there is with several other big names, like Silent Hill, The Thing (the movie, not the game) and of course, System Shock, all of which feature the nerve-wracking isolation of being trapped in the ruins of someone else’s story. Excellent inspirations, all.
Black Plague is the sequel to the indie game Penumbra: Overture, and while it’s not essential to have played that first, it definitely helps. As this second and concluding chapter kicks off, you’re in a filthy cell with nothing but a mattress for company. Before long, you’re sneaking through a deserted research base stuffed to the hilt with rotted meat, deadly booby traps, and the snarls of... something... behind the walls.
The worst thing you can say about Black Plague is that it sets its sights so high, it can’t help but fall a little short. That shouldn’t detract from how well it’s put together, and the Portal comparison is definitely a compliment. Both are short and satisfying. Both take several interesting spins on their genre. And both start with the letter P. They’re practically family.
In the case of Penumbra, the big sell is the interface, offering the most visceral control over the game-world in any adventure. You don’t just click on a locker to open the door, you move the mouse like you’re holding the door. If there’s a wheel, you grab and spin it. It’s inspired, and when it works, it leaves you begging for other developers to steal it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite go far enough. Despite several puzzles with multiple solutions, most of the map is split into puzzle rooms with all the kit you need for a puzzle usually only a few steps from where you need it. More irritatingly, the scripting occasionally ignores a perfectly valid solution, such as using flares to light a lethal corridor instead of hunting for a fuse box.
Still, such moments are few and far between, and most of the time you’re able to blitz through the game so fast that you don’t really notice. The atmosphere is relentlessly dark and hostile, with fantastic use of audio to convince you that there’s something truly horrible round the next corner. Like the best horror, Penumbra doesn’t try to drag this out too long, with regular set-pieces and curveballs to keep you both on edge, and on the edge of your seat. As the first screen says, turn off the lights and turn up the volume to enjoy it properly.
Simple creaking floors soon morph into perception-bending tricks, and there’s even dark humor - partly in the form of comedy PA announcements, but mostly due to the dark entity who starts squatting in your brain at around the halfway point, and the wonderfully laid-back damsel in distress trying to help you flush it out with a mental enema.
The major downturn comes when the monsters finally show up. The atmosphere builds the tension fantastically well. Then you actually face your fear head on... and it’s just a handful of wandering nudists who can’t even match your walking pace. Talk about a letdown. The ending’s a bit rushed and silly, too.
While it’s for the best that Penumbra shuns combat, it’s a shame it couldn’t have focused more on the unseen horrors instead of deflating it with such half-arsed opposition. Still, that shouldn’t detract from how well it does for the rest of the game. Penumbra is a fun adventure that quickly carves out its own niche in the horror genre. As an indie release, it’s exactly the kind of thing we like to see - something writing its own rules, and leaving us excited to see just where its ideas go next.