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Retroactive Reviews: Penumbra: Black Plague

Howdy everyone. Just dropping in my 2nd review of the Penumbra Trilogy. You can find the direct link here.

Feel free to read it before or after the Super Bowl (or heck, why not during?). The first official trailer of the G.I. Joe movie is supposedly playing during commercials. Hope it looks entertaining, a good old fashion action flick where Cobra Commander bombs France and Flint kills 2000 COBRA troops while making out with Lady Jaye during the after shower.

….wait, Flint and Lady Jaye aren’t in this? What a load of horse shit. And don’t even try to tell me that Snake Eyes and Scarlett are cooler. Seriously, don’t.

Penumbra: Black Plague

Penumbra: Black Plague wastes little time putting players back in control of Phillip, the most troubled physicist since J. Robert Oppenheimer. With the exception of the opening narration (in which Phillip makes like a Myspace user and tells us how we must understand his inner pain and torment), the 2nd entry in the Penumbra trilogy begins in such a fast matter, it’s almost as if the previous game had an “Insert Disc 2” message preceding the abrupt ending.

Despite possessing similar aesthetics and control schemes, however, Black Plague contains a presentation removed enough from Overture that it could stand on its own as a legitimate sequel. The abandoned mines and collapsing caves from the first game have been replaced with dark hallways filled with dead lab assistants and the safety hazards that did them in.

Despite having more than a passing resemblance to the hatches from Lost (right down to the enigmatic, blurry instructional video, but thankfully no super-secret code that must be inputted on a daily basis, as that would be a really boring game), Black Plague’s locations are much darker, much more varied, and most importantly, much more interesting than Episode I’s cliché interiors. The story takes a much darker turn as well, with the secrets laid forth by Phillip’s father steadily unraveling through violent experiments and the most talkative, most sadistic, and most Brooklyn-accented virus ever seen in a video game. As annoying as the talking tumor may be, it also gives developer Friction Games a valid excuse to borrow Silent Hill’s trippy visual effects, forcing players to question what may or may not be real.

But in the end, that question is ultimately irrelevant, because pain is still pain, and survival is the primary goal in this game. The previous Penumbra made it clear early on that combat should never be favored over hiding from the stalking creatures, and Black Plague drives that point home by removing all weapons entirely. It also features an even lower count of enemy types, but the newest monstrosities lurking the halls are much deadlier and much more tenacious than the randomly patrolling zombie dogs and spiders. Just hearing one of these infected husks hobbling about in the distance may be enough to have players frantically spin their wireless mice right off the desk, quickly fumbling in the dark for the batteries that came loose as a result (true story).

Penumbra: Black Plague features the same mouse-heavy control scheme as its predecessor, in which drawers, locker doors, and frozen heads must all be pried open by a left click and a drag motion. Aside from a mostly useless addition of using the mouse wheel (if you are lacking one, I suggest you upgrade your equipment as well as your dialup service) to move objects closer or further away from the screen, the controls remain the same as before, which are serviceable but still suffer a bit of clunkiness when circular motions are required. Some of the puzzles also require a bit of free thinking on just how the game wants players to make use of its HPL engine (of which I hope you’ve figured out the meaning of its name by now. If not, maybe I’ll be kind enough to tell you on the third review. But don’t hold your breath).

And once again, the short length may detract some people from purchasing the game on its own, but aside from being a solid (and spooky) four hours, there are also some unlockable bonuses and even a standalone minigame for sharp eyed players who manage to find all the hidden collectables. Or whoever uses Gamefaqs.

In the end, Penumbra: Black Plague is a much better effort than the first episode of the series, carrying on a darker, more cerebral identity followed by an increase in its scare factor. It’s a good enough experience to enjoy on its own, but it remains to be seen if the third and final entry in the Penumbra trilogy will finally decide if all three games warrant a bundle purchase, of it ends up as the infected, Brooklyn accented black sheep of the trilogy.

Final Score: 82%


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This entry was posted on February 1, 2009 by in Retroactive Reviews and tagged .
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