The Penumbra Series

By FetusZero, Posted 31 Jul 2010

Penumbra was originally intended to come in the form of three stand alone episodes, though in the end, it came only as two episodes along with an expansion: Penumbra Overture being the first episode, Black Plague the second and in which the story concluded, then came Penumbra Requiem which is an expansion to Black Plague, consisting only of a few hours of puzzling game play rather than anything story related as planned first. Due to the nature of the story found in the series, I decided to write the review of Penumbra as a whole, as if it were only one title instead of separated episodes. I will, however, give details about each throughout the review, since despite their resemblance, they do have differences.

The word Penumbra in itself might give an hint as to what type of game this is: Horror with a mix of Adventure and Puzzle solving. All of this is played from a first person perspective, which due to the game play, really adds to the immersion feeling. Let's dive together in a world of madness and insanity created by Frictional Games in what is, in my own opinion, one of the best Psychological Horror games in this day and age.

My first thoughts, which were upon seeing videos, was that it seemed alright. The trailers shows little of what to expect, and so does the official art of the games, only showing a shady figure standing in the darkness. It's the type of art that made me think of Alone in the Dark, metaphorically talking. I was far from expecting the kind of path that would appear before me while playing through the games. While the whole deal of a figure standing in darkness and trailers of walking around with nothing but a weak flashlight might sound somewhat appealing, yet pretty basic, it does not make the game justice and it cannot, under any circumstances, prepare you for what lies ahead.

During the entire series, you will be placed within the main protagonist's eyes: Philip. After receiving several letters coming from his father, who is believed to be dead, Philip decides to trace back his father through the letters received, which leads him to Greenland. Upon debarking from a boat into the harsh cold, you must find your way through the snow to end up in what seems like an old, abandoned mine with nothing but an eery feeling. As you descend deeper into the mine, you will find many notes scattered around left by the now lost occupants of the mine explaining the creation of the area, what happened and why they believe it happened. Sooner than Later you, or Philip, discovers that the mine holds many secrets.. some of which you wished had never been found. A survivor named Red makes his apparition through radio messages, who asks you to find him in order to obtain more answers, and only then does the adventure truly begins. On your way to unfolding the happenings of this dark, cold and eery place, Philip will encounter strange creatures that must be avoided at all cost. Fighting them would mean nothing but death. What are these creatures? Where are they from?

While Overture axes mainly onto the mine's origins, as explained above, Black Plague deeps further and explains more of the creatures and different experiments held within a complex constructed above the mines. The same applies: The story unfolds before your eyes as you find notes and results left by old occupants of the complex. It is a direct sequel to Overture, meaning it starts right where it left off. You follow Philip, once again, still on the trace of his dead father. Not only will you follow Philip through his quest, but you will also follow him in what we could call the edge of insanity. Unfortunately, explaining more of what this insanity specifically is, while being part of the story, would be a major spoiler to my eyes. As seen in the descriptions, the majority of the story is told through the notes found while playing, so one could miss an important note, automatically missing a part of what happened, though most of the times, such important notes are in plain sight. The well hidden notes are usually part of a puzzle or entirely optional for understanding the story. What is so great about the story is how by itself, it manages to confuse you and bring you close to madness, where the story is as important as the ambiance in making this a psychological horror and how it is executed perfectly, assuming you are able to understand it.

Requiem, by itself, is not a game I would consider relevant in terms of the story presented to the player. It does, however, picks right up where Black Plague left. As Philip does what has to be done in Black Plague, he is hit on the head by something unseen. From this moment, the player awakes in some kind of eery tomb confined to a couple of rooms in which a puzzle awaits. Solving the said puzzle allows Philip to move on to another level, in which another puzzle awaits him and so on. You will receive communications from a familiar face on your journey as well as from The Shelter, who will shed some more information on the ending of Black Plague and the creatures. Since Requiem is only an expansion to the series, it is not literally needed in the story line as it was mainly used to tie up some loose ends.

The game is played through a first person perspective and utilizes some unique controls based on physics. As an example, when you highlight a moveable object, a hand cursor appears. Let's take a door in our explanation; You click on the door to grab it and open it by moving the mouse in the same way you would open an actual door in real life. In this way, you can open doors as fast or slowly as desired, whether it is to rush through it or simply peek behind the door before entering the room. This kind of movement also applies to the different desk drawers or locker doors. Objects can be manipulated in the way you would in real life as well, whether it is to turn the object around, bring it closer or push it further from you, dropping or throwing the object, all of this using the 2 mouse buttons and the scrolling wheel. As far as moving around is concerned, the controls are the same as most PC titles, using the WASD keys to move, SPACE to jump, SHIFT to run, CTRL to crouch and have assignable items to the different numbered keys of the keyboard for quicker access. Your ability to move doors, shelves and objects around as you please is also a very good manner of creating barricades to slow down your lovely infected enemies, but be warned, as most of them are furious enough to go through anything in their path. Still, the unique controls and game play only adds to the experience and helps create a much bigger impact in terms of ambiance and atmosphere. One of the concerns that could arise with the use of such controls would be the precision and how well they respond, and luckily for us, they respond very well. Attacking in Penumbra remains somewhat clunky and hard though, but for a franchise where attacking is rendered useless due to the ridiculous strength of your enemies, the clunky attack system isn't such a big issue. It reminds me of bigger games that we will not name, where the attack only serves to make it more survivalist. The only difference is that Penumbra does not require this cheap tactic to make the game feel like a true survival horror game, or in that specific situation, a psychological survival horror game.

By crouching in dark areas, the player is able to enter a stealth-like mode which is indicated by a blue shade around the screen. When that blue shade is seen, enemies have a harder time seeing you and in turn, you can prevent being attacked which, quite honestly, being attacked is something you do not want in Penumbra. Although in Overture, Philip has access to two weapons; A hammer and a pickaxe, in Black Plague, there are absolutely no weapons and that is why it is important to avoid confrontation, especially against harder enemies which are, quite literally, invincible. The weapons in Overture are used with mouse movements instead of a simple click action; Move the weapon back and forth to give a quick thrust, or move it sideways for bigger hits, using the same kind of movements you would use in real life. Crouching and stealth isn't always the solution though, as with every normal human being, stress is a big factor in whether you are being seen or not. Staring at an enemy or infected for too long will cause Philip to lose his calm and start breathing heavily, as well as cause him to lose his concentration which will “disable” stealth, thus allowing the infected to see you. His vision will also become blurry and you will have a harder time seeing what is happening.

You will need to make yourself invisible to progress through Penumbra without much hassle, but the infected aren't your only concern as the game is also filled with puzzles. Whether it is a locked door that needs to be hammered down or a machinery that is out of gas with a rusty gas tank in your possession, thus requiring Philip to find a way to get it open (small hint here for those who might consider the game), you will be confronted with many puzzles throughout all 3 of the games. Sometimes you even have to find an instruction manual explaining how the specific machine works in order to be operated, requiring you to read and learn before even attempting to resolve it. Black Plague does have it's share of pointless puzzles with no logical reasoning behind them though, but fortunately for us, there are very few of these and are only seen near the beginning of the game. Requiem, on the other hand, is filled with mindless puzzles, nothing compared to Overture and Black Plague, making its puzzles tiresome at some point, making the game feel more like something they made just to fill an empty spot without much concern. For the rest though, the puzzles are fairly simple, but you will soon learn that a human brain often seeks truth much further than needed, resulting in puzzles being a lot harder than they truly are. Ever lost something while all along it was right under your nose? Penumbra recreates this feeling extremely well.

Add all of these elements together and you get yourself a game play experience unlike any other, one that throws you deeper in the ambiance of the world you are in, which in this case, is one very creepy world. The movements, physics used and puzzles all participate immensely at making Penumbra what it is. Without these, I doubt the game would even be scary, let alone leave you with a sense of survival and madness.

Visually speaking, Penumbra fits its name quite well as you will find yourself, as expected, in a dark environment with barely any sources of light apart from a flashlight, glow sticks and some flares. Although it isn't the most stunning games graphically speaking, it still adds very well on the overall atmosphere of claustrophobia, fear and loneliness that the game has to offer. Nonetheless, the small independent franchise still holds together very well in the graphics department for a series of its time and should in no way be a disappointment of some sort, especially when considering this is an indie release. Running on the HPL1 Engine, the game uses the OpenGL library rather than DirectX, for the simple reason that the engine used is made with these libraries in mind and that Penumbra is available on all three different operating systems, namely Windows, Linux and Mac. It supports a wide variety of advanced graphical options for the player to be fully immersed the way they want to on their system, ensuring even those with lower specifications can play the games.

For a PC game, graphics also highly depends on your equipment which is where the Penumbra franchise takes a hit. Since ATI and nVidia only rarely, if ever, shed their money towards independent developers for optimization, this can be good news as much as it can be bad. Indie releases can run on any type of hardware most of the time, but Penumbra has been reported to be quite the mess with earlier ATI cards, namely the Radeon HD series in the 2000 and 3000 models. Fortunately for us, Frictional has released patches over patches and have been hard at work in order to fix the graphical issues reported using these cards. Before the patches, such problems as invisible walls, missing textures, and more are to be expected. It is important to take note that this does not affect every models though and that the more recent cards does not and should not have any problems with the games.

Everything in the Penumbra series was made solely to bring more to the overall atmosphere and the audio department is no different. The eery instrumental music with the sound effects from the caves and creatures all mix together perfectly to create the best experience possible for the genre of game it is. For the adepts of audio, Penumbra also supports hardware surround sound and supports many different audio drivers, especially the drivers found for Linux, all of which work fine and are executed nicely. I would highly recommend playing the games with a good surround system or even better, with a pair of headphones to augment the immersion feeling. The audio department is often one of the most important aspects of a video game, one that can add so much to the experience and Frictional Games surely did not omit it from their development of the series and delivers the sound impact of such a genre in proper manners.

Before reaching the end of the review, let's explain a small move that Frictional did in terms of engine. While they could have used an advanced engine to build the series, they were not satisfied with the physics and decided to use an entirely new engine. The HPL Engine, created by Frictional Games themselves, is a three dimensional engine that uses the OpenGL, OpenAL and Newton game Dynamics libraries in order to bring life to 3D and 2D games. To my eyes, it is something worth mentioning as it means the games were built upon an engine that was created specifically for them and for the future releases by Frictional. In other words, due to this creation, Penumbra has acquired a perfect feeling when it comes to controlling the different objects and weapons by the use of its “realistic” movements, dictated by the player with the mouse.

While horror is a genre that has yet to flourish as well as others, it is without a doubt in expansion. We get to see many titles claiming to be the scariest, the freakiest and the creepiest, yet these popular developers and players alike should take a step back and look within the independent library to witness one particular series showing us where true horror lies, with that series being none other than Penumbra. It is one of those rare gems in the industry that could be classified as the “best games nobody played” which is, unfortunately, frequent when it comes to the independent scene. With nowadays horror incarnation being the cheap scares, blood, gore and as much violence as possible, Penumbra brings us a masterpiece consisting of an incredible psychological horror story with a great atmosphere, minimal ways to defend yourself and realistic ideas of fear such as claustrophobia, not knowing what lies further deep down in the darkness and of course, the feeling of being entirely powerless in front of your lovely infected enemies, forcing you to either run for your life or find shelter and pray that you will remain unnoticed. I recommend Penumbra to anyone who feels like experiencing something new and unique, those who are ready to engulf themselves in the dark world and madness of a man name Philip.

Penumbra: Overture

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  • As a note, if I have to rate the series, I would give it a 9.0 out of 10, simply because a perfect game does not exist and to my eyes, no games on earth should deserve 10/10.

    Posted Jul 31, 2010

  • Very long as always... but anyone who doesn't take the time to read all of it will be missing out because that is one of the best reviews I think I have ever read, although in the future you could probably skip a little of the techie stuff since most users probably won't understand that anyways and just make a brief mention that it works on all platforms because it was developed that way and is unique and has patches for older graphics cards etc to save yourself some text without being as technical and focusing more on the actual game, but otherwise very great review and it's a shame that it's only for the PC but I'm glad to see you're still loving your Indie games. :)

    Posted Aug 22, 2010

  • @David_D: Had to talk about techie stuff, otherwise I wouldn't have found any negative points to the game and I'm entirely against making a game seem "perfect" in every departments lol. Remember David, I'll always love my indie games, Amnesia on September 8th ;p my pre-order has been waiting for over 6 months!

    Thanks for the great comment, too :]

    Posted Aug 23, 2010

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