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Written by Hayden Dingman, @haydencd
I know we’re reviewing games that are fairly old in this column, but I still don’t want to spoil anything for those of you who went out and purchased Penumbra: Overture after my last review (here). Therefore, consider this your standard spoiler warning—there be spoilers for the end of Penumbra: Overture ahead.
Penumbra: Black Plague is the reason why you need to persevere through the frustrating combat and convoluted story in Penumbra: Overture.
I normally hate that sort of thinking. In video games, especially, that argument gets thrown around a lot. “Yeah, I know the first ten hours suck, but just wait until the eleventh hour. That’s when things really pick up.” Unfortunately, it is absolutely true of the two main Penumbra games.
You could technically play Black Plague without playing the original Penumbra—the player is given a small recap at the start of the sequel—but Overture is cheap and it’s pretty short. I’d recommend making your way through Overture first. Overture and Black Plague were intended as two parts of an episodic adventure, and the overarching story can be hard to follow even if you play both halves. Starting with this game will leave you at a disadvantage.
And don’t get me wrong—Penumbra: Overture is still a pretty great game. It has its moments, and I don’t mean to malign Frictional’s accomplishments there. Penumbra: Black Plague is simply a much better game.
To recap: at the end of Penumbra: Overture, you finally find an exit from the abandoned mine you explored the entire game! Unfortunately, because this is a horror game and not a spelunking simulator, you merely exit into some sort of even-creepier underground bunker. As you make your way forward, you see a silhouetted person in the distance. Then the ghoulish fluorescent lights start to go out one at a time until you’re back in pitch-darkness. You attempt to sneak your way down the hallway before you’re knocked unconscious.
“To be continued…” pops up on screen. Great, you survived Penumbra: Overture!
This game picks up right after its predecessor. You still play as Philip, the loveable professor who sucks at swinging a pickaxe but is great at solving physics puzzles. When Black Plague starts you recover from your recent bout of forced unconsciousness to find yourself locked in a room. You can hear a guy crying from a few rooms over, as well as what sounds like stabbing noises. In the hallway you can hear heavy, menacing breathing. You open up the desk drawer to find a note that concludes with, “Get out. Now.” You’re two minutes in and Black Plague is already way more menacing than any single part of the original Penumbra.
I said in my last review that Penumbra: Overture was mainly effective because of its sound design. The sound design here is just as exemplary, but it’s not running a solo show anymore.
The story vastly improves on its predecessor, even though the premise won’t blow you away: you explore the creepy underground laboratory where your father worked, uncovering clues about the phenomenon the scientists were studying and trying to decrypt why your father wanted you to burn all his notes instead of coming to Greenland. However, the sequel’s story is conveyed better than Overture’s, and it comes together with much more force than the jumbled mess of the original game. There’s also less of a reliance on finding written notes and more interactive storytelling. You won’t deal with many NPCs, but the ones you do encounter are well-characterized and provide you with very concrete story beats. The game simply feels more coherent.
The story also gets weird, in a good way. Black Plague ranks up there with Eternal Darkness and Call of Cthulu when it comes to simulating the main character’s insanity. I don’t want to spoil anything, but there are some incredible surrealistic moments in this game that top anything found in Overture.
It helps that your enemies are more menacing. This game will leave you feeling nostalgic for those cute little demon dogs from the first game. Your enemies in this game are the “Infected”—the reanimated human corpses of the lab’s former scientists. I hesitate to say zombies because there isn’t much of a connection outside of the “You used to be a corpse!” angle. The Infected are smart, fast, and horrifying to look at. Also, deadly. Some of the Infected even carry axes.
While your enemies carry axes, however, you don’t. That’s right, Frictional axed (please, hold your applause) the much-maligned combat from the first game.
Don’t worry, Overture’s incredible physics system remains. You’re still interacting with objects the way you would in the real world. Rather than tap a button to open a door, for instance, you click the side of the door and pull it open as much or as little as you’d like. This philosophy extends towards all interactive objects, allowing you to pull a chair towards the wall to reach a vent cover or break ketchup bottles against the wall. You’ll use the physics system to solve most of the puzzles as you move through the ruined laboratory.
The combat, however, is gone. Rejoice, Penumbra fans! This has two immediate effects:
1) Black Plague is just more fun than its predecessor. You don’t really know how much you hate the combat in Overture until you play the same type of game without combat.
2) Enemies are terrifying. If you meet an enemy, you sprint away and hide in a dark room and pray the Infected don’t hunt you down. I’m a firm believer that too much combat ruins horror games by reducing enemies to game mechanics instead of terrifying beings from the nether-realm or what have you. This gets it right. You’re a puny human coming up against forces beyond your comprehension. It makes sense that enemies can and will murder you.
The graphics are slightly better than Overture’s, for what it’s worth. They’re still not pretty by any means, but they’re serviceable. A lot of it has to do with the environments themselves. It gets to experiment more with color and texture due to the setting. In Overture’s mine you were either trudging past brown rock or past gray concrete. The levels here are more varied and more atmospheric. Also, there seems to be a lot more blood everywhere. Bad stuff has happened in this laboratory.
As I said earlier, the sound design remains phenomenal. The voice acting is pretty damn good across the board, and there’s a lot more of it both from NPCs and from playable audio tapes. The score is an almost-constant presence, and is deft at ebbing and flowing alongside the tension. Doors still make that satisfying “screeching metal hinges” sound. The noises made by the Infected are an order of magnitude scarier than the dog growls in the first game.
Oh, and say hi to Clarence for me.
The Final Word: Black Plague is the realization of Overture’s potential. It manages to improve on pretty much every aspect of the original game, and it gets rid of that pesky combat system entirely. As with Overture, Frictional shows they understand atmosphere is the core of any true horror experience, but Black Plague supports that atmosphere with incredible storytelling moments and effective scares. Fans of Overture will love this game, and people who found Overture’s flaws (combat, story) annoying should give Frictional a second chance. As always, play with headphones in a dark room for the full experience.
Penumbra: Black Plague is available on Linux, Mac and PC (reviewed).