[Ghosts Of Gaming Past] A Review Of ‘Penumbra: Requiem’

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Written by Hayden Dingman, @haydencd

Imagine:

It’s 2008. You’re a fairly new developer coming off two acclaimed horror games, and your fan base is growing pretty rapidly. Unfortunately, your publisher is having issues and cuts your series from three games down to the two you’ve already released. You feel bad. Really bad. There were stories you still wanted to tell in that universe, and you feel you’re letting down your fans.

Then you play this cool new game called Portal. “Wow, this game manages to tell a story just through these simple environments. Also, it’s a really cool puzzle game!” You look at your own assets. Then it hits you. “Hey, we have this critically-acclaimed physics engine from our first two games and we’d really like to wrap up our own story. Why don’t we make a puzzle game?”

This is all hypothetical, but I can only theorize something similar happened leading up to Penumbra: Requiem, the expansion to Penumbra: Black Plague. Even if that conversation didn’t happen the comparisons are inevitable.

Requiem is, quite simply, a puzzle game that attempts to wrap up the plot established in Black Plague and Overture, featuring the same protagonist and picking up directly after the events of the last game. However, there is barely any plot in Penumbra: Requiem. If you came off of Black Plague hoping to understand what happened after the pseudo-cliff hanger of an ending, you’re going to be disappointed.

The only real answers come at the end of the story, and we’re talking the thinnest of answers here. Remember when the series finale of Lost happened and everyone complained their favorite mystery wasn’t answered? Requiem is worse.

All plot development here is handled through audio, taking a major step back from the NPCs in Black Plague. Randomly over the course of the game you’ll be contacted over the radio so one of the game’s characters can provide “context.” The arc of Requiem’s story is worse than Overture’s psychotropic spider mishmash, and that’s saying a lot. The writing is a shambles and is really just a prop for the ending—an ending where you groan and go, “That’s what they came up with?” Black Plague ended on a cliffhanger, and even that was more cathartic than Requiem’s ending.

Then there’s another of those obvious Portal inspirations: your main point of contact throughout the game is a robotic-sounding female voice who talks to you at key points in each level. Over the course of the game, you get the feeling maybe there’s more to this female voice than you thought…

Like most of the plot points in Requiem, this is done mostly for effect. As far as I could tell, the game never actually explains why this woman exists or who she is. Despite the obvious GlaDOS comparisons, there’s no deeper explanation here.

The game is broken up into nine levels, though you wouldn’t be mistaken if you referred to them as “test chambers.” You spawn into each level, you solve a series of puzzles, and eventually you reach the exit. There are a few memorable levels in the game—one section even pays tribute to the original arcade Donkey Kong—but most go by in a blur of far-too-similar hallways.

There are no enemies to speak of. Each level is just an empty set of corridors for you to run around in. The immediate effect of this decision is there’s not really any “horror” in this horror game. There were times I was playing when I thought, “This could be really tense if there were enemies in the game.” Instead, those moments felt comparatively tedious. There’s no reason to rush any of your actions or sneak or hide. As such, the pacing of the game is quite different from Requiem’s predecessors. I pretty much sprinted through the entire game, pausing only to flip a lever or press a button.

Which brings us to the puzzles. In my reviews for Overture and Black Plague I highlighted how incredible Frictional’s physics system is. You interface with objects as you would in the real world. In most games, for instance, you open doors by hitting a button. In the Penumbra series you click the side of the door and drag it open or closed as much as you want. Many puzzles in the previous games were based in this system—drag a chair over to the wall so you can clamber into a vent, or remove rocks from a cart so you can push it.

Requiem relies on the same system for its puzzles, but it turns out the physics system is more fun when employed in service of a story rather than solving puzzles for the sake of solving puzzles. When you break it down, this simply isn’t a revolutionary puzzle game. It’s the same “push boxes onto switches to trigger the next piece of this Rube Goldberg machine” stuff you do in every puzzle-adventure game. The derivative nature of these puzzles is fine when you’re trying to accomplish the solutions under the omnipresent tension of a horror game, but remove that imperative and you’re left with something both uninspired and simplistic.

If there’s any sin in Requiem worse than bland puzzle design, it’s first-person platforming. I can sum this up for you pretty quickly: first-person platforming is still terrible. It was forgivable in the previous Penumbra games because it wasn’t a primary focus of the game, but Requiem gets no such pass. There’s one level in particular where you need to jump across floating crates you place on the water as a current drags them downstream. Mess up and you have to swim all the way back to the beginning of the level, or—if you’re like me—get fed up and find a way to con the game’s physics system. It’s simply (like so much of the game) tedious.

The worst part is if you look past Requiem’s flaws, there’s a lot of potential. The sound design and score remain wonderfully atmospheric, and despite the game’s dated graphics a few of the levels are fairly impressive when you’re first dropped in. Frictional accomplished a lot with a limited graphics engine.

In fact, I’d wager there’s a really great Myst-like game that could be made with Penumbra’s assets. Requiem is not that game.

This review was hard for me to write, truth be told. It’s never fun to watch a beloved franchise take a misstep, and Requiem is certainly the [insert hated sequel to your favorite game] of the Penumbra series.

In the end, however, there are really only two metrics that matter to me when I’m writing for Bloody Disgusting.

1) Is the game (and I use this term in the broadest way possible) scary?

Penumbra: Requiem is by no means scary. At all. Granted, I have pretty high standards when it comes to being scared by video games, but I can’t imagine anyone getting frightened by this game. If you get terrified because spooky music is playing as you explore empty buildings, you might have a problem. Otherwise, you’ll be fine. There’s no enemies, there’s barely a plot, and there’s no tension.

2) Is the game fun?

Let me put it this way: when I completed Requiem, the game’s timer told me I’d played for slightly over two hours. If you’d asked me before that number popped up, I’d have guessed easily double that amount. It’s only nine brief levels but it’s a grind to get through, and every time a new zone started I just wanted to quit for the night and do something more enjoyable.

The Final Word: Just don’t play Requiem. It’s basically a tech demo for Frictional’s physics engine, with a few “game” elements thrown in. It’s neither a good horror game nor a good puzzle game. If you loved Black Plague and you absolutely have to play the expansion, take a few months away from the series. Let Black Plague sink in before you sully those memories with Requiem.

Penumbra: Requiem is available on Linux, Mac and PC (reviewed).