Penumbra: Black Plague Review

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"...which makes Black Plague a decidedly better game."

Episodic games have a couple of benefits. One of the best advantages being developers can address criticisms quickly in-between each new episode. Penumbra: Black Plague is a prime example of this. The second game in the Penumbra series makes key improvements over its predecessor, which makes Black Plague a decidedly better game.

Black Plague takes place immediately after the events of the first game, Overture. You once again take control of Phillip, and while your primary goal was to escape to the surface, there's just one problem – you've been hit with an infection (hence the subtitle). The symptoms you'll face from the infection are psychological in nature and the game takes advantage of this. Without spoiling too much, your perception of what is reality and what isn't is something that's played around with throughout the game. It works extremely well; moments of perception-bending don't happen often, so they occur when you don't expect it, which in turn makes you question if everything around you is real.

Fortunately, there's hope for a cure. Black Plague largely revolves around you trying to rescue someone who claims to have a cure for your ailment. It helps that the gal you're trying to rescue is tremendously charming and endearing, because you're going to need all the motivation in the world to face Black Plague's genuinely scary atmosphere. Unlike Overture, Black Plague is consistently creepy and a few but key changes make that so. This time your main adversaries are tuurngaits – creepy humanoid beings that have a taste for your flesh. They're much more threatening than the dogs you had to face in Overture, mostly because they carry distinct human-like qualities, except they're disfigured to an unsettling degree. Another reason is how you can't kill them. If you happen to be thrown into a situation where you're cornered, the only real combat option that's given to you is to throw random objects at the tuurngait, stunning it for short period so you can make your getaway. Your best bet is to sneak past their patrols. You won't run into their patrols often enough that they become irritating and encounters with them won't be so rare that you forget about them. There's a perfect balance, which makes you rarely feel safe anywhere.

 
 


"...hiding in a corner and crying starts to make a lot of sense."

It doesn't help that the ambient sounds and scary scripted events that were heart-stopping in Overture are back in full force in Black Plague. Noises off in the bleak distance can cause moments of trepidation, and hiding in a corner and crying starts to make a lot of sense. When you do get the will to move forward, high-pressure scripted events will take a toll on your sanity in a good way. Black Plague also has a wry sense of humor compared to Overture, which had none. Most of the humor comes from the text that you read, and the game will make you chuckle at the most inappropriate times and it can make Black Plague a surreal experience at times. It only makes the game scarier oddly enough, because the odd bouts of humor make Black Plague's various complexes stranger and in this case, creepier.

Other than that, Black Plague feels a lot like Overture. You'll hesitantly open doors, pull and twist levers and solve logical puzzles that will constantly humble you with their solutions. The level of interactivity with the world still manages to be novel. Pulling, pushing and twisting to the mouse to act out movements still easily draws you into the game, making Black Plague all the more immersive. So, it's largely the same game, but the key improvements mentioned above makes Black Plague a better game than its predecessor.

 
 

The same can't be said for the graphics. Black Plague looks a lot like Overture, which means the environments are drab and uninspired. The texture work is still shoddy, and while the lighting and shadows are fairly impressive, Black Plague is a bit behind the curve by today's standards. The sound still remains to be one of its strongest components, however. The sound effects are great once again and the ambient noises and atmospheric music really add to the dreadfully good atmosphere. The biggest improvement sound-wise comes from the improved voice acting. The characters you'll encounter hand out fantastic performances, and it greatly adds to their, well, character.

The game won't take long to complete, 5-6 hours is once again the general length. There are a couple extras you can unlock, but they don't add too much to the overall value. When it comes down to it, though, Penumbra: Black Plague is easily the better game in the episodic series. It properly addresses criticisms from Overture and ties up the story arc rather well. In many ways, the Penumbra series represents innovation in the adventure genre. The physics add a nice twist to the puzzles and your interactivity with the world is much more involving than pixel-hunting. And it doesn't have to forgo the puzzle-solving elements that recent adventures games, like Dreamfall and Indigo Prophecy have largely abandoned. Here's hoping Penumbra has shown that the adventure genre can evolve, so that we can see more innovative adventure games like Penumbra.

 
  
 
 
Pros:
+ A big improvement over Overture
+ Consistently creepy
+ Superb sound design once again
+ Fun, logical puzzles
 
Cons:
- Graphically dated
- Once again, it’s a brief experience

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