Penumbra is a series that I have a tremendous history with and I first noticed the series back when the original tech-demo was first released. Since then I’ve followed the game as it matured from a simple tech demo to a fledgling episodic game from a tiny independent developer and then to its final incarnation; a rather stunning retail package.
You can still download that 2006 demo, by the way, and it serves as an excellent introduction to the style of Penumbra, even though the story is stand-alone.
Of course, as with so many other things, part of growing up is knowing when to scale back and though the Penumbra series proper was supposed to span three short episodes, those plans have been reined in somewhat. The series has been trimmed down from three episodes to just two and the first game, Penumbra: Overture, is followed by a merging of the second and third episodes.
That merging has resulted in Penumbra: Black Plague, a slightly longer and faster paced follow up to the original game. It’s by no means essential to have played or even finished the first game either as the new game starts relatively afresh and offers a quick introduction that brings players up to speed on the story of Overture as it had a much more leisurely pace.
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Black Plague overtly claims that it can be played on its own, so it was from that mindset that we approached the game and launched ourselves into the dark, haunting world of Penumbra once more.
Sins of The Father
As a singleplayer-only game, the main drive behind Black Plague is the story. Thankfully, Penumbra has plot by the truckloads and where Overture established the foundations and then expanded on it slowly, Black Plague quickly builds a mini-epic out of the initial clichés and predictable turns.
The protagonist in this stylishly dark survival horror is Philip, a physicist with more daddy issues than the entire cast of Lost. Philip’s father, who he had assumed dead for decades, sends a letter to his son at the start of the first game and the message quickly galvanises Philip into action as he follows the trail of clues to Greenland.
Lost in the snowy wilderness and desperately trying to follow his father’s directions, Philip discovers a hatch in the ground and follows it down into a seemingly abandoned mine. Quickly realising he has been sealed inside somehow, Philip has no choice but to push on through the darkness and piece together the strange history of the place. Along the way he finds a crazy miner named Red and, though the encounter doesn’t end well, Philip is able to push on and eventually escape the mine – though not as he might have hoped.
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Black Plague picks up the story immediately, though to give away too much of the story would be to destroy the appeal of the game. Philip comes to in a cell, disorientated, confused and not as alone as he wishes he was. There’s screaming in the halls and voices in his head – literally.
As Philip strives for escape, something is definitely wrong with his prison as zombie monsters run amok and elaborate security measures threaten to kill him at ever corner. It’s a clichéd opening, but one which does certainly does the trick and the whole thing is so well presented that you’ll soon forget the dozens of games that have done this before.
In fact, as the game moves forward things rapidly get more and more complicated as the game moves further away from the Resident Evil 2 vibe and more towards a throwback to System Shock 2 or Thief. The latter stages of the game come across very much as a tribute to Looking Glass Studios – and coming from me that’s a massive compliment.