One of the things that I’ve liked so much about past Penumbra games has been that they are so hard to classify and, when reviewing the first game as part of the Independent Games Fesitval coverage, I said the game was best described as a ‘First Person Horror Action-Stealth and Physics Puzzler’.
It’s not really a description at all; but some sort of clunky vehicle for transporting the genre-bending nature of the game. Still, I feel it does the job and the same description would suit the sequel as well, as long as you dropped the ‘action’ bit.
Black Plague is played from the first person perspective, but it’s by no means a shooter and, unlike Overture, Black Plague actually doesn’t even offer any weapons to the player. Instead, the game is all about evading enemies rather than confronting them.
The enemies have grown up too and, though Overture had you hacking away rabid dogs with a hammer, Black Plague will see you hiding from zombies and mutated beasties as they prowl the corridors of the mysterious Shelter Project that has become your abode.
To make hiding easier, Black Plague has taken a tip from the fantastic Chronicles of Riddick and lets players know when Philip is hidden by changing the view slightly. When crouched and moving through shadows the screen takes on a slight blue-ish tint, making it slightly easier to see in the dark. Stop for a few seconds and the field of view will expand as Philip’s eyes become accustomed to the dark and he goes truly invisible.
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Of course, just because you can see better doesn’t mean you should look too closely – Philip is utterly defenceless and deeply traumatised, so watching enemies for too long will panic him. When Philip has a panic attack he’ll give away his position through heavy breathing and swimming vision, disabling him somewhat and making him easy prey.
The notion of hiding and panic attacks initially put me off the game if I’m honest – but the game is pretty merciful thankfully and enemies are sparingly used as well, so confrontation is easy to escape from even if you mess up. Unlike so many other stealth games, instant death is rarely on the cards and Philip can recover from most situations if given a chance.
In fact, the panic effect brings an excellent conflict to the game and makes the game truly terrifying to play. It’s one thing to play a stealth game where you watch the enemy blunder past you as you slip behind cover. It’s another experience altogether to have to look away and just listen to enemy footsteps. You never know how close death is and, like Philip, you’ll be on the edge of your seat.
Of course, stealth is only half the story and the majority of the game is actually spent exploring your surroundings and solving puzzles. It’s classic game design of using puzzles and solutions to layer player progress so that, while players feel that they are carving their own way through the Shelter Project, they are actually just following a linear path of breadcrumbs.
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Many of the puzzles in Black Plague involve the fancy physics engine which really is the centrepiece of the whole game and the focal point that gathered the original tech demo so much attention.
You see, in Penumbra physics isn’t just a buzzword or a tacked-on feature; it’s a key element in how you interact with the world. If you want to open a door then you literally have to grab it with the mouse and pull it open. If you want to break a glass window then you’ll have to pick up some debris and fling it across the room. Items have different properties too, so you’ll have to fling harder to throw something heavy.
It may sound complicated, but it really isn’t and it’s better to experience it rather than describe it – like I said before, the tech demo is free to download.
This physics system is the crux of many of the game puzzles and players have to hunt down realistic solutions to many challenges. It’s rarely as simple as a see-saw puzzle in Half-Life 2 too – players will have to overcome all sorts of barriers. The puzzles get steadily more complex as the game moves forward, but because the rules of physics are already understood by players before they start gaming, the game never feels unfair even though some will be stumped by the required different way of thinking.