|Penumbra: Black Plague|
|Platforms||Windows, OSX, Linux|
|Genre||Shadowed Terror Adventure|
After playing Penumbra: Overture, everyone knew a sequel was on its way. The ending leaves scores of questions unanswered and perfectly prepares a follow-up. In 2008, Frictional Games released Penumbra: Black Plague, and in many ways, Black Plague does make the original feel like a mere overture. Frictional well heeded feedback following Overture's release and significantly tuned up their product in regards to pacing, controls, physics, and character interaction. All while continuing the fantastically creepy atmosphere and adding significant new elements to the story.
We again control Phillip LaFresque, originally beckoned to the remote Greenland facility by investigation into his father's happenings. In this game, he begins deep within the facility and feels ever more poised to push on and unravel the truths behind the site. As his efforts continue, we face obstacles that seek to more unravel the psyche rather than physically impede his path. This was one of the developer's conscious changes in the sequel, to avoid fighting and indeed make it impossible to directly fight Phillip's foes. He must instead hold onto his sanity, regroup during times of distress and then properly act to avoid an untimely demise. The awkward and oft-frustrating fights of the original have been replaced by improved logic-based gameplay and more sensible pathing and escape options.
As in Overture, Black Plague's presentation is a bit underpowered, but that fact holds very little bearing to the player experience. Sound design and use of visuals are again very strong with heavy use of subtlety and surprise (while still avoiding the horrid "jump scares" so prevalent in media). Besides continuing through dark rooms and corridors, more environments appear at sensible times to enhance the mood, both to elicit fear and mystery. While the engine itself is unfortunately locked to 60fps, I saw nothing wrong or had no technical problems with the game aside from one errant object in the final area.
The gameplay and story certainly take the largest leap between the games. Since direct fighting is removed, the controls immediately feel vastly improved from the original, even though they haven't changed much in reality and can still be somewhat awkward and challenging to work with. In a game that attempts to 100% immerse you in its world, any efforts to curb control-related distractions have significant benefit. You never want to be pulled out of the experience by encountering bad controls in a frantic situation. Come to think of it, they likely also reduced any sort of control complexity during encounters. Problems only now arise during physics puzzle gameplay, which isn't quite as bad.
The story transcends to an entirely new level over the original, with both improvement in inevitability towards the series climax and conscious efforts in depth of writing. While Overture was more exclusively about the experience and finding miscellaneous notes to flesh out the situation, Black Plague builds and has you interact in various ways with several different strong personalities. This adds a lot to the game and pressure to continue, as some players may not get quite as much from environmental interaction but would care about different characters and their stories. Overture only gives any significant interaction with one other character, whereas (without giving any spoilers) Black Plague continues its expansion with multiple interesting and important personalities, which undeniably adds to the game. After a slower first act, the player's now learns truths very quickly, and these truths continue to build rapidly up to the thought-provoking conclusion.
In all, Penumbra: Black Plague is an excellent follow-up to Overture and a grand finale in this (by all means) two-part series. Black Plague's expansion of sorts, Requiem supposedly only supposedly gives more information on the characters of the series while focusing on showing off the physics puzzle engine they've built. I may play Requiem one day, but as of now, I see little reason to do so. Black Plague is extremely satisfying and a very strong effort from this small team. Now I can finally move on to Amnesia, and not a minute too late as they have recently announced an expansion, Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs. This collaborative effort between Frictional and thechineseroom (developers of the Dear Esther remake) has absurd potential.