Penumbra: Black Plague




Genre:   Adventure

Developer:   Frictional Games

Publisher:    Paradox Interactive

Released:  February 2008

PC Requirements:   Windows 2000/XP, 1Ghz Processor, 256MB Memory, Radeon 8500/GeForce 3 (GeForce4MX not supported) Video Card





by Looney4Labs


Diary of a Horror Game Novice


Day One: ďTo think that such a small event can change your life in such a violent way.Ē Philip

Itís dark. The house is quiet. Iím all alone. Iíve heard that is the perfect time. I turn out the lights and slip the disk for the new horror adventure game, Penumbra: Black Plague in the drive. I have studied the manual and now Iím ready to experience the terroróat least, I hope I am.

Darkness! Upon a black screen a strange message appears, white letter by white letter. ďThere are things I need of you. Things you may not understand, and may not wish to do, but please do not make the same mistakes I did.Ē

Pensive music envelopes me and haunting images from the previous game, Penumbra Overture, fill in needed background information. A velvety voice narrates, reminding me that a cry for help from Philipís long-assumed-dead father started all this. It ends with Philip lying senseless on the ground. Alone, so alone.

The view changes and I (Philip, since this is a first person game) awake in a decaying filthy room, cold and confused. Carefully, I survey the room. Since this game is 3D, I can move freely around it and examine everything. The door is locked and the ceiling is falling to the floor in bits and pieces. All is gray. Danger lurks everywhere. I must leave now, but how?

There is little here--a desk, a filthy mattress on the floor, some metal shelves--and nothing of comfort. Swelling music leaves taut nerves in its wake. Strange sounds assault my ears--creaks, thrums, scrabbling of nails or mice or I know not what. But, I fight on. With much effort and a little ingenuity, I find a way to escape. Each step is frisson-filled. At each corner I expect to be killed. Eventually, I am.

The game takes me back a few minutes and I try again. This time I avoid death but move slowly, cautiously, anxiously, never sure of what menace will appear. Finally, I can take no more and exit the game to the warmth and safety of my house. A sleepless night lets me know that I canít play this game alone and in the dark. Iíll try again in the daylight.

Day Two: ďWhy, oh why, are they always holding a key? Or a note? Or a swipe card? Why is it never, I donít know, a cheese sandwich? Iím starving.Ē Clarence

Iíve escaped my locked room, only to find myself following a trail left by desperate people fleeing an evil they donít understand and cannot fight. Iím in an underground government research facility deep beneath frozen Greenland. Outside all is snowy white, but here all is muted and gray. Destruction, neglect, vandalism fill my sight. Someone has built barricades to keep out an unknown being or thing, but Iím not sure they succeeded.

I desperately want to find my father. I need information. I urgently wish to save my game, but I canít. It auto saves upon completion of certain tasks and if I can live long enough to find a specific artifact, I can save for myself in those locations only. But I canít save at every turn, as there are only ten save slots. I plow on, and am rewarded with certain documents that increase my knowledge of the place and the story as well as my sense of doom.

I need both the keyboard (W,A,S,D) and the mouse to navigate through the facility. I can run, but usually I creep, needing to go forward to find answers--and yet afraid.

Thanks to a special physics based program, I really can interact with the environment. A simple click wonít do. I must pull my hand backward to open a drawer, and push my hand forward to close a door. To break a glass pane, I must smash it repeatedly. I can pick up objects and balance them precariously or manipulate them into new positions. Sometimes this is novel and immersive, but at other times it is awkward and aggravating. All the while, I must listen attentively for the sounds of my enemy and be ready to hide or run.

I can hide by crouching down behind something. But if I do, I must be careful to not look at the enemy. If I can see him, he can see me. And he is much stronger than I am. I have no weapons so I must use cunning and intelligence and speed when necessary.

I continue to explore, picking up useful items and moving quietly so as not to alert ďthemĒ that I am here. I find many locked doors impeding my progress, and of course I must find the key. I need to stack barrels and boxes in order to reach a needed item or area. I seem to do this often.

I have to jump from one place to another and Iím not very good at it. In one area, I have to do this in near total darkness, leaping from moving platform to moving platform while a snarling presence right behind me urges me to hurry. In another area, the camera shakes wildly and dust fills the screen, but still I must run and jump and crouch as I flee to safety. Sometimes I find that I have to mute the computer in order to calm down sufficiently to complete a task. Even though I chose the ďEasyĒ option (among Easy, Normal, and Hard), I die often. But the game is compelling and I keep coming back for one more try.

Day Three: ďItís not too late to slam your head against the wall until you pass out. It might be easier than carrying on.Ē Clarence

Having screwed up my courage, Iím ready to try again. I find more levels of both the story and the buildings. But something strange has happened and I am in a waking dream state. One of the puzzles is very gory. In order to continue, I have to remind myself that no matter how I feel, this is nothing but ďonesĒ and ďzerosĒ on a screen. Though I do not have to contend with any sliders, mazes, mini-games, or sound puzzles, several times I have to complete a set of actions in a short period of time. If not, I die. I also have to wade through a room knee deep in blood. Later, Iíll need to collect and manipulate body parts to solve one puzzle. This game is not for the squeamish.

I find more documents which, thankfully, are automatically recorded in my notebook along with a general ďto doĒ list. The story is filling out and the news is not good for me. Eventually I find I must use a gas mask which restricts my vision, fills my ears with the sound of my own breathing, and increases my level of alarm. In addition, Iím no longer sure if what Iím seeing and hearing is real or imaginary.

Suddenly, a voice not my own speaks to me and names himself Clarence. His voice changes from threatening to taunting to coaxing and back again, and all is excellently done. Sometimes he helps a bit, but mostly he just reminds me that Iíll likely not live to find my father or to leave this place.

I seldom see anyone, except those creatures who continue to plague me and the rotting corpses of scientists who were not successful in their quests. They could not stop the threat and they did not manage to escape.

I continue on my journey. The screens between levels are somewhat slow in loading (about 20-30 seconds) giving me time to calm my thudding heart. It seems as if even the computer is terrorized as now I encounter several glitches. I search for and find the patch but even with it, my cursor disappears when I die, forcing me to use Alt+Control+Delete to shut the game down and restart. The cursor also goes missing a few times as a new area loads. I find that sometimes when this happens, the Escape key allows me to continue, but not always. Finally, my psyche can take no more and I quit for the day.

Day Four: ďI had to put an end to this.Ē Philip

Iíve fought my way through most of the game and Iím very curious about how it ends, so I take my courage in hand and load the game for what I think will be my final time. As always, each step is watchful, but at least I know that when (not if) I die, Iíll come back near the same spot. The story has deepened with each document Iíve found and Iím totally involved with Philip. I want him to stop the threat and bring the world back to sanity.

When the end comes, it brings with it a philosophical question which we must all answer for ourselves. I am stunned and sit in silence for several minutes absorbing, reflecting, remembering.

Though I doubt I will play this game again (one gory scene involving a dogís carcass repulsed me, but may not bother others), I am glad I experienced it for fifteen-plus hours. It was a tension-filled ride from the first screen to the last. In spite of that, or perhaps because of it, I kept coming back for more.

Grade: B

Quick List:

1st person horror adventure game

Keyboard and mouse required for movement

Sometimes awkward physics based interaction system requires movements to open doors, drawers, manipulate objects

Auto saves at predetermined spots

User can save but only at certain check points

Saves limited in number

You can die, but will restart near where you died

Voice acting excellent

Atmospheric background music imbues game with tension

Ambient sounds are very good

Settings are grim and decaying

Tutorial available


Not consistently Alt+Tab friendly

A few glitches even after Patch applied

Mostly inventory or logic puzzles, but does include some jumping and timed sequences

No mazes

No sound puzzles

No sliders

No color dependent puzzles

Intriguing story told mostly through documents and flashbacks

I played on:

OS: Microsoft Windows XP Pro SP2

CPU: 3.2 GHz Intel Pentium 4

RAM: 3 GB Dual Channel DDR400 SDRAM

Video: nVidia GeForce 7600GS 256MB 128-bit GDDR2 AGP 4X/8X

Sound: Creative SB Audigy LS


DirectX Version: 9.0c

May, 2008

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