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Penumbra: Black Plague Review

Penumbra: Overture set the stage for the new era of horror that would eventually culminate in the creation of Amnesia: The Dark Descent. It's sequel, Penumbra: Black Plague, was meant to be part two of a trilogy which was never fully realized, but which still stands as a testament to Frictional's skill with horror. The question stands though: is Black Plague spooky enough to play even after all these years?

Penumbra: Black Plague

Introduction

The development history of the Penumbra trilogy is one fraught with risk, betrayal, and disappointment, much like its story. After the successful release of Overture, the first installment in the planned saga, unexplained issues arose between the developers at Frictional Games and their publisher at the time, Lexicon Entertainment. Faced with the reality that their story might be cut short, the two planned sequels to Overture were condensed down to one major installment which would serve as a definitive climax and conclusion. This was the game that came to be known as Black Plague, and while Frictional would later release the third game in the series, dubbed Requiem, it would remain their crowning success until the release of Amnesia: The Dark Descent two years later.

Now, with over a decade of age weighing on its visuals, overshadowed by its successors and lost in a sea of obscurity thanks to the creative explosion it helped trigger, Black Plague has been largely forgotten. For most games, this sort of fate is inevitable, as newer releases build on what makes them unique while carrying their identity into the future. However, in this case, it's largely unfair, because while it might not look cutting-edge anymore, Black Plague was never about the fidelity of its visuals. This is why so many more modern games have quickly dropped off the map, as they relied too much on flash and dazzle and not enough on being immersive. The atmosphere can keep a game alive long after its graphical shelf life expires, and in that respect, Black Plague is still alive and well. If you want to see for yourself, the whole trilogy is available for just $9.99 on Steam, a bargain price for such an engrossing experience. If you'd rather hear a bit more before deciding, however, then read on. After all, knowing too much never hurt anyone, right?

Penumbra Black Plague Trailer

Story

Part of the big appeal of Penumbra's story is the narrative. Which is ironic, since, from the start, you know how it ends. The game opens with a text message from Phillip LaFresque, the protagonist, making an unspecified request for aide from an unidentified acquaintance. This vague message is accompanied by a warning foretelling the potential doom of humankind. This simple but clever setup establishes a very clear tone, one of dread and lurking horror which suggests that whatever happens, it can only end badly. However, despite this grim and preordained outcome, enough mystery remains to keep the player engaged and moving forwards, even if only out of morbid curiosity. 

Penumbra: Black Plague Review - The game's grasp of lighting and setting help to build a sense of immersion that sinks in quickly.
Continuing the pursuit of answers by Phillip regarding the fate of his recently deceased father, Black Plague picks up not long after the conclusion of its predecessor. After a tragic climax involving the mysterious miner Red, and the discovery of an even more mysterious facility known simply as 'The Shelter', Overture closes with the wayward hero resolving to penetrate the secrets of the strange and forgotten edifice, only to be clubbed over the head and dragged into the dark. Black Plague picks up not long after that harrowing conclusion, with Phillip trapped in a makeshift jail cell, awaiting deliverance to an unknown fate. One hasty escape later, he finds himself lost in the bowels of the Shelter, where it's quickly revealed that whatever the facility's purpose might have been, something has gone very, very wrong.

From there, things get progressively more spooky and sinister. Gaunt and vicious creatures stalk the abandoned halls of the facility, which are littered with the decay of decades and the corpses of scientists. These unfortunate cadavers are quickly revealed as adherents of a secret society, one that counted Phillip's father among its members and which built the Shelter to study the mysterious incidents and legends surrounding the area in general, and the mine in particular. As you move from one hub area to the next, you gather more details as to what that research entailed, while keeping enough questions unanswered to maintain the air of dread and confusion that is the core of the game's atmosphere. In this way, it's a truly Lovecraftian game; compelling the player on with the hope that new information might provide hope, while more often than not it just compounds the mystery, or else opens terrifying new vistas of reality that make ignorance truly seem like bliss.

It's easy to spot how Frictional learned from their past mistakes with Overture in Black Plague. Where the former relied on lengthy and often out of place notes to communicate its narrative, the latter employs visual storytelling and new characters to advance the plot, including one that resides entirely in Phillip's head. Clarence, an enigmatic and somewhat sadistic secondary personality, abruptly turns up about thirty minutes or so into the game to provide commentary on events and occasionally torment his host in exciting and frightening ways. This is actually rather genius, as Phillip remains a silent protagonist throughout the entire trilogy. By giving him a companion, it deepens and enhances the narrative, as well as adding an extra element of danger, as it quickly becomes clear that your new passenger is sliding back and forth between getting you killed and helping you survive.

Penumbra: Black Plague Review - The often callous and sadistic monologues of your invisible friend Clarence provide a second, often-misanthropic opinion to Phillip's own observations.
Another example of how the writers clearly learned their lesson is the character of Amabel Swanson, the Shelter's last human survivor. As you progress further and risks increase you're also given the motivation of rescuing her, serving as a counter-balance against the disheartening foreknowledge imparted by the game's opening message. While her involvement in your misadventures is sporadic, it's frequent enough to keep Clarence's mind games from becoming stale. The most cunning part of this setup, however, is the way in which Clarence and Amabel serve as foils to one another. While the Doctor urges you on with encouraging words and emotional support, Clarence drags you down with his nihilistic monologues and petty, trollish behavior. It's a wonderful dichotomy that does a lot to simulate the mental workings of a Lovecraftian protagonist, or indeed anyone faced with the vast and fear-inspiring void of the unknown. It's a serious step up from the more one-sided relationship in Overture, and speaks to the evolution of the skills of the game's creative team as storytellers.

Gameplay

Gameplay is probably the one place to experience the most improvement in the gap between Overture and Black Plague. The clumsy combat and sneaking system is gone, replaced by a smoother and more terrifying experience which offers you the choices to either hide or die. While this forms the core of the game's action sequences, the rest of the experience is taken up by puzzles, which are generally improved and somewhat less laborious this time around. Still, many still rely on lengthy and ponderously-written notes to solve, eschewing intuition for reading ability, which is never much fun. Thankfully a fair amount physics-based conundrums help spice up the intellectual segments, which keeps the experience from feeling like a chore.

Ultimately exploration remains the core principle the game is built around, with every dark corridor and dirty, abandoned chamber offering fresh secrets and mysteries (or at least a place to hide until the monsters give up looking for you). The visual style of the whole experience is actually rather clever, as Phillip's surroundings become progressively more dilapidated and shadowy in accordance with the growing control of Clarence, whose mental abuse remains a constant motif throughout the descent into the Shelter. New discoveries raise new questions, and also usually herald new dangers, in accordance with the title's Lovecraftian themes. Similarly, darkness offers the only safety from enemies, but at the same time hides them as well as it does you. It's a double-edged sword that plays magnificently into the game's themes of knowledge bringing danger as easily as it does understanding. 

Penumbra: Black Plague Review - A few monsters make a return from the previous game, such as the giant worm.
When all is said and done though, the real star of the show is the sound design. If there were a class on how to properly design horror games, the soundscape of Black Plague and indeed, all of Frictional's games, would be required reading for any aspirant. Menacing creaks and drips help reinforce the dilapidated nature of your surroundings, while the overwhelming silence in between leaves you braced for the sound of shuffling footsteps that herald your discovery by the monsters just a wall's-thickness away. Meanwhile, Mikko Tarmia once again lends his masterful skills to the soundtrack, with its pitch-perfect and haunting tunes that perfectly sell the ominous setting and dread=soaked atmosphere the game strives for. Moody corridors are graced by tense tracks, while minor choral pieces denote the brief moments of success amidst the endless creeping, hiding and pondering over what to do next.

Sound and Design

All in all, Black Plague remains a heavy improvement over its predecessor and a milestone in the survival-horror genre. The creative story-telling and masterful sound design alone make it worth your time. Does it have its issues? Absolutely; it's over ten years old, after all. Setting aside the aging visuals and occasional hilarious physics glitch, the excessively-long notes required for some of the puzzles are probably the game's biggest sin. Too much reading can spoil the atmosphere, and frankly, nobody in their right mind sits down to read five pages on how to program a computer when there's a monster in the hall outside. However, all that being said, the soundscape, the story, and the gameplay all serve to overshadow almost any potential flaws. If you love survival-horror, you owe it to yourself to experience this, if only to see how far we've come, and how far we've yet to go.

Final Verdict

PROSCONS
+ Strong storytelling with elements of cosmic horror.– Heavy reading sections can spoil pacing.
+ Superbly spooky atmosphere visual design.– Aging visuals and physics engine.
+ Powerful sound design and music.– Limited replay value.
9
Amazing

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