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Penumbra: Necrologue Review

It's been years since the release of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and even longer since its predecessor, the Penumbra trilogy, came to a close. However, some rare, dedicated savants haven't forgotten the saga that laid groundwork for the 'scariest game ever made', and they have submitted their time and energy to producing a continuation of that story. But the question stands: is it any good?

Penumbra: Necrologue Review

Introduction

Back before Amnesia: The Dark Descent was king of the horror scene, Frictional Games was busy experimenting with horror through its groundbreaking Penumbra trilogy, a saga set in the dark beneath ice and snow of northern Greenland and rooted in a descent into mystery and fear not unlike its eventual successor. However, due to a hectic development period, the series, which was meant to be spread over three equally scary installments, instead came out as something more like two and a quarter, with the final part, Penumbra: Requiem, providing an unsatisfying capstone to what should've been a much darker and complete experience.
Of course, now Penumbra is old, and fast fading from memory. That doesn't mean it's been completely forgotten though. In fact, it's quite the contrary. The folks at Counter-Current Games were so incensed by the lackluster finish to the story that they went and created Penumbra: Necrologue; an alternative vision of what the trilogy's final installment should have been. Obviously, it's not for everyone, but if nothing else, for those of us who found Requiem to be more of a fart than a final trumpet call, I would say that Necrologue is definitely worth a peek. You can snag it for free on Steam, where it comes bundled with another mod in the same vein: Twilight of the Archaic, which I will be reviewing separately. You'll need to own The Dark Descent if you want to play it though, given it's a community-made mod, rather than an actual full game, but if you're a fan of Frictional Games, and interested enough in their work to be looking for this kind of thing, that shouldn't be an issue. 

Story

Penumbra: Necrologue pretty much requires that you have played the rest of the trilogy to understand it's plot, given it picks up right where Black Plague (the middle installment which was actually more of the real ending) finished up. Given that's the case, I'll be writing on the assumption that you've played said games, and already know most of what I'm talking about.  The plot initially kicks off by stating that the majority of final couple hours of the second game was actually an elaborate mind-fuck perpetrated by your unwelcome cranial cohabitant 'Clarence', who as it turns out is not dead. No sooner do you awaken on the damp, dirty floor of the Shelter, right where you passed out at the end of Black Plague, but he gets back to simultaneously insulting and goading you. 

Shortly after your rude awakening, you also learn that Amabel Swanson is not dead (or so it seems) and that the message you sent calling for reinforcements at the end of Black Plague was not a hallucination. With this in mind, your driving goal becomes escape, rather than intrusion, though given the labyrinthine nature of the Shelter and the surrounding subterranean environs, this becomes harder than it sounds. What starts initially as a struggle to reach the surface soon goes awry, and Phillip again finds himself bravely running for his life and sanity in the finest tradition of Lovecraftian protagonists. There's lots of fan-service moments echoing events of the trilogy, and the game also even tries to make Requiem a bit more relevant, though how well it succeeds in that is up to you and whether or not you had the stomach to play through that travesty of a puzzle-pack

Penumbra: Necrologue Review. The game starts where Black Plague ended, but it doesn't stay there for long.
Honestly, I'm not sure how to feel about Necrologue's plot. Right off the bat, it's clear the story is something of a work of fanfiction, although a reasonably well-crafted one. How well you're likely to take it depends on how dissatisfied you were with the endings that Requiem and Black Plague provided. Truthfully, the story is more of an 'expansion' on the lore of the trilogy than a stand-alone tale, with a vast majority of content being borrowed from the original series in order to pad things out. There are some subplots delivered via collectible notes, but none of them are very engrossing, and serve little function beyond enhancing the atmosphere

Of course, being a mod made by fans for fans, that's to be expected, but I can't help but feel that the great tragedy here is that while they stayed true to the spirit of the narrative, they failed to do anything really original with it. That said, I much prefer the two-choice ending the mod provides by comparison to the despair-laden authorized ones. Both are much more ambiguous, in the spirit of Requiem's conclusion, but with a potential dash of optimism, if you have the will to see it. I suppose that's counter to what a Lovecraft story is supposed to engender, given that cosmic horror is all about existential terror, but frankly, I like the occasional spark of light in my dark stories; otherwise, what's the point of telling them? People play games to escape our depressing reality, not confront it.

Gameplay

The gameplay of Black Plague is the DNA of Necrologue, and it does almost nothing to differentiate itself. Stealth is crucial to survival, though more time is spent solving puzzles than hiding and running from monsters, which is something the game could've done with more of. Exploration is crucial for locating vital materials such as flashlight batteries and painkillers, as well as key items for resolving various logical conundrums. Of course it shouldn't be said that Necrologue  is a direct clone, as it does stand apart in some small ways. There is no glow-stick in this game, only flares and your flashlight. It also plays around with your access to these sources of illumination later on, which is kind of fun since it makes a nice change of pace to have to rely on your other senses and memory to get around in the dark. There is also a new monster that makes a recurring appearance, which is faster and tougher than the old Tuurngait zombies, but not noticeably more bright.

Penumbra: Necrologue Review. You'll find plenty of long, menacing corridors here.
For those of us that love the gameplay style of The Dark Descent and the other Penumbra titles, all this is old hat, albeit a beloved and floppy one. My chief complaint I suppose is the puzzles. While clever, many of them are incredibly difficult to solve. My chief example would have to be the chemical-mixing puzzle that turns up about a third of the way in, which relies on the player looking at a map of the periodic table (ironic, since Clarence erased that from Phillip's brain in Black Plague). It's poorly explained, and relies too heavily on the player knowing what compounds are which. Compared to the explosive-mixing experiment that was the finale of Overture, it's downright cryptic. Of course the puzzles should be hard, but they should also be at least marginally intuitive and sad to say, that doesn't appear to be the case here.

Sound and Design

On the subject of sound, Necrologue gets things mostly right, switching back and forth between Mikko Tarmia's menacing soundtrack from the original Penumbra, as well as new tracks made by the mod's authors, and dead silence. For all their missteps in other departments, it sticks close to the themes of Lovecraftian horror that made the original trilogy such gold to play. Monsters are rarely deployed, but always given weight when they are. The developers have actually added a couple that didn't appear in the original games, including one that was only seen during the original tech demo for the HPL engine the game runs on. Sadly, that monster specifically seems to have the WORST sound bug, generating ear-splitting screeches fit to ruin your speakers. I can't tell if its intentional or not, but it's certainly quite horrible, and while it's probably a little late to expect the makers to do anything to fix it, it would be nice if they could.

It's also clear the writers weren't native English-speakers, so if bad grammar really hurts your immersion like it does mine, you might want to be wary. Granted, the voice acting is pretty great compared to the trashy performances you often get with independent titles of any kind, but good acting can't cover bad linguistics. It's like those silly Youtube videos where people try to sing the direct translation of a Disney song from a foreign language and it comes out as word-salad. It's just a tragedy the writers didn't put more effort into translating their material for a foreign audience before hiring the voice actors to do their part.

Penumbra: Necrologue Review. Never trust a dead body in a horror game.
In terms of the mod's graphics…well, it's Penumbra, a game made on an engine well over a decade old. it runs smoothly despite that, though there is another huge bug that the developers don't seem to have fixed yet on that front as well, near the conclusion of the game. It's not game-breaking, but it's certainly perfect for ruining immersion. Level design is more linear than in the Penumbra series, but still manages to keep things moving along at a relatively speedy pace. Overall it took me about five or six hours to finish the entire mod, though that's a rough estimate, given I took frequent breaks. It does reuse portions of Requiem's levels, which actually helps engender a sense of uncertain sanity for those of us who might've actually played it, though whether that's intentional is up in the air.

Final Verdict

Compared to most Amnesia mods, Necrologue is something special. It has production values, an actual story and a strong atmosphere that doesn't rely on jump-scares. Unfortunately it also still feels very much like an amateur production in some ways, plus the added downside of suffering from something like what I call 'foreign film syndrome', which I use to describe good work that sadly loses something in translation (sometimes literally). I would recommend it for the dedicated Penumbra fan, or for those interested more fun with Amnesia. Otherwise, you might want to steer clear. This is, at its core, a fan production. It was made by the fans, for the fans, and its design shows that to a considerable extent. I still enjoyed it, and I hope you do too, if you choose to look it up. And if you need another reason, well…it's free. And isn't that a reason in itself?

PROS
CONS
+ Solid atmosphere– A few nasty bugs.
+ Good story and voice acting.– Confusing puzzles.
+ It's free– Not hugely original in design.
7.8
Good

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