Review: Penumbra

Table of Contents

Quick Info

Gore & Brutality Magic Sex Civility Religious Objections
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Additional Notes

Summary of major issues
While there's noticeably less blood and gore than you'd expect from a horror title, the player will still encounter bloody trails and some graphic material. Additionally, the player is capable of using various tools and objects as makeshift weapons that can kill the various creatures in the mine.

Finally, there are some scenes that hint at demonic involvement, but this is a red herring; Penumbra is based in science fiction, not the supernatural.

Screenshots

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Care for a swim?

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A stroll down memory lane

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When your team archeologists unearth stuff like this, start running

General Information

Genre:First Person Puzzler / Horror ESRB Rating:M - Mature (18+)
License:Commercial My Rating:Teenagers (13+)
Played on:Martha, Thaddeus
Available from: Humble Store, Steam
Save System:Your progress is saved periodically, but you can also manually save by interacting with strange artifacts found in most areas of the mine.

Press ESC to pause, as viewing notes and your inventory does NOT pause the action.

Game Overview

Today, the majority of gamers will recognize Frictional Games for their extremely popular games, Amnesia: the Dark Descent and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, but before the developers had even begun to dream of Castle Brennenburg and horrors found within, they created a series of games under the name Penumbra. Comparisons between the two franchises are inevitable, as they are both horror stories where the protagonist has to solve various puzzles in order to progress. The two big differences between these series is how they handle monster encounters and their horror elements.

Unlike the later games, Penumbra not only allows, but sometimes even requires, the player to fight the monsters using some of the tools he's collected. Of course, there are some creatures lurking about that you can only run away from, and their appearances are some of the most nerve-wracking moments in the series. Being able to defend yourself actually makes the various monsters more frightening -- just because you can fend something off doesn't mean you'll be able to do so. You're playing as a regular, average person instead of some action hero, and the controls do a good job of reflecting your character's lack of combat skill. As a result, the encounters feel more realistic than Amnesia's rather one-sided system.

As for the horror elements, Penumbra generally takes the more cinematic approach. Quite a few things that happen are based around scripted events. A common example is that you often get a glimpse of what you'll be facing before you actually have to worry about it. Another example is that some of the things you'll need to carry around can instantly kill you if you make just one slight mistake. And then there's the environment itself, which features things like extreme cold, pipes spewing boiling hot steam, and rooms full of poisonous gas. Put simply, everything is trying to kill you, and they frequently do quite a good job of it! Save often.

The story itself spans three games (or rather, two games and an expansion pack), and focuses on a terrible discovery deep in an abandoned Greenland mine. Most of the surviving staff was evacuated, but those that couldn't escape were trapped down below with little food and the various monsters that inhabit the underground world. The first game, Penumbra: Overture, introduces us to the mine itself, but doesn't introduce us to the real antagonist. At this point in the story, it's just about surviving the harsh conditions and familiarizing ourselves with the events that led up to this entire mess.

The second title, Penumbra: Black Plague, begins moments after the end of Overture. Here the player discovers what the mine's real secret is. While mining deep underground, the workers had activated an ancient virus transforms its victims into something new. These zombies, for lack of a better word, are connected via a vast hive mind, and are very intelligent because of it. Naturally, the player has to stop these creatures, but there's another little problem. By now, you have become infected too, but something didn't go quite right, and instead of gaining a connection to the hive mind, you've gained a "passenger". This entity decides to call itself "Clarence", and he's determined to either kill you or claim your body for himself. Thus, you must find a cure before Clarence can succeed at either goal.

Penumbra: Requiem is the last part of the trilogy, and it is best described as a playable epilogue. However, it doesn't completely resolve the leftover plot threads, and ends with what can only be described as a weapons-grade mindscrew. This is also the weakest of the three games when it comes to gameplay, as a lot of the sections felt overly gimmicky compared to what had come before.

Ultimately, I would recommend Penumbra over Amnesia, but that may just be personal taste. Not everyone likes to immerse themselves in the world and its lore, which is something you need to do in order for some of the scares to work. For example, Requiem's ending does make sense in the right context, but realizing what has happened requires you to put the pieces together on your own -- something TV Tropes calls "Fridge Horror".

Pros

Disorienting and distressing atmosphere
Most scary games out there use jump scares or large amounts of gore to upset and disturb the player. Penumbra doesn't really use either method, preferring to give you reasons to feel uncomfortable. The creatures in the mine want to eat you, the environment is inhospitable, and even some of the items you carry can kill you suddenly. This omnipresent threat and mazelike level design makes it hard to feel completely at ease while you're exploring.


Immersive gameplay
Penumbra takes full advantage of the fact that it's presented from a first person viewpoint. The "camera" reacts to everything from monster attacks to blizzard conditions, making everything feel a bit more real. The combat mechanics, while rather clunky, are also designed in a way that has you physically mimic the motions the character is using. For example, if you're attempting to pound some wooden boards, you'll need to move the mouse like a swinging hammer.


Fight or flight
When presented with a dangerous situation, a person's instincts will direct them to either flee the area or prepare to fight whatever is coming their way. This holds true in this series, as you'll sometimes need to fight off the monsters and sometimes you'll need to barricade yourself somewhere in the dark for your own safety. Either way, once the musical score changes to the monster's theme, you'll have to think quickly or prepare to die. Again.


Cons

Clarence is a mixed bag
On one hand, he's a malevolent entity that's trying to kill you from the inside. He can make you see things that aren't real, and sometimes he'll take control of your muscles, steering you headlong into danger. On the other hand, his constant commentary on your adventure is actually kind of funny and can kill the oppressive mood.


Some encounters are quite hard to overcome
More specifically, the combat mechanics are pretty awkward. To use your hammer or pickaxe, you need to hold the mouse button down and then move the mouse quickly. If you move the mouse down and then up, you'll pull the tool back and perform a "stabbing" motion with it. Alternatively, moving the mouse up/left and then down/right swings the tool in a chopping motion, which does a lot of damage when it connects. The trick is getting the timing to work, as most monsters aren't in chopping range for very long.

At one point you're expected to quickly knock down some wooden beams to prevent a monster from following you, and to be honest, that's a lot more difficult than it sounds. Expect to die a few times during that sequence. You'll know what I'm talking about when you reach it.


Concerns and Issues

Some blood, and gore
For the most part, Penumbra manages to be a horror game without the usual blood, guts, and gore. Although there's grime and dirt on just about everything, blood and gore really only appears when the story calls for it. For example, in Overture, there's a lone bloody, bone-filled cavern that has apparently been used as a "parlor" by the mine's spider population.


Bodies and body horror
A lot of people used to work in this mine. Those that didn't become part of the hive mind ended up dying in other ways. For those players that are especially fond of dogs, this can be upsetting as it does eventually prove true for them as well. That said, by the time you run across what's left of the kennels, you may just be relieved that you're not going to be attacked by frenzied dogs again.

From time to time, you'll need to interact with the bodies of the people that didn't make it. This might just mean gathering items from the body, but it can extend to carrying body parts, such as when you need to circumvent some biometric scanners. Amusingly, Clarence calls the player out for being this gross.

Additionally, Black Plague features some body horror elements, as the humans that have been taken over by the virus have turned pale, lost their hair, and grown some sort of external intestine that links their groin to their buttocks.


Moderate violence
For the most part, the violent content is usually limited to your flailing attempts at keeping the monsters at bay. The major exception to this comes where you're forced to kill another survivor. This is the first time you're forced to take a human life, and it scars the player's character, causing him to be tortured by his guilty conscience throughout the rest of the story. At one point Clarence attempts to "help" by removing some relevant memories from your mind, but the guilt complex remains.


What you fear can make things worse
A person can only be so scared by things like zombies or other imaginary monsters. But, several of the situations you'll encounter in this series are also things that terrify people in real life. Giant, man-eating spiders are one example. Hungry, rabid dogs are another. Being able to fight back makes these situations feel more realistic, so people who have these common phobias might find things to be too scary for them.


Horrific survival accounts
When trapped someplace, people sometimes choose survival over everything else, even if this means making a meal out of things most of us wouldn't dream of eating. One example is the guy that survived by eating some of those spiders I mentioned above, but there's a few vaguely cryptic references to a survivor resorting to cannibalism during the story. If you're not paying much attention, you'll miss both of his references to having served man.


"Demonic" references
There are a few points in these games where it appears that you're getting involved with something demonic or satanic (see the second screenshot above). The bulk of these events comes during a nightmare your character experiences, so they aren't even really happening in the game's story. Ultimately, while it looks like things are about to literally go to Hell for a moment, once that moment passes they'll never be mentioned or acknowledged again.


Suicide
It says a lot about the research being done in this remote location when there are helpful reminders to keep your cyanide pills handy. Whether or not that was intended as a joke, some of the characters do kill themselves during the story.


Swearing
There's a lot to read, and quite a bit of one-sided dialogue for a game where you're mostly alone. On rare occasions, this will include some harsh language. In particular, if you attempt to use an item on the wrong thing or in the wrong way, your character will question his own actions. Usually, this amounts to little more than a line about how whatever you just did isn't going to work, but every so often he'll preface his statement by using "Christ" as an expletive. As in, "Christ, what was I thinking?"