Paradox Interactive – Penumbra: Black Plague review

spooky and innovative adventure sequel
Photo of Paradox Interactive – Penumbra: Black Plague

It was only a year ago that a relatively unobtrusive Swedish company (Frictional Games) came out with a low-key adventure game called Penumbra: Overture that caused a ripple of game fan excitement. Capitalising on the highly favourable response to an enterprise that was primarily designed to show off their physics engine, the Swedish boys are back with a sequel that concludes their creepy drama.

In the first instalment you played a young man called Philip who travelled to Greenland to try to find his lost father, who had disappeared in mysterious circumstances. You end up in a spooky underground labyrinth known as the Shelter, where puzzles have to be solved and hostile creatures dealt with. In Black Plague you begin in a cell in the Shelter that you have to figure out how to escape from, and from then on it’s all about solving more puzzles and avoiding more creatures.

In many respects you’ll be reading this and thinking ‘Oh, it’s just like all those survival horrors like Silent Hill, Quake, Half-Life, F.E.A.R. and their imitators’ and superficially you’ll recognize much to support this. There are scores of dimly lit corridors (you’re even advised to turn the lights down and the volume up when you start the game) with hidden booby-traps. Eerie atmospheric sound effects enhance the tense mood and periodically you’ll run for your life before the evil ones can catch you.

But this is where the conventional path is left behind. For this is like a first-person shooter but without any weapons: objects can be picked up and thrown or used to bar doors, yet not a bullet will be fired. As with most adventure games, it uses a point ‘n’ click system but instead of simply clicking on an object and watching it perform a function, you have to move the mouse in the direction you want the action to take place. So levers have to be dragged down, drawers pulled out, boxes lifted and stacked and computer disks pushed into their relevant slots.

Although the graphics betray the low-budget origins of the series (the infected creatures in particular are more laughable than terrifying), the developers have to be congratulated for still making a scary tale, mostly though anticipation and stealth rather than through filling the screen with hordes of undead.

The novel interaction of the puzzles – which often have more than one answer – also makes you feel much more involved in the narrative, which has one other ‘unreal’ trick up its sleeve. Furthermore, the puzzles themselves have much more logical solutions than the usual obscure combination of unrelated items that characterise other adventure games.

Company: Paradox Interactive

It may not be the longest game you've played (the average duration is about six hours) yet this superior sequel packs more innovation, intrigue and imagination into its short-lived spookiness than most of its ‘big brother' rivals.