Penumbra Collection Review

Three times the horror on PC.

Review by Lewis Denby
Published 28th January 2009

Penumbra Collection

  • Developer: Frictional Games
  • Publisher: Paradox Interactive
  • Release Date: 2nd February 2009

Let's try an exercise in willpower. Resist the temptation to let your eyes wander a little over to the right. The numbers are carefully considered and accurately calculated, but they don't tell the full story. Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, because we're technically discussing three games in one package; but, more relevantly, because this sort of scientific appraisal simply doesn't work for a game like Penumbra. It's aggressively rough around the edges, a symptom of its low budget and a lack of experience on the part of the developers. It's also overflowing with fabulous ideas, and is one of the most engrossing and thoroughly interesting titles I've played in ages.

We'll have to tread carefully here. Penumbra's focal point isn't its control gimmick, despite that being its main selling point. At heart, this is a story-driven adventure game, and much of its intrigue would radically spoil the experience if detailed to any length. It's a story that won't win any awards for originality, with plenty of borrowings - in both content and delivery - from Resident Evil, System Shock 2 and a few others of note. But it's told with effortless panache, through a delectably penned (though evidently not proof-read) script that often confuses as much as it enlightens. It means it's almost easy to forgive the hackneyed opening, which sees you naively dropping everything to travel without supplies to a remote location in Greenland that your father, in a letter apparently from beyond the grave, told you vehemently to avoid. Lost and alone in the freezing climate, you take refuge in a seemingly abandoned mine. When - surprise, surprise - the shaft collapses behind you, you find yourself with no choice but to delve deeper into the darkness.

What follows throughout the main bulk of this collection (Black Death follows directly on from the abruptly ending Overture, but Requiem is an essentially unrelated add-on) is a puzzle-based survival-horror/adventure, with the narrative unfolding through collected notes, unanswered emails and occasional radio broadcasts. It's extraordinarily text-heavy, often requiring you to sift through pages upon pages of writing to fully understand the situation you've unwittingly found yourself in. If you're the type that tends to skip straight past this sort of stuff, you may find yourself more than a little dumbfounded, and far less likely to enjoy this oddball genre-mash.

Your character's descent into apparent madness is inexorable, and kind of predictable as soon as you realise, early on in first part Overture, that even looking at an enemy for too long causes you to lose control in a fit of terror. But Penumbra still manages to throw some genuine surprises into the mix, the gruesomeness of the situation compounded by the relentless darkness and unnerving atmosphere. One particularly ingenious segment towards the finale sees the level radically alter each time your back is turned, a ubiquitous voice in your head taunting you as you try to escape the dynamic maze. As your perception begins to alternate between the real and the not-so-real, you realise the horrific nature of some of your seemingly innocent actions, and panic sets in more and more. Penumbra toys with your mind fabulously.

Beneath this shroud of mystery is a set of environmental puzzles that actually lend themselves extremely well to the world around you. Making your way through an abandoned, partially destroyed facility inevitably leads to a number of roadblocks, and Penumbra's design forces you to clear the way in order to make progress. It's carried by an intriguing control mechanism, whereby you interact with the world in much the same way you would in real life. To open a door, you click on the handle, then pull the mouse back with appropriate force. Too soft, and it'll hardly budge. Too hard, and it'll fly open to the limits of its hinges, before its momentum slams it back shut. Though an unusual concept, it becomes second nature surprisingly quickly, and actually makes the traditional 'use-key to interact, left-mouse to fire' system of most games seem oddly intrusive.

It doesn't work quite as well during combat, though it's refreshing to see a new fighting system being utilised. You use your arsenal of entirely meleƩ weapons in much the same way: click and 'swing' with your mouse in order to strike an enemy. Unfortunately, the pace of these creatures, and the shock of their often surprising appearance, makes it very difficult to time your attacks to any useful degree. In Overture, this is particularly grating, as Penumbra gives you only 'fight or sneak by' as your tactical options in these early stages. Sneaking is a little cumbersome, relying on obtusely long waits behind conveniently positioned boxes, so it's rarely the most appealing choice.

Fortunately, Frictional seems to have learnt from its mistakes as development progressed, and Black Plague places its enemies in a much more puzzle-based context. You even have all your weapons taken from you at the start of Part 2, meaning engaging in traditional combat isn't really even an option. Instead, on the reasonably rare appearance of a gruesome foe, you're forced to think around the issue. The most common reaction is to turn around and sprint, in a blind panic, to the nearest safe location. A more measured response, though, would be to lure the enemy into a nearby room, slam the door shut, and barricade the exit with the debris outside. It's refreshing to see a horror game encourage such avoidance of combat, and it synchronises with the genuine sense of helpless vulnerability that Penumbra instils throughout.

Given the radical improvements Black Plague makes over its predecessor, it's somewhat perplexing that its expansion, Requiem, sadly misses the mark entirely. The story draws to a satisfyingly mysterious conclusion at the end of Part 2, so it seems strange to bother with a third instalment at all. Supposedly documenting your eventual escape from the facility, Requiem instead feels like a collection of random environmental-precision puzzles - a set of outtakes from the original Half-Life, perhaps. There's a whole lot of box-stacking, a whole lot of ledge-jumping, and a whole lot of unexplained teleports linking each of the seemingly arbitrary locations. Even the story takes a bizarre nosedive, with inexcusable contradictions and very little actual link to the main section of the Penumbra tale. Most cripplingly, it completely lacks the foreboding atmosphere the first two instalments were drenched in. It may seem unreasonable to complain about Requiem's appearance in this multi-pack, when just not playing it would be a perfectly adequate solution, but it does serve to cheapen the otherwise invigorating experience a little.

Anyone requiring the presentation of a modern AAA release should steer well clear. Mainly because, if you're the sort of person who lets dated graphics stand in the way of your enjoyment, you don't deserve to be playing a game as thoughtful and intelligent as this, but admittedly, because Penumbra doesn't exactly look wonderful. It's perfectly excusable, since this is an engine developed in-house by its upstart developers, but it does look like a four or five year old game, with poorly rendered curvature and a lack of soft shadows. But the sound design is truly phenomenal. Superbly spooky and thoroughly panic-inducing, it's among the best and most creative use of audio I've heard in ages. Shame about some of the voice acting, which sounds a little laboured at best.

While these aren't the longest of games - each took me around four hours to see to completion - fifteen pounds is a ridiculously low price for the lot, given that the oldest hasn't even reached its second birthday yet. Upon reaching Penumbra's conclusion, it's unlikely you'll want to dive straight back in, and its heavy emphasis on narrative discovery may make subsequent play-throughs less satisfying - but that's hardly a fair criticism when it approaches its art so well.

If you want some sort of score breakdown of the individual products: the first one's a six, the second one's an eight, and the final one would probably struggle to scrape a five. But, honestly, traditional marking systems don't do Penumbra any real justice at all. It's so much more than the sum of its parts, and while I appreciate this sort of thing won't be everyone's cup of tea, it's quickly become one of my favourite interactive horror fixes in recent memory.

Well done - you can look now. It's six-point-eight, it would seem. But it's probably the most intriguing and memorable six-point-eight you'll ever play in your life.

Review Score: 6.8/10

Please note, this review was scored using our old system. For more information please see our review policy.

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