Black Plague represents the second part of the creepy tale, beginning in the same deserted environment that the previous game ended in. Find out how we feel in our exclusive review!
I'm willing to bet most of you will have missed the first part of the Penumbra series. Released last year by Swedish developer Frictional Games, the first title (Overture) became somewhat of a cult hit, managing to bring a unique perspective on first-person gaming to the table, offering up something a little more than the usual run-and-gun action for the price of a budget download. Black Plague represents the second part of the creepy tale, beginning in the same deserted environment that the previous game ended in. If you've enjoyed stealth-action, adventure or horror games before, it really is worth checking out Overture before picking this up. For the price, you definitely won't be disappointed.
Black Plague then, continues the adventures of the main protagonist Phillip, exploring the mysterious Greenland environment which was the setting for the original title. Overture concerned itself with the genesis of this situation, with Phillip receiving a message from his long-lost father, and interrupting his life to begin hunting down clues to his whereabouts. Following on from a tutorial-based boat journey, the game saw the player descending into a deeply hidden bunker in the snow (think Lost and you won't be too far wide of the mark), and adventuring through some fairly suspenseful and dangerous encounters. There was always more to the bunker than met the eye however, and Black Plague promises to reveal more of the back-story behind the deserted tunnels and rabid dogs.
You'll be seeing lots of enclosed spaces throughout
Some puzzles are more obvious than others
The main drive for the series thus far has been the novel use of physics puzzles to explore the environment, combined with tension-inducing stealth action. This isn't a game in which you'll be picking up weapon after weapon to dispatch waves of foes, but it is a game in which you'll spend twenty minutes figuring out exactly how to open that door on the other side of the room, followed by another five minutes cowering in the darkness as an enemy sweeps the corridors in front of you. Black Plague ratchets up the frequency of puzzles by a considerable amount however, and that's no bad thing.
The unique selling point here is that the game attempts to convey a true sense of physicality in the environment. Opening a drawer for example, isn't simply a case of pressing a button at the right time. You have to walk over to the drawer, look at it, grab the handle, and move the mouse towards your point of view in order to pull it out. This is a concept that's fleshed out to be more than just a few tricks. Every door that you encounter will have to be opened in the same way, objects have weight and mass, enabling them to be stacked and manipulated in a realistic manner, and of course things can be thrown and swung around utilising the same system.
The area in which this shines most is undoubtedly the puzzles. These were a strong point of the first game, and they return here with increased frequency and believability. As each of the objects in the game behaves roughly as you would expect in the real world, the developers have been able to craft situations in which logical solutions are the only real way to progress. There will be hair-pullingly frustrating moments for sure, but the eventual solution is always well thought-out and utilises the environment in a consistent fashion.
The blue sheen means that you're fully enveloped by the darkness
Texturing is bland throughout
The other main pull for the original title was the atmosphere. Creeping around in the darkness, powerless to defeat the enemies crawling directly around in front of you, entrenched the player with a keen sense of danger and made for some adrenalin-fuelled action. The same sense of foreboding, and the same stealth mechanic returns here, but with a lesser frequency of enemies to deal with. That's not to say they aren't there however, and some of the latter environments throw up some unique encounters, but the overall impact is undoubtedly softened. Given that the combat was always the weakest area of Overture, that has to be a conscious design decision, and a good one to boot.
So far so good then, with the problematic elements of Overture lessened, and the good points accentuated to become the primary focus. Unfortunately the graphical engine becomes the main deterrent to the highly-developed sense of fear however, with basic animation, lighting and texturing throughout. Whilst this didn't hurt the first title so much, the Black Plague engine is certainly showing it's age in 2008, and simply doesn't cut it against nearly any modern title that you can think of. That isn't to say it's completely horrendous; texture resolution appears to have been increased a little from the first title, and some nice new lighting and focus effects have been added. Considering you'll still be spending a large portion of time in the darkness, the faults here can be somewhat overlooked, as they were with the first game, but only to a point.
The game does an excellent job of building atmosphere throughout
The plot takes some interesting twists and turns
PENUMBRA: BLACK PLAGUE VERDICT
So it’s all about the puzzles then, and the obvious point of reference here would be Half Life II, which many players still consider to be the undisputed king of physics-puzzling FPS action. Indeed in many ways still is. Whilst the integration of the physics system within the environment in Penumbra is certainly more deeply-ingrained, the puzzles themselves never quite reach the same level of ingenuity as the classic Valve title. At the end of the day however, this is a different experience to almost any other first-person title out there, and for that reason alone we can definitely recommend any PC owner to give it a try. Give the downloadable demo for Black Plague a half-hours worth of play, and if you find yourself sucked in, go back to Overture and work your way through. Just be sure to turn off the lights before you enter the bunker…
TOP GAME MOMENT
Going slowly mad whilst peering at an enemy from the darkness.