Penumbra: Black Plague ReviewJoe Shaffer
Episodic development provides developers with an excellent opportunity to receive feedback from players, allowing them to improve their games in further installments. Sadly, some developers either fail to take advantage of such opportunities or surrender if the first episode is a financial or critical flub. Then you have the developers at Frictional, who learned so finely from the missteps they made with Penumbra: Overture that they produced a fantastic followup in the form of Penumbra: Black Plague. Unlike its predecessor, Black Plague is a taut creeper with plenty of variety, great puzzles, and all around mechanical improvements.
Honestly I was skeptical that Black Plague would showcase much improvement over the previous episode, especially in terms of combat. I was worried that Frictional would attempt to fix Overture's broken combat system, which might force them to focus overmuch on battle. Penumbra is definitely not the kind of series that would benefit from a heavy emphasis on fighting, and it's likely that Frictional knew this. So instead of going balls out in terms of action, they eschewed battle all together. Only in one scene are you required to kill a foe, and it doesn't involve clumsily swinging a hammer and swearing at the game's questionable hit detection.
Survival lies in stealth and hiding rather than fighting. This may sound less engaging, but in actuality it produces some of the creepiest moments the series has to offer. You'll usually find yourself needing to interact with a stimulus or nab an item, only to discover that doing so causes quite the racket. That, in turn, arouses the suspicion of a nearby mutant, who growls in wonderment of the noise you've made. That's when heavy footsteps commence and grow louder with each step. That's when you know you have approximately ten seconds to analyze your surroundings and find something to duck behind, or else you'll end up scattered about the room in bloody pieces.
Analysis was a big part of Overture, especially in regards to the game's puzzles. More than anything, I was concerned that Black Plague might not deliver in that department. Thankfully, Frictional included some of the best and most organic puzzles in this installment. Although there are a few banal puzzles that involve pushing blocks or stacking crates, most of them involve critical thinking, combining or utilizing various items, or solving problems with the use of vague clues. As in the previous title, few of Black Plague puzzles are contrived. For instance, it makes sense that one puzzle would involve mixing chemicals to create a cure for an illness, especially considering the game takes place in a viral research facility.
I'm usually pretty good at puzzles. Heck, I was able to get through Alundra's ridiculous puzzles without a FAQ on my first playthrough. However, I found myself stumped on some of Black Plague's puzzles. One in particular required me to program a defunct computer. Although I found an instruction manual nearby, it was ambiguous about how to handle the situation. I enjoyed that, because it promoted a fair amount of thought and consideration for how the instruction manual was worded.
I'm not going to pretend that Black Plague is perfect, though. For one thing, I had a problem with the game's stealth at times. There were moments when an enemy would just creep past me while I was crouched in the shadows, at no more than a few feet away, and not see me. This wouldn't ring true all of the time, as they saw me more often than not. There were even a few occasions where creatures spotted me through walls and killed me. My only other complaint revolves around one of the game's villains, Clarence. I realize that Clarence was meant to be a comic relief (in a dark sort of way), but at times he's incredibly irritating. It's also jarring to hear his obnoxious, Joe Pesci-esque voice cracking stupid jokes while the game attempts to build tension.
Despite a few minor irritants, Penumbra: Black Plague is a great horror adventure. It's always wonderful to see a company as receptive to criticism as Frictional. They obviously considered the shortcomings of their previous outing and decided to expand upon what they did well, while abandoning factors which did not work. That's something more developers should take to heart when producing sequels.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.