[Horror game review] Penumbra Black Plague: Stalked Through an Abandoned Lab by Fetus Monsters

Yesterday I reviewed Penumbra Overture, making a concerted effort in the process not to spoil Black Plague. It’s impossible not to reference one while reviewing the other as the two are so intimately connected. Most of the time, sequels involve significant upgrades. This one is more like the second half of Overture, chopped off and sold separately.

It reuses most of the assets, but does feature a new enemy you’ll be seeing a lot of. I don’t mind “spoiling” it for you because it’s absolutely everywhere in the game and knowing what it looks like does nothing to diminish being chased around by packs of 3–5 of them while you frantically search for a hiding place.

There are some new mechanics however. You can no longer pick up/use tools as weapons, rendering you mostly defenseless. There’s also a voice in your head later in the game which identifies itself as Clarence. This element went over well with most players, but I didn’t like it. It ruined the feeling of isolation which made the first so compelling for me.

Gone, too, is your friendly radio buddy Red. Replaced by the increasingly demented Dr. Eminiss, who relates most of the expanded plot to you by radio. He seems to be suffering the same ever-worsening madness you are, as Clarence becomes more influential and powerful. This manifests as hallucinations that grow more severe and confusing as the game progresses.

There’s also a character named Dr. Amabel Swanson you are in touch with for a portion of the game. It’s a diversification of personalities that to me seems like the logical direction to go after talking to the same person over the radio for the entire first Penumbra game. She also strikes me as sort of a prototype for Catherine Chun in SOMA.

The puzzles are, if anything, more devious than before. Get ready to wander around in frustration, wondering what little detail you missed before caving in and consulting a walkthrough. That’s either a strength or a weakness depending on how challenging and cerebral you like your games.

But does it hold up as a horror game? Does it ever. It is widely regarded as the scariest game Frictional ever made. The simple formula of catching the player offguard with one or more fetus monsters in the same tight little cluster of corridors, not telling you where to go or what to do in order to escape them works wonders to loosen your bowels.

There are definite shades of Half Life here. The subterranean science facility feel is present and accounted for. There’s also obvious influence from The Thing, including dog kennels with signs of fleshy mutation and gore within. What I didn’t expect was that the game would make me emotional.

I can’t really say why without spoiling major plot points. Sufficed to say, I went in expecting scares, but got feels as well. This, too, seems like a hint of things which became larger areas of focus in subsequent games. Not in Amnesia, but definitely in SOMA.

The other element which foreshadows design choices in SOMA is the increased use of computer interfaces. You’ll read emails for clues and key codes. You’ll switch the position of a satellite dish. You’ll use computers to contact Dr. Swanson, just as Simon does with Catherine in SOMA. It’s predictably a bit crude by comparison, mostly still images, but as a Frictional fan it’s interesting to go back and see less developed versions of gameplay mechanics that were expanded on in later titles.

If you missed the Halloween sale, during which you could pick up both Penumbra: Overture and Black Plague for $2, I’m afraid you’ll have to drop a tenner for the bundle now. There’s also Requiem which I will dedicate a review to very soon, but as I said in the Overture review it’s more of a puzzle focused side-story than a proper sequel.

Black Plague is widely regarded as the better of the two “proper” Penumbra games (excluding Requiem) and it’s easy to see why. On top of that, it is in my opinion the best game Frictional has ever made, with the possible exception of SOMA. I don’t hand these out carelessly, but I feel helpless to give Penumbra: Black Plague anything less than a 9/10.

All images courtesy of Frictional Games

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