[Horror game review] Penumbra Requiem: No scares, all puzzles. A misstep, or refreshing change?

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To be upfront, this is not a widely appreciated game. Most frictional fans regard it as a disappointment. But I hope to convince you here that this is entirely because of miscalibrated expectations. Frictional only releases games once every few years, and their dedicated fans foam at the mouth in anticipation. Imagine their dismay when the last Penumbra game was basically just a first person puzzler, akin to Portal.

“What the fuck is this?” was the most common reaction. It’s like if Nintendo’s next 3D Mario was a trivia game or something. However good it is on its own merits, it would still be a letdown because of what fans expect from that series. Likewise with Penumbra Requiem, which is in fact a splendidly atmospheric puzzler that had the misfortune of being burdened with the Penumbra name.

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That’s a crying shame, because it features some of the best game design, level design, puzzle design, you name it, that I’ve ever seen. It’s not evident in the first area, but only because it’s a tutorial meant to familiarize you with the sort of things you’ll be doing for the rest of the game, so the puzzles are easy Zelda style fare like pushing crates around.

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It ramps up rapidly in sophistication though. Later puzzles will have you tearing out your hair trying to solve them, only to smack your forehead at how obvious the solution is once you put two and two together. To me, that’s a sign of brilliant design, and efficacious puzzle design is no simple task.

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In many cases it’s because the solution is something you didn’t even know you could do. Like picking up an object and tossing it into moving gears. The game never tells you that’s an option, but figuring it out on your own is part of the puzzle. Many of the solutions are things you’d intuit in real life, but which you wouldn’t assume are possible in a game due to common gameplay limitations in other titles you’ve played before.

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Besides the cleverness of the puzzles, the other star of the show here is the level design. They’re not all equally brilliant, but a few locations in particular are so thematically compelling and atmospheric that I still dream about exploring them from time to time. One level in particular is a sort of huge rusty engine you can crawl into the inner workings of, coated everywhere in rust like something out of Silent Hill.

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These puzzles, where you’re fixing simple machinery, are some of the best in my opinion. They leverage common knowledge of the basic principles on which gears, levers, wheels, drive belts and so on work, such that anybody with a modicum of engineering knowhow can intuit the solution just by studying what’s missing from the machine you’re supposed to fix. Like any good puzzle, it makes you feel smart upon realizing the solution.

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The goal in each level is to collect two, sometimes three orbs. There’s no backstory which explains why orbs, they’re just the macguffin you need to seek out in order to activate the exit portal. A female announcer will issue increasingly abstract, confusing instructions concerning these orbs and portals over the intercom, which (along with the level design) reflects the player’s descent into madness as the game proceeds.

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Now once again, emphatically, this is not a horror game. Yet the surreal, abstract nature of later levels in particular make it creepy in its own right. What is this structure I am exploring? What was this machinery originally for? Am I having a nightmare? Is this Hell? Dr. Eminiss returns as your radio companion, supplying additional lore that does something to placate those who were hoping for a “real” third Penumbra game.

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Pearls before swine, if you ask me. But then I read up on the game before buying it. I didn’t expect a full, conventional Penumbra sequel. It’s a side story. Something for fans whose favorite parts of the first two games were the puzzles, and who still crave more Penumbra atmosphere.

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That atmosphere is something special. Isolated. Lonely, abstract, bleak and brutal. Endless miles of concrete, of rusty steel. Even after Black Plague, I desperately wanted more of it. Requiem scratched that itch so well that I’m not in the least bit bothered that it was such a departure from the first two Penumbras in terms of content and gameplay.

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What does bother me is the possibility that the overwhelmingly negative fan reactions to both Penumbra: Requiem and Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs will have a chilling effect, convincing Frictional never to color outside the lines again. The two times they deviated, trying something a little different, they were met with indignant howls of rage from fans who just wanted more of the same.

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I for one appreciate what they were going for here, and greatly enjoyed it. I remain convinced anybody else will enjoy it as much as I have provided they go in front-loaded with a correct understanding of what the game’s about and how it differs from the first two. That said, it’s not everybody’s cup of tea. I give it a 7 out of 10.

All images courtesy of Frictional Games

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