Penumbra: Black Plague

Posted by Mervyn Graham.
First posted on 03 April 2008. Last updated on 10 August 2009.
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Penumbra: Black Plague
Has someone lost a head?
Penumbra: Black Plague
You must bypass the laser beams to assess the secured rooms.
Penumbra: Black Plague
You need to mix the antidote correctly to cure the plague.
Penumbra: Black Plague
Who (or what) is lying on the table?
Penumbra: Black Plague
Death is not necessarily the end.

Penumbra: Black Plague is an innovative and much improved sequel to Penumbra: Overture from Frictional Games. Originally planned as part of an episodic trilogy, Penumbra: Black Plague is a rework of the aborted second and third episodes of the Penumbra series into a single game. The original Penumbra: Overture has been praised by critics for being a forerunner in successfully integrating a fully interactive 3D physics engine into an adventure game. The game's physics engine, based on the free but closed source Newton Game Dynamics engine, allows the player to interact with objects and environments inside the game world using the mouse and keyboard, so that the player can make full 360° turns, pick up or throw objects, pull out drawers, and even open or close doors by simply mimicking with the mouse the nearly same physical movements needed to do these actions in real life.

The plot of Penumbra: Black Plague began thousands of years ago when an alien life form landed on Earth. After remaining hidden for centuries, the Tuurngait (an alien virus in disguise) was dug up from a tomb and led to a small scale epidemic. The Archaic, an elite secret faculty formed in 1519, tried to study and control the alien virus at that time for its own dastardly purpose. Their excuse was to pursue and defend the ancient knowledge. Then, in the 1970s, the Archaic trekked to the wastelands of Greenland and built the Shelter Research Station in the abandoned North-Western Iron Mine.

Prior to starting a new game, a start menu greets you and offers a tutorial. I strongly recommend anyone who plays this game to first use the tutorial facility. As the physics engine is quite revolutionary, you will need to first learn how to properly pick up and throw objects, open and close objects, strafe, and other important maneuvers. There is a strange familiarity between the tutorial scenes here and the virtual reality scenes from The Matrix films. Once you have mastered the controls, you can go into Options and set the navigational keys to suit your own style of play. I find that they are better than the default key settings provided. I also find that increasing the mouse sensitivity a little (under Options/Graphics) will make manipulating objects much easier and quicker. As the game is predominantly played out in dark surroundings, increasing the gamma setting will help you see much better. I also advise playing the game in a darkened room with no or little ambient lighting; this maximizes the viewing contrast so you will be able to see the scenes clearer.

The game begins with the main character, Philip LaFresque, typing a note to you, the game player, telling you how his father, Howard, has sent him a letter 30 years ago which has led him into his current situation. The note warns of "Things not yet understood" and how small events can change someone's life. Philip's curiosity and his need to find his long lost father have prompted him to travel to Greenland, where the secret research facility is located. There, Philip finds the entrance to the mine and goes underground. He is soon befriended by someone hiding in the mine named Red. After showing signs of the plague, Red asks Philip to kill him. After Red's death, Philip decides to continue alone on his quest, underground, and without any weapon for protection. Philip must rely on his ingenuity, his problem solving skills, and his insatiable thirst to discover the truth about this facility, to find his missing father, and to stay alive.

The game begins in a darkened cell where Philip (who you now control from a first-person perspective) has been locked up after his capture. The room is quite dark and hard to see around. He soon picks up a glow stick, a battery powered torch, and flares. These will help him see much better around most of the deserted area underground. Philip's journey, however, is fraught with danger—laser beams, cave-ins, steam vents, explosions, flesh eating zombies, and a lot more. These physical obstacles form the basis for many of the puzzles in the game. All of these physical puzzles are quite logical. Some are very difficult to solve, whilst others are very easy. How can Philip make a flamethrower or a bomb from materials gathered around the area? These are examples of the puzzles that Philip must solve. A factor that can increase the difficulty of these puzzles is that many of such tasks are also set on a time constraint. Unless Philip can complete a task within a certain time, he will be either killed or locked out of somewhere, meaning that you must reload from a saved game to start again. For some puzzles, the better Philip's dexterity with the controls, the quicker he will have a chance to complete those tasks.

There are 22 levels you need to explore, some of which are revisited several times. You must thoroughly explore each room for notes and collectables, which will help Philip to successfully progress through the game. You must read every note carefully, as they provide insights to the information that Philip is seeking. They also provide information to security locks and the correct sequence for mixing the antidote to the plague. The rooms that he will need to visit are clearly labeled with signs attached to the walls of the corridors. Following these signs will allow you to quickly reach the rooms without getting lost in the maze of corridors that make up some parts of the underground facility. Many rooms contain computers, some of which are still functional. They too provide useful information, so you must interact with them and read everything from the computer files and act on the clues given. There are a few simple stealth plays, mostly to avoid the aliens who are patrolling around.

Later on, Philip also becomes infected with the plague and must seek the antidote in order to survive. He begins to experience symptoms from the plague, including feeling of déjà vu, sensitivity to light, disorientation, paranoia, and even a rash on the neck. With the sound effects tweaked properly, you can hear Philip’s labored breathing as he travels through the passages and rooms. When paranoia sets in, Philip can hear chilling voices as they reverberate through his head, further creating a sense of despair and insanity. The sound effects are very realistic, making the game quite scary in parts to play through.

The graphics in this game are impressive. Special effects such as motion blur, shadowing, and perspective warping are quite well done. The game supports a resolution from 640 x 480 up to 1920 x 1080. The graphics can be tweaked further, and the engine supports advanced graphics features including anti-aliasing, anisotrophy, refractions, and depth of field.

The only negative I can report is a glitch that can completely crash the game. This glitch occurs on 2 separate levels (level 2 and level 19) when entering a ventilation shaft. If you jump up incorrectly to enter the shaft, the game will lock up, resulting in a black screen. The only recourse is to exit out and restart the game from the last save. A patch to fix this glitch has been released by the developer.

All in all, I find Penumbra: Black Plaque to be a very challenging game with its many logic puzzles to solve. Sporting an innovative physics engine, the game aspires to new heights in setting the next level of interactivity with the game world for an adventure game. The game emphasizes more on psychological horror than physical gore. The graphics are impressive and the sound effects are excellent. There is a good story and the game ends in a definitive and satisfying conclusion. Alas, maybe if the game is a little longer, it may please some diehard adventure game fans a little more—but that is only being pedantic. As a budget title, however, the game is a sure winner and gives sensational bang for your buck.

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