Amnesia: The Dark Descent is fondly remembered as the terrifying title that changed the indie game industry, re-popularizing Survival Horror and influencing interactive media even a decade later. While theres no denying the expert craftsmanship behind Frictional Games magnum opus, now that theres a proper sequel on the horizon, I think that it might be a good time to look back on the ambitious games that helped to create the Frictional formula. The Penumbra series might not be as fondly remembered as Amnesia, but theres no denying that it helped to lay the groundwork for modern horror gaming and is definitely still worth revisiting.
Initially meant to be an elaborate tech demo showcasing the then-innovative HPL Engine 1 (named after H.P. Lovecraft), Penumbra: Overture was expanded on and eventually released as a full game in 2007, presenting players with a highly interactive environment and unsettling narrative. The game put players in the shoes of Phillip, a physicist who receives a letter from his supposedly deceased father and decides to track him down in northern Greenland. Seeking shelter from the cold, Phillip becomes trapped in an abandoned mine/research facility and must now investigate this sinister location in order to escape and find out the truth behind his fathers message.
Much like Amnesia, players explore the world of Overture in first-person, solving clever puzzles (that usually make use of the impressive physics system), fighting off deadly creatures and eventually uncovering the facilitys eerie backstory. While theres more than a little influence from John Carpenters The Thing in this initial release, the plot is actually quite interesting, unfolding through diary scraps and environmental storytelling. I wont spoil anything here, but its clear that eldritch horrors await as you descend further into the abyss, encountering even more monsters and madmen.
While Overture wasnt exactly a blockbuster hit, with many critics complaining about the primitive combat system and convoluted narrative, it was popular enough to justify continuing the story with sequels and expansions, albeit with slight modifications. It was clear that the Frictional Games strengths lay in stealth and puzzle-solving, so subsequent titles would polish and alter the gameplay experience into something more akin to what we now know as Amnesia.
In 2008, Frictional would release Penumbra: Black Plague, which was a huge step up from its predecessor. The combat system was completely removed and levels now exclusively focused on enhanced stealth mechanics and puzzle-solving. The story was also a lot tighter this time around, picking up where the previous title left off as Phillip chronicles his tragic misadventures through an e-mail sent to a friend. As players continue to traverse the facility, they discover a vast conspiracy regarding an otherworldly virus and Inuit mythology, leading to a horrific yet satisfying conclusion.
Penumbra was originally envisioned as a trilogy, but the developers were forced to pull back on their plans due to budgetary and time constraints. This resulted in the second game attempting a lot more than its predecessor in the story department as it tried to wrap things up, which is both a good and a bad thing. Juggling pseudo-zombie outbreaks, homicidal hallucinations, and spiritual quests, the storyline isnt always easy to follow but at least its never boring, even with the simplified gameplay.
Personally, I would have preferred it if the studio had simply improved on the original games combat instead of outright removing it (I always thought that the janky-ness added to the scare-factor, much like Resident Evils awkward tank controls), but I have to admit that its exclusion made for a far smoother experience. Black Plague still has its problems, with some annoying enemies and the occasional physics hiccup, but its still a horror gaming landmark, and a lot easier to go back to than the first game.
In spite of a rather definitive ending, Black Plague would actually be followed up by Penumbra: Requiem, an expansion that serves more as an odd coda instead of a proper conclusion. Removing enemies from the game entirely, Requiem is more of a horror-themed puzzle title, playing around with meta-storytelling and revisiting elements from the series past. While its still a compelling experience, its easily the least interesting part of the franchise, and Im glad that Frictional Games would move on to new projects afterward.
I guess whacking that thing with a pickaxe is no longer an option.
I may be a huge fan of the Penumbra games, but theyre by no means flawless titles. Pulling back the rose-tinted glasses, theres an assortment of annoying issues to be found plaguing this ambitious collection of physics-based interactions and Lovecraftian lore. Sure, many of these features were breathtaking back in the day, but a lot of it feels mundane in 2020, especially after so many games have directly imitated and even improved on the first-person horror formula.
Nevertheless, it was through these experiments that Frictional Games pioneered many (if not most) contemporary survival-horror tropes and conventions. So even if youre not a fan of the series, we can all at least be grateful for the ideas that it helped to inspire. Even beyond the Amnesia series, you can still see the influence that these games had on AAA titles like Alien Isolation and the recent Resident Evil sequels (judging from the trailers, Village actually looks a lot like a big-budget Frictional production).
With that in mind, its not surprising that Penumbra still boasts a sizable following after all these years, with some fans going so far as to create a brand new game through an Amnesia total-conversion mod back in 2014. Titled Penumbra: Necrologue, the game is a love-letter and throwback to Frictionals humble beginnings, eventually becoming popular enough to warrant an add-on called Twilight of the Archaic.These may not be official additions to the Penumbra canon, but they still serve as a testament to the series enduring qualities.
So if youre up for some quirky puzzles and ancient horrors this Halloween season (or if you just want to marvel at how much interactive horror has evolved over the years), Id totally recommend giving the Penumbra games a shot. They may be rough around the edges, but I guarantee that youll soon be dreading the sound of mutated dogs and infected scientists as they invade your crate-stacking nightmares.
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