Review: Penumbra Collection

Penumbra_col_2D_esrb_lowrez1.jpg As a fan of horror and adventure games, Frictional Games’ episodic Penumbra series has been one I’ve been dying to play since the first installment came out in 2007, but unfortunately I was just never able to get around to it. I suppose part of my lacking motivation was caused by adventure game burnout at the time, and another part of it was me still not fully buying into episodic gaming. But now thanks to Paradox, the gripping horror/adventure series has been compiled into one value-packed collection aiming to grab the attention of all those gamers (like me) who have eyed the series from afar but for whatever reason let it pass them by.

Having just wrapped up my time with all three installments, I’ve come away kicking myself for having skipped out on playing them for so long, and you should be doing the same to yourself if you too have yet to give them a go. The series really is that damn good!

Priced at a mere $20, the Penumbra Collection contains the complete three-episode, 10-15-hour Penumbra adventure — Overture, Black Plague and Requiem – which centers around the story of a man named Philip who receives a letter from his thought-to-be-deceased father and follows the clues within to find out what happened to him, a quest that leads him to an abandoned mine out in the middle of the frigid plains of Greenland. Actually, the main storyline is only told over the first two episodes. Requiem is actually just a Portal-esque spin-off expansion with very little tying it to the other two games narratively, which makes it the weakest link of the trio.

Purposefully vague and confusing, Philip’s horrifying adventure to find his dear ol’ dad is rife with mystery, intrigue, suspense and of course plenty of heart-pounding scares. Penumbra isn’t your typical survival horror game though. Stealth and puzzle solving take center stage over confrontation. In fact, Overture is the only episode that even provides weapons (like a hammer and crowbar), and they are really only provided as a means to break certain objects. Enemies are also few and far between to begin with, and the ones you do come across are mainly there to add a sense of urgency to getting through a puzzle and keep you on edge while exploring.

In terms of gameplay, I see Penumbra as sort of the Half-Life 2 of adventure games. It has the heart of a traditional point-and-click adventure, yet is built around a modern 3D engine enabling you to fully immerse in and interact with the environment more so than ever before in the genre. Standard switch hitting, block pushing and item combining certainly play a role here, however in Penumbra the puzzle structure is largely built around the use of realistic physics. Similar to games like Half-Life 2 and Portal – without the gravity gun of course – many of the puzzles require you to use everyday items in the environment to clear whatever obstacle may be in your way. Like stacking boxes to climb up on and use to hop over an electric fence or security laser, for instance, or sliding a board over a fallen pillar and weighting one end down to create a ramp up to a higher ledge.

Puzzle design is definitely the series’ strongest feature. Puzzles are organic to the environment and logical in every way, which is a rare accomplishment for an adventure game. I appreciated the gradual increase in puzzle complexity over the course of the series as well. Overture eases you in with more basic one-step puzzles, Black Plague picks things up from there with puzzles that challenge you to examine your surroundings more thoroughly, and then in Requiem Frictional just lets loose with nine individual puzzle rooms that are sure to test even the brightest puzzle-solving mind.

Another strength Penumbra has going for it is its rich atmosphere. While technically dated compared to other modern first-person games, Penumbra uses exceptional lighting and motion blur techniques to add depth and realism to the environments, and together the level designs and audiovisual elements come together to generate this constant feeling of dread, paranoia and isolation within the game world.

Altogether, the deeply immersive atmosphere, riveting plot, and inventive puzzles work in harmonious unison to push Penumbra above and beyond any other modern adventure game, and the series’ creators at Frictional Games deserve high praise for tackling what has been a stale genre for years now and crafting an experience that is truly memorable and refreshing.

As for the collection itself, I would love to have seen the inclusion of extra content, like maybe a bonus disc loaded with special features celebrating the series. But as it stands you simply get all three episodes in one box at a fraction of what it initially cost to compile the series individually, and that’s a bloody good deal. If you have even the slightest interest in horror, adventure or puzzle games, you have to check out the Penumbra Collection.

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Pros:
+ Inventive puzzle designs
+ Great use of physics
+ Gripping narrative
+ Immersive atmosphere

Cons:
– Some bonus content would’ve been a nice touch to round out the compilation
– Although a good game, Requiem feels a bit out of place next to the other two episodes

Game Info:
Platform: PC
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Developer: Frictional Games
Release Date: 2/17/09
Genre: Adventure/Horror
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!