Escape an ancient evil for a chance at freedom.
PC Release: August 27, 2008
By Ian Coppock
Human beings have an inescapable fascination with the number three. It dominates cultures worldwide, often revered as a symbol of luck. We feel that it is an innately “good” number; “on the count of three”, “third time’s the charm”, etc. This is prevalent in media as well, where a lot of games and movies are organized into trilogies for no rational reason, yet our sense of overarching narratives has come to fit an age-old pattern of: establishing the universe (1), the thick of the conflict (2) and resolution (3).
I said at the beginning of my last Penumbra review that the splitting of a story into episodes is effective if each installment has its own feel and conflicts while maintaining the themes of an overarching narrative. However, when said themes are thrown out the window, episodes stop being effective. Unfortunately, this is the case with Penumbra: Requiem, a game that by circumstance should have been a satisfying conclusion, but in forsaking the flow of the narrative established by the first two Penumbra games, is lost to us. Allow me to elaborate.
Before I get started, it’s important to know that Penumbra was originally meant to be split into three games, but was instead made into two due to unknown conflicts with Frictional Games’s publisher, Paradox Interactive. Requiem was released as an expansion to Black Plague, which served as Penumbra‘s surrogate ending, but it continues the story of Philip, a man who, at the beginning of Penumbra: Overture, follows a trail left by his supposedly dead father into northern Greenland. Philip braves a mine full of mutated animals in Overture, then a laboratory full of human enemies in Black Plague, all in search of his father, Howard.
Now, Philip has to escape. An ancient evil has been awakened by the scientists who operated this underground facility, and it’s up to the player to flee through the lab, through the mine, back up to the surface, to warn all of mankind before it is too late.
This premise gave me chills. An epic flight the way I came, to bring the events of Overture and Black Plague full circle? I was set to go, revving for yet another race against time through horrors too terrifying to comprehend. But, I was disappointed. Requiem is not a horror game.
Yes, you read that correctly. The final installment in one of the scariest series I’ve ever played lacks monsters. Requiem is not a horrorfest like its two predecessors; it is a long series of abstract physics puzzles. Philip is cast into a strange nether-region comprising all the environments he has braved up to this point in the narrative, but rather than elude monsters, as I’ve been doing, it’s all just puzzles. If Penumbra were strictly a puzzle series, that would be fine, but, puzzles are only half of a Penumbra game. What we have here is, well, half a Penumbra game.
Yes, Requiem was a bitter disappointment. The plot is pretty bare-bones; as Philip, you’re simply to solve each sequence of puzzles in order to escape this strange other-world and get back to the surface. As a silent character, Philip has no character development, but luckily for the sake of my liking this game, a few characters return to help guide Philip home, including Red, the insane miner from Penumbra: Overture.
Just as before, Red combines witticisms about humanity with the depravity that comes from spending thirty years trapped underground. Having witnessed the resolution of his character arc in Overture, I was curious to see what new yarns and riddles this old fart was to throw my way. Once again, Red assists you via radio, but it’s not clear whether he’s actually in the puzzles with you or if this is all a figment of Philip’s imagination. I threw my hands up when the female announcer from Black Plague began addressing me, the player, directly, and began to get the notion that Requiem had stopped giving a damn.
It wasn’t long before Requiem started to make me feel ripped off. I navigated the first few puzzle chambers with the greatest of trepidation, ready for giant spiders and dudes with no eyes to shamble around the corner, but nothing ever happened. The gameplay is heavily focused on keeping you alive, which I found ironic considering the lack of danger.
Philip has access to ample supplies and is essentially invincible. His flashlight never runs out of batteries, but most of the puzzles are brightly lit anyway, throwing another conundrum into this very, um… interesting game. The puzzles deal almost exclusively with physics; weighing buttons down, using momentum, timing your actions perfectly, etc.
Though the lack of horror was a crushing disappointment, at least the puzzles are fun. They lack the headaches I suffered from the more random brain teasers in Black Plague, and are very in-depth compared to the conundrums of the first two games. As Philip, you’ll often be expected to solve numerous smaller puzzles producing a greater whole of a solution.The first few puzzles are pretty simplistic; find item, rub it on other item to produce success, walk out the door. Later puzzles use more unorthodox elements, like rolling giant spheres down obsidian marble tracks, or braving the elements to find a radar dish. Each puzzle felt one-of-a-kind, at least.
Each puzzle has a single, unifying element, though. They all end with a powered down alien portal, and you have to find enough keys to open it. This is where the solving of smaller puzzles really comes into play. Successfully navigate a series of challenges to get the keys, and you’ll be able to advance to the next area. The puzzles in Requiem are competently constructed, but this didn’t take away from my disappointment at the near-complete change of pace from Overture and Black Plague.
It is astounding that Requiem preserves the atmosphere of the first two games despite the absence of scary creatures. The environments are still unsettling, marked with signs of conflict, and mix and match various elements of the first two games’ level design to produce a fresh-feeling environment. The level design is spot-on, but I found myself looking at all the talent that had gone into making this game and saying to myself, “oh yeah, a scare would’ve gone here, a chase there… (longing sigh)”.
The other major problem I had with Requiem is that the plot of the first two games is largely thrown out the window. Sure, Philip has to go back the way he came, but the climaxes of Black Plague aren’t even mentioned. You’re reduced to a little ant simply fighting for your life, instead of the grand premise I wrote up top, borrowed from what this game could have delivered. This reduced the grander implications of everything I’d been fighting against in Overture and Black Plague little more than a memory, which ended up not working for Requiem because I noticed, and missed, their absence. It wasn’t until after the game had been released that Frictional qualified the game by saying that the main purpose of Requiem was to show off the studio’s snazzy new physics engine. Well… good job, I guess.
Needless to say, I was not happy when I finished Penumbra: Requiem. I briefly contemplated channeling my inner psychosis to somehow magically fill the game with monsters, or the people at Frictional with an awkward skin disease, but people say that it’s important to keep in mind that Requiem was launched only as an expansion. I’ve heard that defense a few times on the forums and while I agree with the theory of sparing an expansion pack some slack, it’s still a sequel.
I had this same problem with that Alan Wake’s American Nightmare game I reviewed a few months ago. Remedy quietly released the game and used the “oh, it’s just a standalone expansion!” excuse when people saw it for the half-assed sequel that it was. And it was a sequel. You can use “standalone expansion” all you want, but if a piece of media contains events that transpire after another piece of media, it’s a continuation, and therefore a sequel, no matter what you label it.
Requiem is bundled together with your copy of Black Plague, so if you’re a good boy or girl and followed through on that sterling recommendation I gave Black Plague, then you already have it. Like I said, to be fair, the puzzles are fun and the atmosphere remains creepy, but the bare-bones story and lack of monsters will be a huge blow to the series for any horror fan. Play Requiem if you’re bored one afternoon and want to train your brain on some eerie physics puzzles, but don’t expect much else from this game.
You can buy Penumbra: Black Plague here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at email@example.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.