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The Penumbra Collection

Score: 90%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Developer: Frictional Games
Media: Download/1
Players: 1
Genre: Survival Horror/ Action/ Adventure

Graphics & Sound:

While the visuals of Frictional Games' Penumbra Collection do feel a bit dated, the graphics still represent quite well and will keep your attention as you play through these outstanding titles. Texturing is probably a bit too basic, but the dramatic lighting and shadows more than make up for this. In fact, the dynamic lighting that is present throughout the collection works well in each environment, and every object that you pick up, every door that you open, and every crate that you push will affect the lighting, which can potentially allow you to create shadows to hide in. You may want to remember this when we jump to the Gameplay section below.

Even when the graphics of Penumbra Collection are not top of the line, for the most part, the eerie ambience that is the audio is so outstanding that it truly does pull you into the game. Since this game is meant to be played in the dark, the audio is a huge component to the gameplay in every possible sense... and it delivers. The voice acting is generally done well, but the creepy sound fx and shocking scare moments may have you finding a lump in the seat of your pants. Well done.

Just remember that since this collection is meant to be played in the dark, you can truly only experience the goodness if you PLAY IN THE DARK! In addition, don't take the screen setup too lightly at the start of each of the three included titles and adjust your monitor as suggested. If you don't, you actually lose a big part of the game as having too high of a contrast will allow you to "see in the dark," so to speak, instead of forcing you to use your flashlights, flares, and glow sticks to get around. A word of warning: The monitor calibration screen is only shown once, and it is inaccessible after the initial boot screen.


Gameplay:

Penumbra Collection is a bit unlike most of the first-person games on the market. Instead of relying on fast-twitch reflexes in a shoot-'em-up style of gameplay, this survival horror series will have you using your mind to solve a lot of puzzles. In fact, for those that like putting their brain to the test with problem-solving skills, Penumbra Collection is the game for you. Each of the three titles that lie within will sometimes cause your brain to churn, possibly even to the point of frustration. The puzzle-solving antics may even lead you to cheat by looking for a walkthrough online... really, I only did it to advance quickly for review purposes... um, yeah, that's it... no, really.

The puzzles that lie within vary in nature, but many of them involve more than your typical fetch the key scenarios. Sometimes you will have to reference (and even re-reference) the notes that you collect throughout your adventures because there may be clues within the text... some which may be more obvious than others, but sometimes the clues are hidden enough to make you do a double-take. You'll also encounter physics-based (at least pseudo-physics-based) brain twisters, because you can manipulate much of the environment by picking up and placing objects on top of each other, creating bridges with wooden planks, and much, much more.

Penumbra Collection's first title, Overture, has you thrown into the action as you scramble to find a way to get out of the freezing cold by entering a frozen solid porthole. Once you enter the mines below, the adventure begins with you trying to find your way back out to safety. Unfortunately, your bad luck will have you scrambling for your life as possessed dogs, spiders, and giant worms get in your way. The good news is that this game and the others below do not focus so much on combat (see the horrid combat controls in the Game Mechanics section below) as they do on the puzzles. As parts of the mine collapses behind you, you are forced to continue down a path guided by a man named Red, who seems hell-bent on making you live the last moments of your life in misery.

The second game in the collection, Black Plague, actually picks up where the first title leaves off. Without giving too much away, your escape in Overture doesn't exactly lead you to safety. In the same way that the first game made you rack your brain, Black Plague takes the puzzle-solving one step further. In fact, I found myself loving this game twice as much as the first. It could be that I finally had an idea about how to approach dead ends, but it was refreshing to see some original puzzles emerge instead of rehashing the same old, same old from the first game. The biggest difference between the two games is that Black Plague has you running from baddies instead of trying to fight them, which I found to be even more enjoyable.

You see, Penumbra Collection uses a neat little feature for sneaking that allows to you subtly see in the dark when you crouch and remain still, often shielding you from enemy vision. However, if you happened to stare at an approaching baddie too long, it can cause you to freak out and be spotted, so there is a balance to be learned. There are very few enemies in the games, however, so this technique is not necessarily vital to survival in 95% of the game.

Finally, Penumbra Collection also includes the Part 2 (Black Plague) Expansion, Requiem. Here, you try to delve even further into the abyss of the Tuurngait infection, the virus that has haunted you throughout the series. The borders of reality and psychologically-enhanced visions get even greater, but the enjoyment of twisting your brain doesn't leave you.


Difficulty:

Penumbra Collection's games all implement the same style of gameplay, relying heavily on the user's cerebellum to get them through the range of puzzles that are presented. Some of the puzzle-solving that this series puts before you is quite straightforward, but not all answers will likely come to you instantly. Because of this, the somewhat linear nature of the game ends up being quite entertaining as you play. Finally solving the more difficult puzzles that are presented before you is also a very self-rewarding experience.

My favorite attribute to the Penumbra Collection's puzzles is that while there is always one end result, sometimes players can solve them in different ways. The best example of this is with those solutions that require multiple steps to solve. These puzzles feel much less linear, as you can sometimes work on branching storylines (albeit small branches) in different orders. You can also work on physics-based puzzles differently by the way that you interact with environmental objects.

For example, in one instance, you maybe build yourself a stairway to jump over the electrical beams instead of walking across the planks you placed over a gap in the shelving. Another puzzle may allow you to carry a full burlap sack and block the death-inducing steam as you walk by it instead of disabling the steam pipe using the control panel. These multiple approaches, even if they aren't available for every puzzle, are huge bonuses in my book, making Penumbra Collection an incredible series to play.


Game Mechanics:

Penumbra Collection uses standard FPS controls (the [WADS] keys) with the mouse. You'll also be able to set up shortcut keys to your liking by mapping items to your number keys for quick access. There are also hotkeys for your Flashlight, Glow Stick, Notebook, and other commonly-used items. While the keyboard and mouse combination is generally set up well, it was a bit hard to get used to interacting (specifically carrying) objects. The collection allows you to quickly switch between two different modes with the (R) key. One allows you to walk normally around the environment and the other essentially somewhat "locks" your screen so that you can more easily interact with items, whether that be to open drawers, swing a rock at a jammed lever, or insert computer cards into specific slots.

This second mode is essentially the best way to combat your enemies, but it sure isn't that effective. An example is that you may need to swing a pick axe at a demonic dog who insists on making you his last meal. Standing your ground is nearly not an option because the swinging mechanics (click-and-drag to one side of the screen, then back to the other) are extremely clunky. The best way to fight these dogs, for example, is to stand on something so that they can't get you and time your swings when they jump. Even though I realize that fighting enemies isn't the point of the Penumbra Collection, being that the option is within the game, I do wish that the developers had made it work a bit better.

Overall, anyone who loves to make their brain work more than they like playing mindless shooters should definitely give Penumbra Collection a try. It may not have the best graphics on the planet, but when played the way the game was intended (in a dark room with a properly-calibrated CRT monitor -- note: typical LCD monitors may not be that great, as black is usually not actually true black), this is one excellent series of games. In fact, even when playing on a less-than-superb screen, the puzzle-solving of Penumbra Collection can still be very enjoyable, and can easily suck the player in for hours at a time. With its cheap price tag and low system requirements, I highly recommend Penumbra Collection to all who are looking to add something a bit different to the entertainment library.


-Woody, GameVortex Communications
AKA Shane Wodele

Minimum System Requirements:



Windows XP/2K; 1.5 GHz CPU; 512 MB RAM; 800MB Disk space; CD-ROM; ATI Radeon 8500 / NVidia GeForce3 Ti ( Geforce 4MX not supported); Keyboard/Mouse
 

Test System:



Dell Vostro 1700 Laptop: Intel Core 2 Duo CPU T7100; Dual 1.8 GHz Processors; 2 GB RAM; NVIDIA GeForce 8600M GT

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