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Before the ‘Amnesia’: Looking Back on Frictional Games’ ‘Penumbra’ Series


Amnesia: The Darkish Descent is fondly remembered because the terrifying title that modified the indie sport trade, re-popularizing Survival Horror and influencing interactive media even a decade later. Whereas there’s no denying the professional craftsmanship behind Frictional Video games’ magnum opus, now that there’s a correct sequel on the horizon, I feel that it is perhaps an excellent time to look again on the bold video games that helped to create the Frictional method. The Penumbra sequence may not be as fondly remembered as Amnesia, however there’s no denying that it helped to put the groundwork for contemporary horror gaming and is certainly nonetheless value 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 ultimately launched as a full sport in 2007, presenting gamers with a extremely interactive atmosphere and unsettling narrative. The sport put gamers within the sneakers of Phillip, a physicist who receives a letter from his supposedly deceased father and decides to trace him down in northern Greenland. Looking for shelter from the chilly, Phillip turns into trapped in an deserted mine/analysis facility and should now examine this sinister location with a purpose to escape and discover out the reality behind his father’s message.

Very like Amnesia, gamers discover the world of Overture in first-person, fixing intelligent puzzles (that often make use of the spectacular physics system), preventing off lethal creatures and ultimately uncovering the ability’s eerie backstory. Whereas there’s greater than a bit of affect from John Carpenter’s The Factor on this preliminary launch, the plot is definitely fairly attention-grabbing, unfolding by way of diary scraps and environmental storytelling. I gained’t spoil something right here, but it surely’s clear that eldritch horrors await as you descend additional into the abyss, encountering much more monsters and madmen.

Whereas Overture wasn’t precisely a blockbuster hit, with many critics complaining in regards to the primitive fight system and convoluted narrative, it was standard sufficient to justify persevering with the story with sequels and expansions, albeit with slight modifications. It was clear that the Frictional Video games’ strengths lay in stealth and puzzle-solving, so subsequent titles would polish and alter the gameplay expertise into one thing extra akin to what we now know as Amnesia.


In 2008, Frictional would launch Penumbra: Black Plague, which was an enormous step up from its predecessor. The fight system was utterly eliminated and ranges now solely targeted on enhanced stealth mechanics and puzzle-solving. The story was additionally lots tighter this time round, selecting up the place the earlier title left off as Phillip chronicles his tragic misadventures by way of an e-mail despatched to a pal. As gamers proceed to traverse the ability, they uncover an enormous conspiracy concerning an otherworldly virus and Inuit mythology, resulting in a horrific but satisfying conclusion.

Penumbra was initially envisioned as a trilogy, however the builders have been pressured to drag again on their plans because of budgetary and time constraints. This resulted within the second sport trying much more than its predecessor within the story division because it tried to wrap issues up, which is each an excellent and a foul factor. Juggling pseudo-zombie outbreaks, homicidal hallucinations, and non secular quests, the storyline isn’t all the time simple to comply with however a minimum of it’s by no means boring, even with the simplified gameplay.

Personally, I’d have most popular it if the studio had merely improved on the unique sport’s fight as an alternative of outright eradicating it (I all the time thought that the janky-ness added to the scare-factor, very similar to Resident Evil‘s awkward tank controls), however I’ve to confess that its exclusion made for a far smoother expertise. Black Plague nonetheless has its issues, with some annoying enemies and the occasional physics hiccup, but it surely’s nonetheless a horror gaming landmark, and lots simpler to return to than the primary sport.

Regardless of a somewhat definitive ending, Black Plague would truly be adopted up by Penumbra: Requiem, an growth that serves extra as an odd coda as an alternative of a correct conclusion. Eradicating enemies from the sport totally, Requiem is extra of a horror-themed puzzle title, taking part in round with meta-storytelling and revisiting components from the sequence’ previous. Whereas it’s nonetheless a compelling expertise, it’s simply the least attention-grabbing a part of the franchise, and I’m glad that Frictional Video games would transfer on to new initiatives afterward.

I suppose whacking that factor with a pickaxe is now not an possibility.

I could also be an enormous fan of the Penumbra video games, however they’re not at all flawless titles. Pulling again the rose-tinted glasses, there’s an assortment of annoying points to be discovered plaguing this bold assortment of physics-based interactions and Lovecraftian lore. Positive, many of those options have been breathtaking again within the day, however quite a lot of it feels mundane in 2020, particularly after so many video games have straight imitated and even improved on the first-person horror method.

Nonetheless, it was by way of these experiments that Frictional Video games pioneered many (if not most) modern survival-horror tropes and conventions. So even in case you’re not a fan of the sequence, we are able to all a minimum of be glad about the concepts that it helped to encourage. Even past the Amnesia sequence, you’ll be able to nonetheless see the affect that these video games had on AAA titles like Alien Isolation and the latest Resident Evil sequels (judging from the trailers, Village truly appears lots like a big-budget Frictional manufacturing).

With that in thoughts, it’s not stunning that Penumbra nonetheless boasts a large following in spite of everything these years, with some followers going as far as to create a model new sport by way of an Amnesia total-conversion mod again in 2014. Titled Penumbra: Necrologue, the sport is a love-letter and reversion to Frictional’s humble beginnings, ultimately changing into standard sufficient to warrant an add-on referred to as Twilight of the Archaic. These might not be official additions to the Penumbra canon, however they nonetheless function a testomony to the sequence’ enduring qualities.

So in case you’re up for some quirky puzzles and historical horrors this Halloween season (or in case you simply need to marvel at how a lot interactive horror has advanced through the years), I’d completely suggest giving the Penumbra video games a shot. They could be tough across the edges, however I assure that you simply’ll quickly be dreading the sound of mutated canine and contaminated scientists as they invade your crate-stacking nightmares.

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