Have you Played… Penumbra: Black Plague?

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

Before they struck (presumably cursed) gold with Amnesia: The Dark Descent , Frictional Games released a trilogy of shorter first-person horror games under the title Penumbra [official site]. The first of these, Overture, was a bit wonky, and the third, Requiem, completely lost the plot. But the middle entry, Black Plague, is as good as anything the Swedish horror maestros have released since.

Black Plague is where Frictional hit on the idea that stripping weapons out of a horror game makes the experience a whole lot more intense, and it couples this with a brilliantly told story about split-personalities and alien viruses. But best of all, Black Plague introduces us to Clarence.

Clarence is a part of your character’s brain that begins talking back to you in a sneering ‘New Yoik’ accent. At first you welcome his companionship, because he’s funny and you’re otherwise alone in a secluded arctic research facility with nasty things trying to relieve you of your skin. After a while though, Clarence’s personality becomes more distinct, and he learns that he can influence what you see and do.

Consequently, he starts playing practical jokes on you, moving objects around and generally messing with your perception of the world. A fantastic early sequence sees you solving an elongated sequence of puzzles to open a door, but when you finally complete the puzzle, you return to find the door has vanished. Clarence encourages you to look for the door, then chastises you when it turns out the door never moved at all. As Clarence becomes more powerful, his jokes become more sinister, culminating in a truly chilling finale.

With a script penned by Tom Jubert and some simple yet clever level design trickery, Black Plague is an early gem in Frictional’s terrifying body of work, well worth seeking it if you missed it.

28 Comments

  1. Petethegoat says:

    Overture was definitely wonky, especially the combat. But the writing was great. I’d definitely say it’s worth playing before Black Plague, which is also brilliant.

    • Kefren says:

      But … there was no combat! You hid, or you ran. It’s one of the things I appreciated about it. Along with digging down through time, becoming more and more hopeless and lonely. Such a bleak story.

      • Baf says:

        Overture definitely had combat, in the same way as the Thief games: maybe you could avoid it entirely if you were good at hiding, but it was always an option if one of the dog things noticed you and you didn’t feel like reloading a save immediately. It was pretty awkward, though, and I remember thinking it was a good thing that Black Plague dropped it.

        • Kefren says:

          Wow, didn’t know that! Completed the game three times without ever fighting (I wasn’t even sure how I could, though my character was generally too scared to fight anyway).

          • Petethegoat says:

            You definitely didn’t miss much! It basically boiled down to standing on top of a rock and smacking the dogs with a plank while they couldn’t reach you. :)

    • grrrz says:

      Still it’s better to play both.

  2. Halk says:

    I still understand neither the praise for Dark Descent, nor the hate for A Machine for Pigs.

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      basilisk says:

      That makes two of us. Played all the Penumbras and Amnesia and I still don’t have the slightest idea what everyone liked about them so much. The scary bits are very predictable, the puzzle bits are mostly bad and the stories are a complete mess. There clearly must be something I’m not getting.

      • skeletortoise says:

        Agree to disagree on the scares and puzzles (the puzzles certainly aren’t great, but I don’t remember ever being too bothered by them), but yeah the writing is a mess for both. I’d say their success is because I don’t think there was anything in the vein of super polished and (relatively) big budget first person immersive horror games prior to them.

        For my money, Amnesia is the better game as Machine felt a bit like more of the same and with far more silliness. Though I do think the difference of opinion in between the two is greater than it should be, they’re pretty comparable in quality.

        • Halk says:

          Well my assessment of the two games is:

          Amnesia 1 failed pretty much in everything it attempted to do.

          Scary? Nope; the flaws of the game are just so plainly visible at all times that there is very little immersion; and the little there is is killed by the sanity meter (“You are supposed to feel very scared now because we tell you you are.”).

          Gameplay? Nonexistent; if the levels had been more intelligently designed (say, like in Thief 1 and 2, with lots of hiding places, secret passages, etc.) it might have been fun. But there is literally NOTHING you can do about the monsters. You cannot even avoid them, because 90% of the time the levels are trees topologically speaking, which means there is always exactly one path from A to B, and if there is a monster in the way, too bad for you. The game actually knows that this can be game-breaking so it just removes an enemy if it has killed you a number of times…

          Story? Completely ridiculous writing, makes no sense at all.

          Amnesia 2 on the other hand certainly has its flaws; but it does achieve SOMETHING which for me no other game has.

          If anyone ever asked me “Can you recommend the most Lovecraft-ian game you know?” I would respond Amnesia 2. The atmosphere of his stories is perfectly captured in it. It does require quite a bit of suspension of disbelief, but so did Lovecraft’s stories.

          Also, A2 has a REALLY satisfying ending AND an amazing soundtrack. I also found it much scarier than A1, possibly because its melancholy put me in a mindset where I was more susceptible to be scared. And the industrial age setting is a lot less boring than the generic castle setting of A1.

          • skeletortoise says:

            If your assessment is “Descent is garbage and Machine was about the same but more Lovecrafty and industrial”, then I don’t see why you were surprised by the hate :p

            It’s been a few years now, so I really can’t argue the merits of either with much authority, but here we go anyway:

            -I never found the insanity meter that bad, honestly. It never seemed like a cheap ploy to fool you into being afraid to me, it was just a mechanic like any other game might have to carrot/stick you into playing the game the way the developers wanted. Perhaps it’s implementation was a bit heavy handed, but I never thought the actual effects were out of place.

            -The gameplay consisting of running and hiding seemed good to me. Again, it’s been a while, but I don’t remember ever having any particular difficulty getting by any enemies. Not trying to gitgud you, it just didn’t leave that impression on me. I don’t recall the levels feeling too confined or lacking in hiding places.

            -Agreed on the story

            -I’ll concede on the setting, industrial was generally an improvement. As for everything else, I don’t remember much about the story, but I remember being fairly confused by it. I think I just didn’t understand the player character’s role in everything? I found both stories pretty absurd and incoherent, but I managed to get the gist of the first one while Machine somehow evaded me.

            -On top of that the silliness of SPOILERS
            when you return to above ground and pig people are running everywhere
            SPOILERS just felt so wrong that it ruined things a lot for me. A) It felt super staged. It was such a “this would definitely be a cut scene if we did cut scenes” level of transparent non-interaction with what was happening. B) It was just too absurd. Taking the previously mysterious horrors out of the dark and showing them off like an 80s scifi comedy horror show just made no sense.

            -I feel like your complaint of lack of gameplay for Descent is what I felt for Machine. I remember going down and down and down and solving the odd puzzle and… just nothing happened. I can think of one point where I was truly frightened/in suspense whereas I remember that sort of tension being somewhat continuous in Descent. Machine felt a lot more like a walking simulator which happened to be creepy themed.

    • dskzero says:

      It’s largely a case “if it wasn’t named Amnesia, I would have loved it”. Amnesia: The Dark Descent at its time was an original, fun, and geniunely tense game (I feel like it either overstays its welcome, or it simply fell off too hard in the later parts of the game) with a weird, odd plot that leaves a lot to be desired, while Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs is pretty much a “walking simulator” where there are very few puzzles and very few instances you can actually lose but the plot and art direction is absolutely brilliant.

      As for Justine, eh.

  3. Doc Revelator says:

    Would it be OK to ask for a little more meat in these Have You Played? ‘articles’? Rather than ‘There’s this. It’s OK. Have you played it?’ Three sentences is hardly worth a click through.

    • Zach Fett says:

      Yeah, I’ve noticed they’re terribly short now. I used to really enjoy reading these, but now I just see the title and move on, since I know there won’t be much, if anything, to read.

      Thankfully for this one it seems they edited in the rest of the article. But I’ve definitely noticed a pattern of the HYP articles being *very* short.

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    Drib says:

    This article is a little unfortunately short. Come on, give us something about the game!

  5. Kefren says:

    I think Frictional are my favourite developer. From the pre-Penumbra tech demo onwards I’ve always been immersed in their games, and never disappointed. Whereas other devs, with bigger budgets, have ended up creating games I can’t even stand to play (looking at Skyrim – argh, my first opponent was the UI, and it bested me – I gave up after an hour or so).

    • Rinox says:

      Same here. I recently thought about it and Frictional’s games have always hit home for me…the Penumbra series (ok Requiem is a bit meh, but still), both Amnesia games, SOMA…all just really my kind of games.

      I remember ‘preordering’ Amnesia: The Dark Descent on their website before there was such a thing as Kickstarter. One of the best preorder decisions I ever made.

  6. Premium User Badge

    Graham Smith says:

    The article was originally missing most of its content but has now been fixed. Apologies!

  7. DingDongDaddio says:

    I loved Overture and Black Plague. Red’s story arc from Overture is very memorable. I’d definitely recommend going through both of the first two. I never did finish the third, because… I don’t know what the hell they were trying to do with that one. Maybe it comes together in the end, but it seemed completely idiotic from the short time I spent with it.

    • Kefren says:

      I gave up on it first time round, but had another go years later. It’s a kind of horror-themed puzzle game with settings from Penumbra and a very loose tie-in to the plot, which I sort-of enjoyed second time round. Definitely the weaker of the three though.

    • Nouser says:

      Requiem is essentially Black Plague: Deleted Scenes with a loose plot to glue them. The Penumbra series was supposed to be a trilogy, but the published cut the founding and they had to merge the second and third games into one, and after that Requiem was made from the discarded levels.

  8. Kefren says:

    Worth mentioning this again, if you hanker for more: link to rockpapershotgun.com

  9. grrrz says:

    This is still my favorite Frictional games game I think. Amnesia and SOMA are great on their own merits, but I missed the challenging and rewarding puzzles from overture/black plague. Like the settings better in penumbra than amnesia too.

  10. skeletortoise says:

    I think I played all three Penumbras (my recollection jives pretty well with all the recaps) and it just didn’t really work so much for me. The occasional good spooks and inertia carried me over the finish line, but I couldn’t quite get into it as much as Amnesia and Machine. I am pretty sure it was the generally cheap graphical quality kept me in a “This is an artificial video game experience” mindset. Normally I’m not bothered by that at all, but I think the need for deep immersion in horror required a little better.

  11. jusplathemus says:

    It may sound a bit fanboy-ish, but I’m a proud owner of the Penumbra Collection (both physical and digital) and I play through every title from Frictional Games once a year. Except for Requiem, which is a completely unnecessary and unwelcome addition since Black Plague provided a more than satisfactory closure to the series (well, in my eyes at least) and A Machine for Pigs, which wasn’t that bad, but it felt really off throughout. I was looking forward to the end halfway through so I don’t have to play it anymore.
    Anyway, Red and Clarence are great. I find their ramblings highly amusing and there are multiple lines from both of them that stayed with me throughout the years. Clarence’s line on fate (‘Fate is merely the war cry of those too scared to think for themselves!’) is one of my favourite quotes of all time.

  12. Threstle says:

    Always found Black Plague WAY scarier than Amnesia. I almost soiled myself the first time I had to hide from a monster in Black Plague, and the whole virus thing made me really uneasy. Amnesia was good, but way too much Lovecraftian gothic horror for me to be scary.

  13. Spakkenkhrist says:

    It was weird meeting the talking dog in Skyrim as he had the same voice as Clarence.