Penumbra: Black Plague
"If you feel ill, do not proceed to sickbay. Instead, chain yourself securely to the nearest heavy object, sound the alarm, and wait for trained professionals to arrive."
I don't know about you, but if the training video for my new job contained that delightful piece of advice, I might reconsider my career path for something more preferable. Such as a lavatory attendant, or perhaps a pharmaceutical guinea pig.
Clearly, all is not well at the Shelter Research Station in Greenland. Things haven't been quite the same since they excavated an ancient dig site, and the staff became infected with some manner of virus that turns human beings into maniacal flesh-rending zombie-type things. And guess who awakens in this research base, locked in a cell with a thumping headache and some seriously vivid hallucinations for company? And soon after, an extra and not very welcome voice in the old noggin.
Penumbra is a seriously spooky first-person adventure in the horror-survival mould. Think flickering lights, blood-splattered walls and guttural noises echoing down ventilation shafts; late at night, on your own, it's all quite unsettling to say the least. Particularly when the infected are first encountered, and Penumbra takes on a stealth element as you crouch and crawl around, trying to sneak past the beasts.
This game of horror hide-and-seek can lead to some truly pant-peppering incidents. At one point, I thought I'd cleverly evaded one shambling nasty, sneaking into a side room and hiding behind a crate. The thing was still audible, muttering outside in the corridor somewhere, so I risked a peek around the side of my cover. At that instant the door to the room flew off its hinges as the monster burst in - that was a genuine jump-in-your-seat moment.
The tension is well-maintained throughout, with all the trimmings such as menacing low-key music and thumping heartbeats. Even the plot is enticing, involving secret society shenanigans and weird otherworldly interludes. Penumbra also boasts a fully interactive environment, meaning you're not restricted to collecting objects in your inventory, it's also possible to fling them across the room, or drag furniture around.
Most of the game's puzzles are satisfyingly logical, although some - particularly those in the hallucinogenic realm you encounter - are rather abstract. But the only really annoying ones are those that involve object-manipulation, as the physics system can be pretty wacky. Placing a plank across a gap is a tedious exercise in fiddling around, dropping it, moving it a bit more, rotating it and so on. Even turning a vice is painful, as it only moves freely if you grab it in exactly the right place, and say the magic words, whatever they might be (four-lettered ones didn't seem to work).
The marvellously creepy atmosphere falters a touch as you get further into the game and realise the zombies might be infected but they're not particularly effective. It takes a fair few hits to kill you, and it's relatively easy to wriggle away and sprint off, losing your assailant without too much trouble and then hiding again. But the good outweighs the bad here for sure, and Penumbra's pacing, story and genuine sense of uneasiness makes for an intriguingly dark adventure tale.