The sequel is still creepy, and with fewer problems than Overture
The Penumbra series very pleasant surprise when it come out. This series is a cross between a traditional adventure and 1st person survival horror. The combination of gameplay styles feels very refreshing and new, and just as important, the story is captivating too. The second installment, "Black Plague", brings the series to a close with improved gameplay and a satisfying end to the story. Like Overture, Black Plague is creepy and scary, and it is filled with moderately challenging but intuitive puzzles. If you played Overture and enjoyed it, then Black Plague is easy to recommend.
Penumbra: Black Plague continues the story with you playing as Phillip, investigating the abandoned mine in Greenland. You begin captured in a secret underground installation, with no idea how to get out. Similar to Overture, you will encounter a few other characters, which will either help you or make your life difficult. Just like the last chapter, you will be very interested in the fates of these characters, and they are critical to Penumbra's story. Penumbra's plot isn't revolutionary, but the storytelling style is where it excels. The game conveys the history of the installation through short notes, sound bites from your "friends" in the game, and clues in the environment. It also ends very satisfyingly, leaving you feeling that you have gotten your money's worth. The 5-6 hour game length is OK for the price. Especially when you compare it to other $20 games *cough* Portal *cough* that last only two hours but, for some reason, never get criticized for it.
Like its predecessor, Black Plague also constantly pounds reminders into your head about the danger you are in, the desperation that you face, and your sense of isolation. By the middle of this chapter, you will be desperate just to see another live human being. The game maintains the same creepy atmosphere as Overture with great sound design, and the gradually increasing feel that you are losing your sanity. A short while into the game, you start to see and hear things. There are a few times where you have major hallucinations, with some very interesting results. These moments are totally unpredictable, and very memorable. In Penumbra, you never know what is around the next corner.
One of the best parts about Overture was its new approach to adventure gaming mechanics. Black Plague keeps the same basics: 1st person view, WASD controls, and the ability to manipulate just about everything in the environment by clicking on it with the mouse and dragging it in some direction. At the same time, it completely does away with the terrible combat, and it greatly reduces the number of enemies that you have to sneak past. There are still a few, and stealth still isn't great, but they aren't much of a nuisance. Difficulty-wise, this chapter is just right. There are just enough enemies to keep you on your toes and maintain the tension throughout the game, but enough to frustrate you. This is the primary reason why Black Plague is the better chapter.
You progress through the game, once again, by searching and exploring, collecting items, entering codes, and using what you have picked up in your inventory. The puzzles are almost always intuitive, but still challenging enough. Too many adventure games require random item usage or metagame thinking, and that is what makes an underappreciated game like Penumbra better. If there is a shortcoming to the game, it might be that many of the puzzles are ripped directly from famous games like Half-Life or Half-Life 2 (such as a challenge that forces you to stack boxes so that you can jump over some lasers that are rigged to explosives). Still, the new setting gives them new life.
Graphically, Black Plague is unchanged from Overture. The graphics do a good job of portraying a bloody, dark, dirty, and unsanitary installation where some kind of infection has broken out and the supernatural might be involved. The texture work and lighting are okay, although with games like Crysis on the market, the look of the game is below par for 2008. It shouldn't ruin your enjoyment of the game, however.
Penumbra: Black Plague is a great example of how to make a second episode greater than the first. Everything that worked in Episode 1 returns for this chapter, and the most annoying parts, namely the broken combat, are gone. Penumbra is a successful debut for Frictional Games, and one of the better discoveries of recent years. If you are in the mood for a scary adventure and a somewhat unconventional experience, then you owe it to yourself to check out the Penumbra series.