No thank you, Clarence
Penumbra Black Plague picks right up off where Overture left off and see's protagonist Phillip kidnapped, stripped of his weapons (a thing Frictional Games will adapt into all future titles) and locked in a room in an underground facility deep below the tundra in Greenland.
Primarily a horror experience Black Plague excels in it's immersion with another one of my favourite mechanics in the Frictional Games catalogue, manual interaction with the mouse. While sometimes clunky and less practical, this "hands on" approach is what personally draws me into these games more than some of the other horror experiences making me feel like I'm there. This combined with a thick atmosphere of isolation and loneliness, a cold sterile environment and some well done moody music really puts you in, well, the mood for what's to come. It should also be said that if you aren't playing this game in the dark, with headphones then you're not playing it the way it was probably intended.
Black Plague like most Frictional Games productions isn't based around the lowly jumpscare. Personally, I hate jumpscares, it's a knee jerk reaction to a loud noise. When a balloon pops, are you startled by the bang or are you frightened of balloons? Black Plague with it's atmosphere builds a layer of tension from the very start as you hear something walking by outside your cell door and unlike the entirety of Overture, this game lets you know you are very much not alone from the get go. The games antagonists, the "Infected" are the only living things you'll meet in the game and they would rather splatter your brains on the black and white tile floor than do literally anything else, so the second you hear a door open, footsteps walking by outside or even the weird, guttural moans of these things, you're on edge. You can hide but I often felt the mechanic was a bit lacking in both Overture and Black Plague. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't, it's far safer to put a loading screen between you and them then it is to hide from them. But when they see you, the chase begins. Getting chased in these games is terrifying, it's not difficult to lose them in the maze of corridors but sooner or later they'll catch up with you again, "Why not fight them?" I hear you say.
Well, Overture tried and sort of failed at was it's combat, you could wield a hammer and a pickaxe to break down doors, smash barrels and if you were feeling lucky, beat up some hostile dogs. But due to the "hands on" approach that I love, you basically ended up swiping your mouse all over the place in a vain attempt to swat your in-game hammer at a fast moving dog, lets be honest it sucked. Imagine Wii Tennis with a computer mouse. Yeah. Clearly seeing that using them was not viable, Black Plague takes those nasty self-defending weapons away and leaves you totally defenceless, which was the best idea they ever had. It limits your options when the Infected show up to "run", "hide" or "die" and I can tell you which one they'd prefer.
Between running for your life and trying to navigate the web of rooms that is the facility you've got a series of inventory puzzles, nothing as fiendish as some of the ones in Overture, but they're engaging enough. Most of them require the forwards and backwards traversal of the corridors to gather appropriate parts, and guess who else likes taking long, murderous strolls through the corridors? The Infected. Of course. However I actually really enjoyed the sciency-style puzzles in this game. There's also a lot of... random chance puzzles too, you get a series of laser grids hooked to bombs, you can either try and stack things to climb over it or you can try and disarm it by trying to figure out the pattern, but it usually for me at least descending into mindlessly pressing buttons for a few minutes before I started looking for things to stack. I disarmed one or two of them, but maybe you'll be luckier.
I don't want to talk too much about the story to avoid spoilers, but it continues from Overture but really takes some sad and surreal turns and it seems to really go off the deep end by the end of the game.
I also want to state that this is probably a spoiler, so read no further unless you dare, but I do find this to dramatically reduce my enjoyment of the game, your opinion may of course differ. About a quarter of the way into the game Phillip becomes infected, now they could have gone and chosen any path to represent this in the game but they decided to represent Phillips infection with a wise cracking voice in his head called Clarence, who talks with a rather silly voice. As someone who loves their immersion and thinks horror games should stick to being spooky, hearing Clarence pipe up was like someone walking into the room, dragging me away from the computer and making me watch them practise their stand-up act. Clarence wants you to kill yourself, his sinister intent is undeniable but hearing a voice saying "lets take some cyanide" just caused me to roll my eyes.
Admittedly Clarence doesn't chat too often but I found our time together, nauseating.
Overall Black Plague is one of the best entries in Frictional's library, what it gets right it really gets right, but sigh. No thank you, Clarence.