By Sam Graham
Every Frankenstein needs his Igor. Every Todd Sweeney (Ugh, it still tastes bad) needs his badly written 'Goth mistress of all things pizza' (see Prime Cuts). And every Parker needs a guy to say 'right' at everything he does. Though if I had the choice, I'd prefer to think of myself as the Dan Cain to Iron's Herbert West. Why? Two words: Barbara Crampton. I wish I was Dr Hill's severed head.
If you ask me, horror games can be much more effective than films. With a film you experience the horror vicariously. You watch the drunk teenagers make the stupid decisions, watch old men battle demonic forces, and watch Kurt Russell get drunk and pour scotch into his chess machine. But with a game, you're the one making those decisions. It’s you who has to go into the dark and hope to survive. You have to run for your life and decide whether it's better to fight, or conserve resources. It's your own terrible aim that gets you killed. It puts you in the driver's seat. And Penumbra (2007), by Frictional Games gets that down to a tee.
Split into three episodes (though 3 was basically an expansion), Penumbra: Overture is a lofty title for a lofty idea. You play as Phillip, who gets a letter from his dead father, Howard. Howard Phillip eh? Nice. Anyway, from the letter he travels to Greenland and finds himself trapped in a mine. There's a lot of exposition told through letters, diaries and a man on the radio who later asks you to switch an incinerator on and turn him into a man-kebab. Ep 2: Penumbra: Black Plague takes you past the mine to a research facility where things get really messed up. Turns out everyone is dead (surprise), and the halls are now stalked by humanoid monstrosities. Not quite zombies, but something else. Grey, skinny, eyeless things that are a dab hand with a shank and are faster than you'd like them to be. Through a series of dire events you learn that the monsters are the hallmark of an even larger evil, one that, like all things resembling-but-legally-distinct-from-Lovecraftian-entities, it's older than mankind and far more terrible.
Penumbra had big ideas for what it wanted to be, and used a control system that was unique at the time in order to do it. It works sort of like a point & click. You manipulate objects by holding down the mouse button, then moving the mouse to move it. This means that to open something like a drawer you actually have to take hold of it and pull the mouse back to slide the drawer out. Pull it too far and you'll pull it out of the desk. Through this system, it’s easy to slam doors when you're panicked, but on the upshot, you can brace doors with other objects. Takes some practice though.
Similar to Dark Corners of the Earth and Eternal Darkness, Penumbra features a sanity system. While it doesn't go as far as they did, staring at monsters for too long will cause the screen to distort and cause poor old Phil to start babbling to himself, which will get you killed. So you have to keep a watch on the monsters, but don't look at them while you're at it. Try figuring that one out. Still, Lovecraftian horror has always worked best when it has you cowering in a corner like the bitch the Old Ones know you are.
As has become popular in recent years, Phil is hopelessly unprepared for the challenge. He's the everyman, so that means no punching boulders when he gets mad. While you're given a pickaxe, it’s mostly for smashing down barriers. Sure, you can whack a dog like an angry gyppo, but you can't kill them. You're as good as totally unarmed. Your best strategy when a monster clocks you is the same as when your Dad comes home stinking of Dutch lager and street-corner pussy: run away and hide in a cupboard and hope it goes away. Yes, I know, games like Outlast and Slender: The Arrival do something similar, but this was back in 2007, the year that warfare became an arcade game, Valve trolled the world with a promise they couldn't keep, and everyone thought they were the dog's bollocks for pressing a few coloured buttons until they beat 'Slash'.
It's not perfect however, and due to it being an indie game, it is a bit rough around the edges. Using the pickaxe can be a bit clunky due to the control system, and Phillip runs like a drunk tortoise. The enemies in the Overture episode are as generic as the bats in Castlevania (dogs, spiders, giant worms), but Black Plague makes up for it. Light sources are like little dollops of holy sanctuary, but as the main focus is on cowering, half the time you'll be wandering through the dark, feeling inept, like the first time you tried to unhook a bra with the lights out. “I like leaving the bra on.” You told her, hoping your lack of dexterity wouldn't show, but all you were really doing was robbing yourself of some sweet titty action.
“Got any leeches for this?”