Escape a monster-infested laboratory and make a break for the surface.
PC Release: February 6, 2015
By Ian Coppock
It’s no secret among horror fans that the Penumbra series went out with a dang. The debut title of Frictional Games, who would go on to develop Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Soma, Penumbra was a series of three episodic video games that, at the time, was seen as a new benchmark in quality horror gaming. The first two games in this series were hardcore survival horror games, but the third was a… puzzle game? With no monsters? Fans of Penumbra were understandably disappointed that a horror game series had a horror-free conclusion, but a group of Russian game developers took such exception with the fiasco that they went and made their own ending to the series. Penumbra: Necrologue is the result of their efforts.
Penumbra: Necrologue was created by CounterCurrent Games to serve as the “proper” ending to the Penumbra series. The story of the original Penumbra games focuses on a British scientist named Philip, who receives a letter from his father the day after his mother’s funeral. The thing is, his father is supposed to have died before Philip was even born. The letter also contains a map that the letter begs Philip to destroy, but he instead follows it to uninhabited northern Greenland.
Philip’s adventure to find his father quickly turns worse than his worst nightmares. Penumbra: Overture, the first episode, follows Philip as he descends into a pitch-black lead mine infested with mutated dogs, spiders and worse threats. In Penumbra: Black Plague, he finally gains entry to the research facility his father’s holed up in, only to find its human staff devolved into snarling monsters. After braving these threats and discovering a terrible truth, Philip is teleported into his own mind in Penumbra: Requiem, where he must solve a series of physics puzzles. Requiem had no monsters, was filled with strange dialogue, and left Penumbra ending on a cliffhanger.
To be fair to Frictional Games, the proper “third episode” of Penumbra fell apart due to a dispute with their publisher, but that didn’t alleviate Penumbra: Requiem‘s mediocrity. Necrologue sort of skims over Requiem and starts off as Philip wakes up the Shelter, the hidden laboratory his father had worked in.
Having braved dozens of monsters and having learned the truth about his father, Philip is in no hurry to stick around the dilapidated research facility. He fires up a computer and learns that the secret society that owns the Shelter has sent in a search and rescue team, and that rendezvousing with them is his only hope of survival. Gathering his flashlight, his tools and his wits, Philip braces himself for more hardship and a new goal: escape.
Penumbra: Necrologue follows the survival horror gameplay of the original Penumbra games to the letter. Philip cannot fight the monsters of the Shelter, and his only recourse if he encounters one is to run and/or hide. Philip can see in the dark using his flashlight, but it gobbles up batteries like a beast, and they’re not exactly plentiful in the Shelter. Philip can also use flares as a backup light source, and can maintain his health with painkillers.
It’s worth noting that Penumbra: Necrologue is a full-conversion mod of Amnesia: The Dark Descent. This means that the developers fully recreated the world of Penumbra from scratch, inside Amnesia‘s more advanced game engine. As a result, Necrologue imports Amnesia‘s sanity meter, which blurs the screen and debilitates the player’s ability to hide if they stare at a monster for too long. This makes the game a much more visceral challenge.
Just like in the earlier Penumbra games, Philip can only move on to the next area by solving a series of puzzles. Typically, these involve gathering objects hidden around a “hub” area, and then returning to either fix something or build a new object with which to get to the next area. The developers dress this mechanic up in various ways, like repairing a radio or draining a flood, but it’s repeated throughout the course of Penumbra: Necrologue. It can feel a bit tedious, especially since this game clocks in at a whopping 10-12 hours of content. That is an eternity for a horror game, and the length of all three previous Penumbra games combined.
Of course, surviving in Necrologue isn’t as simple as working around a garage. Suffice it to say, Philip has pissed off forces that he wouldn’t wish upon his worst enemy, and the mutated human enemies he avoided in Penumbra: Black Plague are out and about in force. The animals living in the old lead mine outside have also broken into the base, and they’re no less keen on picking up Philip’s scent. If Philip sees a monster, he can only run… and pray.
There’s no denying that Penumbra: Necrologue is a spooky game, but CounterCurrent Games overlooked a few problems when making this game as a mod for Amnesia. While the monsters in both Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Penumbra: Necrologue are terrifying, they ain’t too bright. In Amnesia, players can hide from the monsters by holding up a barrel or box in front of the character’s face, and sure enough, Philip can do the same for the monsters in this game. CounterCurrent imported Amnesia‘s monster AI in making this game, which is fine, but made a tweak or two too few.
Necrologue was not afraid to fix some of the things wrong with the original Penumbra games, such as the puzzles. The quandaries Philip encounters in the first three Penumbra games are not terrible, but many of them are boring. There’s one puzzle in Penumbra: Black Plague that forces players to spend hours sorting through programs on computer chips, which is a boring puzzle in and of itself but also drags down the game’s pacing. Necrologue‘s puzzles are still challenging, but much less elaborate, which keeps the game moving at a speed more befitting of a terrifying survival game.
Despite freshening up the puzzles and making the enemies more formidable, there are areas of Necrologue that cross over from being faithful to the original games and become just plain derivative. More than once, Philip comes upon a puzzle that was copy/pasted from the original Penumbra games, lessening the amount of new content that Penumbra veterans can expect to find. Necrologue also inherits its predecessors’ clunky notes system, in which players pixel-hunt across the game to get Philip’s observations on objects and environments. Necrologue doesn’t need to resort to hand-holding, but a less dated mechanic would’ve been a welcome change.
Another area of Necrologue that quite literally borrows from the older games is its level design. Most areas of Necrologue are brand-new, but Philip will often stumble into places that players have already trod in the previous Penumbra episodes. Additionally, the developers copy/pasted entire level segments from Penumbra: Requiem, which was weird to see, considering the developer’s desire to move past Requiem.
But, though Penumbra: Necrologue steals some puzzles and some level segments from the older games, it threads an entirely new narrative and smoother gameplay through the production. The narrative does a great job at tying together most everything that Philip has experienced throughout the Penumbra series, from working with a crazed miner in Penumbra: Overture all the way down to facing off with supernatural forces in Penumbra: Black Plague.
As Philip traverses the Shelter and other areas he visited, Penumbra: Necrologue gives off a vibe of ascension. Philip has delved into the earth and found what he came for. Now it’s time to make sense of everything that’s happened and get out of this terrible place. For anything that can be said of Necrologue‘s goofy monster AI and derivative tenancies, there’s no denying that this game is what Penumbra: Requiem should have been. A story that concludes Philip’s character arc, from naive scientist to worn-down survivor, and that encompasses all of the tragedies that he’s witnessed and endured.
Although Necrologue‘s central story has no love lost for Philip, the same cannot be said for the game’s other characters. Throughout Necrologue, Philip begins hearing voices from characters in games past, including some who are supposed to be dead. This element of design adds some mystery to compliment the monster-fleeing, but Necrologue ends before explaining even one iota what the voices were for or if they were even real. The ultimate fates of many Penumbra characters thus end up in limbo, as if the game forgets about them, leaving a massive plot hole.
The game’s voice acting also leaves something to be desired, including the fact that Philip, a Brit, has a Russian accent. At first this seemed to make sense; Necrologue was developed by a small Russian studio that probably isn’t swimming in money. It wasn’t until a cadre of British and American voice actors joined into the game that confusion began to seep in. Perhaps Philip’s dialogue was recorded before the studio hired these western actors, but wouldn’t it make sense to have one of them just re-record the dialogue on the side?
Necrologue‘s drawbacks with its story and voice acting do not detract from the atmosphere. This game is dreadfully spooky, and will have players spend hours creeping slowly through desolate hallways and pitch-black laboratories, always on high alert for the slightest sound, the faintest footstep. Necrologue excels at keeping players on their toes at all times, through a combination of eerie lighting and a soundtrack uncannily similar to that of the Penumbra episodes. Necrologue has better graphics and character animations than the first three games, though the scientist characters’ goose-step is a bit goofy. Necrologue also suffers from a disastrous sky box in the very last level that makes the sky look like a cube. A small, but trivially avoidable, error.
Necrologue also scares its players with content that was cut from the original Penumbra games. Philip visits areas and explores subplots that were removed from the first three games. The Hunter, a spider-looking mutant that was removed from Penumbra: Black Plague due to development issues, makes its long-awaited debut in this game. Between the cadre of spooky sound design, the mournful music, the chilly atmosphere and the plethora of monsters, there’s no shortage of scares in Penumbra: Necrologue.
So what all is there to be excited about with Penumbra: Necrologue? For longtime fans of the series, it’s the conclusion that Penumbra: Requiem should have been and then some. It’s a game that adds some new ideas to the series without changing what made it so iconic to begin with. Sure, its voice acting is a little awkward. Sure, its tendency to get too fanboy-ish with how much it copy/pastes from the older games will annoy inveterate horror fans. But players will forget these things quickly when they’re being chased down a hallway by a swarm of worms with wings.
Penumbra: Necrologue is both a quality horror game and a fitting conclusion to the Penumbra series over all. Frictional Games has complimented CounterCurrent on the production, but has been mum on whether it’s considered canon. In any case, Necrologue is second only to Soma in terms of the best horror games that came out in 2015. Best of all, it’s free, so there’s no reason not to have at it. It’s quite graphic, and quite spooky, but that comes with the territory of survival horror games.
You can buy Penumbra: Necrologue here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.