I’m going to dispense with the winded background and get this right out of the way: you don’t need to play Penumbra: Overture in order to get into Black Plague. Yes, Overture has its own merits in the form of puzzles and atmosphere, but its sparse story is crammed into literally seconds of exposition at the start of Black Plague.
As you probably already know if you’re reading this, Penumbra: Black Plague is the second episode of Penumbra Collection. For all intents and purposes, it is also the last episode, concluding the story of Philip’s search for his father. That search took him first to an abandoned mine in the tundra of Greenland. Overture ended with Philip finding his way out of the mine and into a deserted facility, only to be knocked unconscious by a shadowy figure. Black Plague finds Philip searching the facility that caused the outbreak.
Once more, there’s nothing especially unique happening with the plot itself. Early in the game you are infected yourself, and cursed with another personality (Clarence) mocking you from inside your own head. Don’t get me wrong, I dug Clarence big time. He’s snarky, funny, sadistic, and creepy. However, every time he spoke I couldn’t help but feel a tad let down. He would have been much more interesting as a foil to the player, but since Philip is a protagonist in the silent tradition, that isn’t possible.
I will give major propers for a twist that occurs about 2/3 of the way through the game. Clarence messes with your head, making you see things that aren’t there from time to time. It comes off as a gimmick at a first—a way for the developers to get a few cheap scares from the player—but it pays off brilliantly in the end.
Black Plague plays out a lot like Overture—as is to be expected—only in a different setting. You’ll navigate maze-like hallways, sneaking around monsters (which are now infected humans, so no more dogs and spiders) as you make your way to the next puzzle.
Black Plague does make some changes. The simple and cheap combat from Overture is thrown out. You can still throw objects to stun enemies, but there are no hammers or crowbars this time around. Furthermore, the enemies are smarter this time and carry flashlights, so the shadows are not always your friend. Nevertheless, it is all too often still simple to just run past your foes. They’re better at finding you this time, but if you know where you need to go, there’s no reason you can’t simply run from one load point to the next, as the enemies can’t follow.
However, to give credit where credit is due, Black Plague’s pacing is much improved over its predecessor’s. The overpowering sense of routine and monotony isn’t nearly as pronounced this time around. Mazes and puzzles are spaced a bit less predictably and there are more puzzles that actually involve enemies, which provides a needed sense of urgency to your shenanigans.
One element that puts Black Plague above Overture, and in turn above many such games, is the clever use of the physics engine. Overture already did some very smart things, but when Black Plague had me using the physics engine to open a door using leverage, I was sold. It seems so simple but I’ve never seen physics used in such a believable and natural way in a game. It says something for indie ingenuity when Half-Life, the series that popularized the physics puzzle, rarely musters anything more clever than some variation on the seesaw puzzle.
Another thing that Black Plague has going for it over Overture is the environment. I talked about how atmospheric Overture was, but the setting did get old after a while. I mean, there’s only so much that you can do with an abandoned mine.
The facility in Black Plague provides a much more interesting narrative. The barricades, corpses, and traps provide a narrative of what happened before your arrival. The offices, labs, utility rooms, dorms, and even frozen tundra of the research facility exterior provide a much more varied and visually interesting environment to explore.
If you really aren’t interested in playing the entire Penumbra Collection, Black Plague should be one you do play. It easily stands as its own game, explains what little you need to know of Overture’s plot, and concludes the story of Phillip. Everything about it is improved over Overture and I would go as far to say that it’s one of the better adventure games I’ve played in a long while.