Potato batteries and combustible lemons

The culprit: Portal 2 (PC, Mac, PlayStation3, Xbox 360)

Wire octopusA good sequel is always a pleasant surprise. But a good sequel to a sleeper hit is a special kind of treat. The first Portal was a flash of wickedly funny genius out of left field. Portal 2 confirms that the series is in the hands of consistently brilliant writers. In other words, the cake wasn’t a lie.

By now, the qualities of the first game have been widely broadcast, but, shocking as it may seem, it did also have flaws, the most notable of which was repetitiveness. While its length successfully prevented that from becoming a major problem (at least on first playthrough), more of the same for a whole second game would’ve been problematic. Well, Portal 2 avoids that problem, and, in retrospect, makes the first game feel like a bit of a prototype. Which, to be entirely fair, it was.

FashionistaYou are still in control of Chell (with a mysterious wardrobe upgrade), whom, as you may remember, the first game left in rather dire straits. Now, she is awakened in a stasis room–or Extended Relaxation Centre–by a voice on the intercom for a short tutorial: the controls are pretty much the same as before: walk, jump, crouch, pick up stuff and, later, place portals. She’s then put back to sleep; when she next awakens, several years–or decades?–have obviously passed (c.f. the pillow). An autonomous, rather worried-sounding personality core named Wheatley contacts her and helps her escape, as she has apparently been scheduled to be terminated. This leads to two discoveries: one, the Aperture Science facility is huge; two, it’s now in a rather poor state.

BreakdownThus, instead of the pristine white rooms of the first game, Chell now travels through dilapidated, half-overgrown environments, once again with the goal to save her skin. This gives the game a more chaotic feel. You now have to get even more creative with the rules, and the puzzles still provide just the right level of challenge, between figuring out the solutions and executing them.

Walking on lightChell still has a portal gun, since that is, after all, the founding principle of the series, but many new gadgets are also introduced, such as Aerial Faith Plates (boing!), Hard Light Bridges and Excursion Funnels (i.e. tractor beams). Weighted Storage Cubes (and the Companion Cube <3) also make a comeback, now joined by their cousins, the Redirection Cubes. Of course, the game would feel incomplete without the good ol’ turrets, which now come in startlingly humorous varieties, including an Oracle Turret. They’re still just as deadly though–well, mostly–, but the game’s autosave function will take care of any accidental demises.

BlinkyWheatley accompanies and helps Chell, much as GLaDOS did in the first game, with the difference that he is mobile and visible. A lot of people seem to dislike him, and I can see where they’re coming from: he’s very different from GLaDOS, a bumbling, manic worrywart instead of a cool, cynical mastermind. Still, I enjoyed the change of pace, and there’s more to him than first meets the eye.

Science bubblesApart from what’s left of the main facility, which notably features some brilliant safety advertisements for Aperture employees, such as the ‘Animal King Takeover’, Chell also gets to explore the underbelly of Aperture, as she visits the ruins of its old premises, located in a salt mine. How and why she gets there is up to you to discover, but predictable it certainly is not. These levels are slightly harder, as the state of the infrastructure makes them more dangerous to navigate, and the devices used back in the day were different from the ones you may be accustomed to. Chell gets to sample old test chamber prototypes, but also gadgets that were abandoned as the facility developed, such as gels, which you’ll find shooting out of pipes and can direct on various surfaces at your convenience.

Speed trackBlue (repulsion) gel allows Chell to bounce very high; orange (propulsion) gel allows her to go into Speedy Gonzales mode; and white (conversion) gel allows her to coat surfaces in white paint, thereby enabling the placement of portals in previously inaccessible locations. Some people may find the gels rather haphazard as a means of puzzle solving, but I thought that that was the whole point: they were discontinued as a product, after all, there’s gotta be a reason for that. Overall, I found this a welcome diversion from ‘normal’ portal mechanics and a way to keep the player interested and constantly on their toes.

The man with the lemonsThe Old Aperture levels also serve to introduce, via recordings, the now-defunct but legendary Cave Johnson, founder of the company, champion of scientific progress (well, sorta…) and author of truly epic speeches, such as the one about combustible lemons, which I will let you savour firsthand. It also creates a much-enhanced backstory for the game, something that was markedly absent from the first opus. It successfully builds on the already present theme of science gone haywire, and I found that it brought welcome depth and context to the table, as well as some startling revelations. It’s also at this point that you will have to deal with a very special potato battery.

Much ado about spaceI feel I should also mention the ending of the game, which manages to be hilarious, completely crazy and emotional at the same time. Spoilers are out of the question, of course, but, just to give you an idea, the description of the achievement you receive for experiencing it reads “That just happened.” I must also put in a word for the Space Personality Core.  You’ll know why when you encounter it.

Laurel and HardyPortal 2 introduces a two-player mode instead of the challenge rooms of its predecessor. Each player is put in control of a robot and tasked with testing out experimental chambers. Since they are robots, they are in no danger of dying, which makes them perfect for the job and is precisely the reason why they were created for testing. There’s a squat, rotund ‘male’ robot with a blue eye called Atlas and a tall, oblong ‘female’ one with a yellow eye called P-Body: they even made it onto the game’s cover, which, admittedly, is a bit misleading, because they barely appear in the main game, and you never control them. Be that as it may, in two-player mode, each has a portal gun, which allows players to work with four portals instead of two and thus greatly expands the scope of what they can do. Again, as with all multiplayer modes, I’ve not touched it, so I can’t really give an opinion on it. However, I’ve heard a lot of praise for it, and I have to admit that the robots are cute, at least, and that the Portal universe lends itself to this kind of gameplay pretty much ideally.

Good adviceOverall, I thought Portal 2 was an excellent follow up to its predecessor, expanding on the original story in all the good ways and creating a wonderfully exhilarating, fun experience, filled with humour, surprises and even more gravity-defying stunts. Of course, there will always be things to criticise, and complaints have included a lack of direction in the second act of the game or the length of loading times. None of that bothered me, however; I had a genuine blast and, to anyone who hasn’t played this yet, I put the following question: “what are you waiting for?”

Letters to the dead

The culprit: Dear Esther (PC, Mac, via Steam)

Breaking the cloudsIt’s a little difficult to say what Dear Esther really is. On the one hand, it’s been presented and advertised as a game, from indie developer thechineseroom, but you’ll quickly realise that there’s not much actual gaming involved. I guess ‘semi-interactive art film’ would be a better definition. And I would be lying if I said that that wasn’t somewhat disappointing: I went in expecting some sort of Myst-like adventure, but ended up with something very different instead. However, I would also be lying if I said I wasn’t affected at all. Quite the contrary, actually, due to a mix of haunting music, lovely visuals and some heartbreaking writing, which all mesh together to form a peculiarly mesmerizing atmosphere.

Lone sentinelThe premise is simple, if somewhat mystifying, especially in hindsight. You are put in the shoes (read: first-person view) of an unknown character, appearing on a stone jetty in front of a lighthouse on a forlorn island in the Hebrides. The game greets you with a voiceover: a man reading a letter to the “Dear Esther” of the title. And from there, you’re essentially left to your own devices. Except that all you can do is walk. You can’t jump, you can’t run (that one can get especially aggravating at times, when you have long distances to cross), you can’t even interact with your environment. No picking things up or twiddling with buttons, levers or what have you. You do have a flashlight, but that automatically turns on whenever you enter a darkened environment. Player agency? Yeah, not the game’s strong point.

Not for the hydrophobicOne thing you can do besides walking is swim, but that only sees limited use in some specific situations. If you just try to swim off the island, there’s only so far you can go before the game–rather distressingly, I might add–forces you to go under and respawn on the shore. Which makes sense, I guess: that water must be awfully cold. That said, do try it out at least once. Trust me.

Within this framework, all that’s left for you to do is explore. Observe. Listen. And take in. The game is split into five main areas of uneven size (which are gradually unlocked for easy access from the main menu once you’ve reached them in the game), and while it Standing stonesdoes keep some autosaves, you can also save wherever you like. The voiced narrative is your guiding line, popping up at predetermined spots on the island. All excerpts of letters to Esther, explaining the backstory piece by piece. The developers did pull a neat little trick here, however, to add replayability. Several different texts may trigger at the same spot, and the game randomly chooses one. And no, you can’t walk away and come back to hear a different one: you’d have to reload a save or play the game again. This allows for a slightly different perspective on the story each time.

Lonely lightThe essentials are in place fairly quickly: Esther is the narrator’s wife, and she is dead. How she died, what surrounded and followed this event, and, ultimately, why you’re on this island (and exactly who the character you’re controlling is supposed to be), I will leave you to experience for yourself. Because this is the heart of the game. And it’s beautiful, if unrelentingly sad. If I had to criticize it, I would say that the language may seem a tad overblown at times, especially towards the end, where the cohesiveness of the narrative starts to–intentionally–fall apart, and the metaphors and images become rather extravagant. Some may say that this is the game trying to show off how artsy and poetic it is, just because it can. There’s also the fact that the ending offers very little in the way of answers, and you may end up more confused than when you started out. At this point, it all depends on how receptive you are to the game’s own brand of mystique: either you buy into it, or you think Eye in the skyit’s a load of hogwash. I’m in the first category: some passages moved me profoundly. In fact, I dare you to get as far as “From this infection, hope. From this island, flight. From this grief, love. Come back…Come back…”, without experiencing at least a slight shiver.

Distant lightsAside from the emotional narrative, there’s the eye candy. The exterior of the island is bathed in an overcast, late afternoon light, with pinkish clouds slowly sailing across the sky, and the greyish tint of twilight beginning to settle on the forlorn landscape (it helps that this just so happens to be my favourite time of day). Besides the dilapidated lighthouse, there’s a beached cargo ship, the ramshackle remains of a hut and an aerial, blinking a red eye in the distance. Oh, and caves. Lots of caves. And, running like a trail of breadcrumbs throughout these surroundings, mysterious symbols–chemical formulas, electrical circuit diagrams, drawings–and a string of candles. Possibly ghostly figures, as well, if you’ve got a keen eye. And, accompanying all this, the music, all eerie violins and lonesome piano notes, never intrusive, occasionally goosebump-inducing, always poignant.

UnderworldOverall, I have mixed feelings about Dear Esther. On the one hand, I hesitate to qualify it as a game and feel slightly…cheated in that respect? I did spend time scribbling things down, in the hopes that they would come in useful later, to no avail. On the other hand, I’m not sure that added interaction wouldn’t have spoiled the overall impact. Because the lack of player agency becomes an integral part of the experience as you progress. Would the ability to pick up stray pieces of paper or bits of rock have added anything to it? Most likely not. Would puzzles even have made sense within the framework of the narrative? Again, probably not. So, really, I’m not sure that Esther could have been anything else than what it is: a nugget of condensed beauty, loss and sadness, defying classification. And I shall leave you with the game’s own words:

Fragile armada“From here I can see my armada. I collected all the letters I’d ever meant to send to you, if I’d have ever made it to the mainland but had instead collected at the bottom of my rucksack, and I spread them out along the lost beach. Then I took each and every one and I folded them into boats. I folded you into the creases and then, as the sun was setting, I set the fleet to sail. Shattered into twenty-one pieces, I consigned you to the Atlantic, and I sat here until I’d watched all of you sink.”

High-speed stunts and fictitious pastries

The culprit: Portal (PC, Mac, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)

Whee!Sleeper hits are great. Not only are they a proof of inventiveness from game developers, who, despite not banking on commercial success, decide to try something new, but also a testimony to the players’ curiosity. In short: think outside the box, play outside the box. That’s how innovations occur.

Portal was just one such sleeper hit. Released as part of The Orange Box package by Valve, it is set in the same universe as the Half-Life series, at some point in time between Half-Life and Half-Life 2. However, it’s not required to have played either one of those. Portal is a largely self-contained experience and works perfectly fine on its own. You’ll probably miss some references, but it’s nothing dramatic.

She never agreed to thisThe premise is a simple one: you are put in the metaphorical shoes (she’s actually barefoot, with only some leg springs for support) of Chell, a young woman who somehow ended up as a test subject in a strange facility named Aperture Science, all glass walls and pristine white surfaces. She is awoken by a robotic female voice, an AI which identifies herself as GLaDOS, and informs her that she must make her way through a series of test chambers, to ultimately be rewarded with “cake and grief counselling”. She then proceeds to instruct and advise her on getting through the tests…in her own way.

Open doorsChell’s available commands are pretty basic: she can crouch, jump, pick up objects or press switches. However, the core of the gameplay is the clever use of portals: oval-shaped holes which can be created on almost any flat surface with the help of a portal gun (or Handheld Portal Device), which Chell acquires a couple of rooms in. There are two types of portals: a blue one (primary) and an orange one (secondary). Chell can freely pass between them and reposition them at will, and if they’re not situated on the same plane, she’ll be reoriented head up in relation to the gravity upon exiting. The only thing she can’t do is fire a portal through another portal. The idea is straightforward, but the possibilities are endless, allowing for creative use of space to resolve what may at first appear to be impossible conundrums. You could have her put a portal on a wall and one on a ceiling through the door of a different room, for example. And don’t worry about falling from too high: as long as it’s a floor Chell is landing on, the leg springs will take care of it. This is a wonderfully adaptive system, and it wasn’t long before I found myself ‘thinking with portals’, as the advertising for the game puts it, and hopping my way through the various rooms with relative ease. I say ‘relative’ because, while it may be easy to figure out the principle behind a certain puzzle, the execution may require some fine-tuning, as well as some top-notch reflexes.

Let's see you figure this outOf course, if that’s all there was to it, the game would be too easy. So it also presents Chell with impediments, such as moving platforms, timed switches, pools of acid, High Energy Pellets, which she’ll need to redirect, or Material Emancipation Grills, which will not only vaporise any solid object that’s not the portal gun (although they have also been known to ‘emancipate’ fillings and teeth…), but also reset any previously placed portals. Chell will also encounter sentry turrets, which, despite greeting her in disarmingly polite, childish-sounding voices (“hello, friend”) will attempt to shoot her on sight, intoning guilt-inducing messages such as “I don’t hate you” or “no hard feelings” when she destroys them. To counteract all these obstacles, Chell only The one and onlyhas her wits, her portal gun and Weighted Storage Cubes. These are…well, exactly what the description says: large cubes meant to be used as props for solving puzzles (usually by being placed on switches). Although one of them, the Companion Cube, designated by a large pink heart drawn on each of its sides, may come to hold a special place in Chell’s tribulations.

Are you still there?Portal’s other major distinguishing feature is the delightfully quirky black humour pervading the game, the great majority of which is dispensed by GLaDOS, who also sings during the ending credits. On the surface, it sounds like she’s providing helpful advice. However, when you hear things like “while safety is one of many Enrichment Center goals, the Aperture Science High-Energy Pellets seen to the left of the chamber can and have caused permanent disabilities, such as vaporisation”, you may very well start asking yourself questions. This, alongside the friendly killer turrets, the sometimes less-than-reassuring instruction diagrams found at the beginning of each test chamber as well as the strange scribblings which start to crop up in hidden nooks towards the end of the game, all ends up creating a unique blend of the worrying and the hilarious.

The main portion of the storyline is fairly easily cleared, once you get the hang of the portal mechanics. However, you also have access to the Advanced Chambers and the Challenge Mode under the Bonus Maps heading of the main menu. The former are chambers 13 to 18 from the main game, redesigned to be more difficult. The Challenge Mode takes place in those same chambers (now identical to the main game), except with one of three restrictions: clear the chamber placing the least You take the cake!portals, taking the least steps or the least time. Each chamber has its own set limit for each of these categories (represented by a cake on the tally screen), reaching or beating which will grant you a gold medal. There are also limits for the silver medal and the bronze medal. And, of course, there are achievements/trophies involved. By order of difficulty, I’d say the “least portals” challenges are the easiest, while the “least time” ones are–and by far–the hardest, especially for people playing on a console. Moreover, folks on the Xbox 360 actually got their own version of the game, called Portal: Still Alive, which contains a whopping 14 additional test chambers.

Ad infinitumAll in all, Portal is great fun. However, for the sake of providing some criticism, I must say that it’s a bit of a one-trick pony. There is an interesting backstory to the game (which has since been explored in a comic entitled Lab Rat and in the sequel, Portal 2), and GLaDOS may be a wellspring of repartee, but this can only go so far when, in point of fact, you’re being made to do the same thing over and over again. Fortunately, the game is rather short, so you won’t have time to get bored on your first time through. It does, however, mean that it suffers in the replayability department, since, apart from collecting hidden radios, it’s the same old show. Still, I won’t be a party-pooper: in spite of this, Portal remains one of the most original games released in the past decade, and the premise behind it is Mmm, cake...wonderfully inventive. GLaDOS has become a fan-favourite (for good reason), and chances are you’ve encountered the “cake is a lie” meme somewhere at least once. In short, give it a try. It’s a blast. Oh, and did you know you can donate one or all of your vital organs to the Aperture Science Self-Esteem Fund for Girls?

Time and time again

The culprit: Braid (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, Mac, available through Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network and Steam, respectively)

What if you had made a terrible mistake? And what if you could manipulate time to rectify it? No, this isn’t Prince of Persia, but Braid, one of the most famous and critically acclaimed download-exclusive indie games to date. Initially available on XBLA, it has since found its way onto other platforms, thus becoming available to a wider audience. As such things often go, at first glance, it appears to be a simple platformer with a Castles in the sandchildish design and storyline. But if the game’s cover art, depicting a broken hourglass and a crumbling castle made from the spilled sand wasn’t indication enough, playing the actual game quickly reveals that there is more to it than meets the eye. Not only does it display treasures of ingenuity, but its plot also wanders off into distinctly non-childish territory, both wistful and ponderous. All in all, this is still one of the cleverest, most interesting games I have played, and I heartily recommend it.

The"There are some who call me..." game’s protagonist is Tim, a little red-haired fellow in a suit and tie who is trying to rescue a princess. If you did a double-take at the “suit and tie” part, you’d be on to something. The narrative, which consists of Tim’s memories and is presented in the form of short introductory texts before each of the game’s levels, is ambiguous on what the exact relationship between them was, but Tim appears to have made some kind of mistake which resulted in the loss of the princess, and would now like nothing more than to rectify it. This is all very vague, and, on a certain level, remains that way, were it not for several small clues interspersed within the texts which hint at a different kind of story behind Tim’s apparently disjointed musings and his strange quest.

The gameplay revolves around manipulating time by various means to defeat enemies and solve puzzles, some of which are deliciously tricky and require the ability to think outside the box, as well as a good grasp of the game’s mechanics. Tim first appears "Our house, in the middle of our street"against an ominous backdrop of a burning city to eventually reach a quiet, night-time street and a house, which serves as the game’s hub. It contains six rooms, each with an empty picture frame and a door which leads to one of the game’s six levels. Each one of those is subdivided into several sub-levels, which contain puzzle pieces that Tim must collect, to then complete each picture frame. The last level is located in the attic and can only be reached by a ladder which gradually gains new segments as Tim clears the other levels.

Each level features a different time-related mechanic, which is reflected in its name. The first (which is actually number 2; you’ll understand why later on), called “Time and Forgiveness”, introduces the concept of rewinding time if Tim makes a mistake or plummets to his death, although you can also fast forward it when required. The second level is named “Time and Mystery” and introduces objects, outlined in sparkly green, which are unaffected by temporal manipulation (e.g. if Tim activates a green lever, it will remain activated even if he rewinds). These objects also reappear in later levels. “Time and Place”, the third level, links time to Tim’s movements: if he moves to the right, time moves forward, if he moves to the left, it Go ahead, I'm right behind ya...moves backwards. The fourth level, “Time and Decision”, introduces objects outlined in purple: whenever Tim rewinds time, his shadow will proceed to repeat his actions prior to the rewind and will be able to interact with the aforementioned purple objects. This effectively allows him to perform multiple actions at the same time. The fifth level, “Hesitance”, introduces a ring which, when dropped, will create a time-slowing bubble around itself: objects nearer to the centre of the bubble will move slower than objects nearer its perimeter. Finally, in the last level, simply titled “1”, time continuously flows backwards (meaning that rewinding makes it flow normally).

Pastoral symphonyVisually and aurally, the game is enchanting. Each level has its own atmosphere and beautifully rendered, vibrantly coloured, environments and backgrounds, which are somewhat reminiscent of Van Gogh paintings. Each also has its own lovely musical theme, but both look and sound take a distinctly more sombre turn once you reach the final levels. This is also the second major clue as to the game’s most widely accepted interpretation. From then on, it’s very much a ‘so that’s what it was’ process.

You don't say...The game also contains some humorous references, including numerous callbacks to Super Mario Bros.: not only do the most common enemies in the game resemble goombas and piranha plants (and the former can be defeated by stomping on them), but the final sub-level of each level contains a small fortress with a flag, which rises as Tim reaches it, as well as a small, Where's the Holy Hand Grenade when you need it?plushy-looking dinosaur which informs him that the princess is in another castle. Apart from that, another commonly-encountered enemy in the game is almost a dead ringer for the killer rabbit from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In fact, I’m starting to wonder whether Tim’s name isn’t another reference to that film…

Somewhat uncommonly by download-exclusive game standards, Braid has also put some real effort into optional goals. Some of the game’s levels contain hidden areas, accessing which rewards Tim with a star (yet another Super Mario Bros. reference). There are eight stars in total; one of them can be missed if you complete the picture-frame puzzle for the corresponding level before obtaining it, and another one requires obtaining an alternate ending for the game (which isn’t as satisfying as the normal one). "Twinkle, twinkle, little star"Each new star is added to the Andromeda constellation, which hangs above the entrance to the house in the hub level. Tim can look up at it to check his progress, and once all stars have been collected, it will slightly change its appearance, all in coherence with the game’s themes. And if that wasn’t enough, when you’ve finished the game once, a speedrun mode becomes available, netting you an achievement if you manage to complete one in less than 45 minutes.

There are very few genuine gripes I have with Braid. The major one would probably be the fact the game autosaves your progress, but does so on a single save file. Meaning that, should you fail to obtain the aforementioned missable star, for example, you would have to restart a brand new game to do so. It also means that the speedrun must be achieved in a single sitting and that, should you make a major mistake somewhere, say, in level six, you’d have to restart all the way from the beginning as well. I don’t think I need to tell you how aggravating that can be. Another gripe would be that another one of the stars takes an unnecessarily long amount of time (almost two hours simply waiting!) to obtain. Some people have also complained that the game was too short. Obviously, when you’ve cleared it once and are practicing for a speedrun, it may, On fireindeed, seem like it whisks by in no time. Although, if it’s your first playthrough, and you’re racking your brain to figure out a puzzle, but also taking time to admire the artwork and music, chances are you won’t have that impression. Bottom line: do give this little gem a try, it’s well worth it.

He should’ve listened to his old man

The culprit: the Penumbra trilogy (PC, Mac, available through Steam)

That can't be good...It’s off the beaten track that you often come across the most interesting things. This applies to videogames in general, and the horror genre in particular. Like the infamous shortcut through the woods without which some horror films wouldn’t exist, taking a turn into indie title territory can yield spectacular results. Penumbra is a shining example of just such a lucky find. Created by a small Swedish company called Frictional Games, it displays such a mastery of the mechanisms of fear that it simply begs to be tried out. If Dead Space left you unimpressed, Silent Hill barely affected you and even Fatal Frame didn’t quite do the trick, or if you’re simply looking to broaden your horror horizons, do try this one on for size. Sure, the game has its kinks and flaws, and it’s pretty clear that it wasn’t made on a big budget, but let it not be said that more is better. None of the aforementioned games have scared me to this extent.

Cursed legacyPenumbra is technically a trilogy, consisting of Overture, Black Plague and Requiem. However, considering the three games have one common protagonist and storyline–which has all the makings of a good X-Files episode–, take place in immediate succession, are each rather short and use the same gameplay, it makes sense to view them as a whole. The story is narrated in what you eventually find out is an e-mail by Philip, a 30-year-old physicist with an estranged father. On the day of his mother’s funeral, he receives a mysterious letter from said father, directing him to a deposit box in a bank and instructing him to burn everything he finds in there without asking any questions or attempting to locate him. The box contains an indecipherable journal, Dude...BEHIND YOU!but also a set of coordinates, which point to somewhere in Northern Greenland. Three guesses as to what Philip decides to do. The coordinates designate an abandoned mine, where he soon discovers that something is very wrong. You’d think that any sensible person would just try to get the hell out, but curiosity is a powerful drive. It also has a nasty habit of terminating inquisitive felines. But I digress.

The people who made this game understand perfectly well that being isolated, defenceless and confused/disoriented/in doubt of your sanity is an ideal recipe for horror. There’s really nothing scarier than what an over-active imagination can conjure up, even if the game also contains very real hostiles who want nothing more than a tasty physicist snack or some chopping practice. Imagine for a moment how it would I sure hope these beams are safefeel to be stuck in an abandoned mine in the middle of nowhere with strange whispers periodically fading in and out of your hearing range (my god, the pause menu in Overture…), alarming messages left behind by miners and scientists whose corpses you periodically come across, bizarre Inuit artefacts that give you out-of-body experiences (those are the save points), escape and concealment as your best means of defence, and god-knows-what prowling in the shadows. Philip’s frightened gasps, which punctuate some of the more intense events, really don’t help. Contrary to what you might expect, there are other people down there…But a) you can count them on the fingers of one hand, b) they’re really not all that helpful…or reassuring, for that matter, and c) Philip begins and ends the game alone; you do the math. I find that these additional characters only serve to exacerbate the deep sense of loneliness and fear the game instils, with help from a minimalistic, cold and forlorn-sounding musical track. Black Plague also adds a nasty–and very successfully Where's the cleaning crew when you need it?executed, might I add–twist into the bargain, whereby Philip finds that he can no longer trust his perception. I would also like to remark that, if you manage to get through the kennels in Black Plague without having to pause the game to collect yourself at least once (especially with headphones on), you’re a better man (or woman) than I.

Penumbra takes place in first person, with a hand cursor on the screen to handle interactions. It uses a physics engine, whereby controls and movement are influenced by gravity. Say you’re trying to roll a boulder: not only do you need to mimic the movement, but it’ll also keep rolling if it’s on a surface where it would be realistically expected to roll. Same thing when trying to spin a valve or pull out a drawer. It takes The bare necessitiessome getting used to, but the game gives you adequate time to ease into it. Other than that, there’s a basic inventory, available at the press of a key, which you can also use to combine items or assign them to keyboard shortcuts, as well as check on Philip’s general health (which regenerates over time if he gets hurt and can be remedied with painkillers) and the state of the flashlight’s batteries. However, since the glowstick is just as useful as the flashlight and doesn’t need batteries, this is a moot point. There’s also a journal, in which Philip collects the various notes he picks up, as well as jotting down his thoughts on what to do next.

The game’s major downside is combat, but, thankfully, it’s only a factor in Overture. Philip’s only weapons are a hammer, a pickaxe or debris he can pick up and throw. And let’s just say that ‘imprecise’ doesn’t even begin to describe what swinging a pickaxe with that type of game engine is like; ‘extremely frustrating’ is probably a better description. Black Plague mercifully does away with weapons altogether, but not hostile Now would be a good time to...RUN!creatures, thus ramping up the fear factor. Philip can still try fighting them by throwing debris, but it’s really not safe and takes so long that you should understand that you’re simply not meant to do it. The point is that Philip, being a physicist, and not, say, a marine, is just no good in a straight-up fight. What’s more, he’s actually not half bad at hiding: enemies are far less likely to notice him if he crouches in a dark corner with his flashlight or glowstick off. The game even automatically switches to night-vision when he crouches undisturbed for a couple of seconds: this is signalled by a relieved sigh, a slight change of angle and everything taking on a bluish tint. Conversely, you’ll find that staring directly at an enemy for too long will make him panic, jolt out of night-vision and become more noticeable.

Gives a whole new meaning to weight-liftingAnother part which might disappoint some people is Requiem. Developed as an expansion to Black Plague, it serves as a sort of coda to the storyline. It’s much shorter than its predecessors, and while it looks and feels similar, it’s also more unorthodox, in that it clearly doesn’t take place in reality, as indicated by several not-so-subtle hints…such as exploding ketchup bottles or infinite batteries. There are also no enemies. Or well…no real enemies. Just a succession of puzzles. And while some of them are set in rather disturbing environments, the fact that there’s no actual threat of bodily harm, except from falling, does tend to somewhat defuse the sense of fear, which may be disappointing. Still, once you figure out why Requiem is the way it is, I find that it’s not a bad conclusion to the game. Certainly atypical, but…why not? It also has two endings, one of which is more obvious than the other, but this is the only game I know of where the “hidden” ending is actually the bad one.

Other things which might cause minor annoyance are some of the textures (eg. rubbish bags on the floor which should be 3-dimensional, but aren’t) and one particular voice actor. There’s also very little in the way of optional things to do, only a bunch of statuettes located in improbable places, which you can collect to unlock some Easter eggs on a subsequent playthrough. They’re rather underwhelming, though, so I Do I really have to go this way...?shouldn’t worry if you can’t find all the statuettes. Just goes to show that replayability isn’t exactly the game’s strong suit. Still, I find that none of this quite mars its effectiveness. If you’re receptive to psychological horror, you’re in for a treat. Just don’t be surprised if you find yourself too frightened to turn a corner or open a door, every once in a while. It certainly happened to me on more than one occasion.