Sunday, 8 January 2012

Run, but no Gun!

It’s software-house review time again.
 I’ve had a look at another little-known developer. This time from Helsingborg in Sweden. 

The outfit is Frictional Games, and it all kicked off when the founding members produced a non-commercial tech-demo for MS Windows in 2006.
This demo was simply titled ‘Penumbra’ and was intended to showcase Frictional’s new HPL Engine (standing for H.P Lovecraft) the intended use and leanings of this new engine were rather obvious. Work on the original engine was started in 2004 and it was coded with 2D gaming in mind. The concept was later updated, with a new 3D  layer being added to the system. The Penumbra demo received much interest and acclaim upon its release, and this success spurred its creators on to produce a full commercial game using the system.

Unlike many other companies nowadays Frictional Games have taken the time to produce and develop their very-own proprietary game-engine, and very good it is as well. The code has been rewritten and tweaked for each subsequent release. So much so that by the time ‘Amnesia’ was produced the engine had developed into a very strong and solid piece of coding. This gives the games a very different look and feel to most mainstream stuff, which can generally all be traced back along the same engine-family trees.

I personally hope to see more games produced using the HPL engine. In some ways Frictional’s design is a nod to the point-and click type adventures of the past. But it mixes the level of exploration provided by these systems up with the unrestricted first-person perspective movement of modern games. Along with a well honed physics engine this leads to a game that feels like it puts you much more in touch with your environment, and lends itself very nicely to the atmospheric adventure based game-play offered by Frictional Games.

To date Frictional has produced three interlinked games in the Penumbra series, along with the critically acclaimed Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
Although these are all possibly best described as first-person, survival-horror, adventure games they definitely aren’t your standard ‘Resident Evil’ rip-off or run-and-gun FPS faire.

The Penumbra series:

 The original Penumbra tech demo was released as a free download in 2006.
  • The demo was intended to showcase the capabilities of the company’s heavily modified 3D update to their existing HPL Engine. This was never intended to be a preview for a commercial product, but the overwhelming response to the engine gave them the confidence to make a full game from the concept.

Penumbra: Overture is a Survival-Horror Adventure game released in 2007. 

The first commercial Penumbra game was released for the MS Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux systems, a strategy that Frictional has kept throughout all its releases.
Overture was made available from the Steam download site in 2009.

This was always intended to be the first game in a series, hence the ‘Episode One’ label prominently displayed on the box-cover.
The game bares the distinction of being the only Frictional Games release to have any form of combat (N.b. not shooting, there are no guns in any of the Frictional releases). However the honour is dubious at best because the combat was probably the least successful part of this game. No, it was the storyline, atmosphere, and physics-based puzzling that were the mainstays of this game. And although some cracks could be seen in the newly-rolled engine, the overall effect was worth playing if you liked traditional ‘find and use the objects to solve puzzles’ type of game. Progress was also heavily reliant on the player reading notes, which are found scattered throughout the game, and some weren’t too happy with having to read so much of these in order to move the plot forwards.
Although the game generally received favourable reviews it was released to a lukewarm reception at best, and didn’t have massive sales. Although it was seen as a moderate success by the budding software-house.

Penumbra: Black Plague is a follow up to the original game, released in 2008.

Like episode one this was also released for the MS Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux systems.
Black Plage was also made available from the Steam download site in 2009.
 ‘Black Plage’ is the second part of the story started in ‘Overture’ and was initially intended to complete the adventure, although this turned out not to be the case. Possibly because this part was released to better reviews and gathered a larger audience than the first game.
This moderate success also had a knock-on effect of providing some additional sales for the first instalment.

 This game introduced more inventory based puzzles, as well as retaining the same puzzle elements as the first game. The players’ stealth ability and willingness to run away from danger was very much up-played in this episode, as it dropped the combat system completely, and was also less heavily reliant on the player reading notes, although this was still a major part of the game. 

Penumbra: Requiem is an expansion to the previous game, also released in 2008.

Also released for MS Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux.
This expansion pack to ‘Black plage’ seemed to, at least partially, be released because of the building fan-base feedback receieved after the release of the first and during the release of he second game.
The big change with ‘Requiem’ is the fact that absolutely no enemies are encountered at all in this game, with the only physical danger coming from the environment. And even this isn’t all that intrinsically dangerous.
Most of the game-play is firmley focusing on puzzles, with some exploration thrown in.
 Some people slated the expansion pack as ‘little more than an excuse to show off the advances in their improved HLP physics engine.’

Although by this time it really was a pretty good engine, and the fan-base generally accepted this additional content for what it was... an attempt at tidying up the loose ends of a series that was originally going to be over three episodes, but was then reduced to two 'mostly' due to ditrubuter problems.

The Amnesia series:

Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a Survival-Horror Adventure game released in 2010. 

Although this game introduced the much updated version 2 of the HPL Engine it was still released on the MS Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux platforms.
This was made available through the Steem site in 2010, and also through the OnLive game-streaming service in 2011, where the full unrestricted version of the game can be played free for thirty minutes.
Amnesia is a departure from the earlier games series and I do think this is a very slick game. But there are slick games that aren’t necessarily good games. Fortunately I also think Amnesia is a very good game.
The updated engine really shines through for me. Yes, if you really look for them there are still slight cracks in the HPL system, but not many, and (unlike some big-name mainstream games) not major.

The strength of this game comes in its ability to create a truly eerie atmosphere. The supernatural nature and heavy storyline of the game combined with the ghostlike visuals really gel, making the game-play real edge-of-the-chair stuff. But don’t go thinking this only offers quick-sharp-shock thrills or run-and-gun blasting, because it is not reliant on the first and has absolutely non of the second.
Like the later Penumbra games Amnesia has no shooting mechanic, in fact it has no real attack mechanic at all. Your main means of defence is to run and hide amidst, or in, the very interactive furnishings, or attempt to lose yourself in the shadows. Although, staying too long in the darkness lessens your sanity, leading to a whole new slew of creepy effects.
The story is intricate and puzzles are all real-world physics based. E.g not of the 'work this out and continue,' completely irrelevant to the storyline, ‘Professor Layton' type.

This is a much more polished offering, both in story and presentation, than Frictional’s earlier games. But like the earlier games it won’t be for everyone.
 • If you’re a 'Silent Hill' fan, and ‘Silent Hill 2’ is one of your favourite games, you could do much worse than ‘Amnesia: The Dark Descent,’ or even any of the ‘Penumbra’ series.
 • If you’re a ‘Call of Duty’ fan... well who am I to judge, but maybe not so much (no guns remember).

Over all I’d say this is an interesting company, producing interesting games. And since they have already publicly expressed an interest in breaking out of the Horror-Games genre, I’d say this defenetly may be one to watch.

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