When we first heard about Penumbear, a game featuring an adorable teddy-bear wearing an ascot, the last thing we expected to think was “Wow, this may be one of the toughest games we’ve played since League of Evil.” But here we are days later pondering a twisted, dark, supremely challenging existential adventure through a castle– where the main character is a teddy-bear.
A penumbra, for those who are curious, refers to one of three parts of a shadow (the others being the umbra and antumbra) created by lights. A Penumbear, though, is a critter that has the uncanny ability to walk along the lines where shadows and light meet. Our hero of this game uses his amazing powers to make his way through a foreboding and huge castle, in order to figure out why he’s there and who he is. Along the way he’ll encounter all manner of twisted and nightmarish creatures and traps and secrets that can only be overcome by his unique talent.
Luckily for Penumbear, he has a tiny firefly companion that flutters above him, and this flighty familiar has the ability to manipulate light to a certain degree (turning it on and off, basically). His firefly pal is able to help Penumbear by using light to create platforms, reveal secret pathways or as a pseudo weapon in order to dispatch the shadowy evils lurking throughout the castle. The two have to work hand in hand, so to speak, in order to make their way up and through the castle, rescuing other hapless bears and fireflies who have been trapped in the castle as well.
But take it from us: This game is wicked tough. The puzzles get more and more convoluted and twisted and the levels are absolutely huge. Just like all the best platformers, precision timing and quick reflexes are required, and even the slightest misstep can result in falling to your death or jumping headfirst into an enemy.
For the most part, the puzzles and levels are ingeniously designed and fun to play through. When you figure out the right combinations of light to get where you need to go, or to take out some enemies, or manage to find that secret passageway, you get a blast of adrenaline. No two levels are ever the same, so there is no one way to beat these levels by simple repetition. It really stretches your brain and tests your platforming skills all at the same time.
Being legitimately tough is one thing. We all like to be challenged. But when the game feels a little cheap, that’s another thing. Penumbra sometimes requires you to take lots and lots of leaps of faith, literally. Often times, when you have no idea where to go, you have to take the proverbial long walk off a short pier and hope for the best. Sometimes this results in death and sometimes it gets you where you want to go. Luckily, there are blissfully few levels that require you to do this, but it’s a really maddening feeling when you realize that you have to. That being said, we would love the ability to zoom in and out of the screen.
This kind of trial and error nature can be annoying and gets compounded by the other bears you have to rescue. These “bonus” bears are required to skip levels if you should feel the need. The problem here is that whenever you die– and you will die quite a bit– you lose all of the bears you’ve rescued in the level. When the levels are this huge and difficult to begin with, going back to re-rescue the bears is not exactly an enticing prospect.
The high level of difficulty means that Penumbear isn’t going to appeal to everyone, but for those gamers who’ve read this far and are more enticed than turned off, you are in for a real treat. Penumbear has some beautifully haunting visuals, spectacular level design, disturbing creature models and great controls. If you’re willing to deal with some annoying inconveniences and occasionally obnoxious gameplay elements, then you’ll get to enjoy hours of mind-bending fun.