Despite its old school graphics and simple gameplay design, Penarium quickly elevates itself above its first impressions. Much like games such as Super Meat Boy and I Wanna Be the Guy, Penarium is a 2D arcade style platformer that is all about quick thinking and sharp reflexes. The controls are very simple: All you have are movement and jumping. There aren’t any weapons or abilities you can use in the story mode to save yourself, so you’re left with just your reactions and pattern recognition abilities to pass every level. Failure to avoid obstacles leads to instant death, which is something you’ll witness several times in later stages of the game.
The plot is pretty straightforward in a way that matches the simplicity of the graphics and overall game design. Willy, the son of a farmer, runs away from home to join the circus which passes through his town. However, all isn’t fun and games for Willy, as he is tossed in multiple arenas forced to perform several death-defying tricks for the sadistic ring master in order to entertain a crowd looking for blood. The only reward that Willy receives for surviving each barbaric feat of skill is the chance to do it all over again in a more challenging level.
Penarium: Xbox One [Reviewed], Playstation 4, PC
Developer: Self Made Miracle
Publisher: Team 17 Software Ltd
Release Date: 23 September 2015
Price: £7.19 [Disclosure: Game copy supplied by Publisher]
Each level plays like a basic mini game. One has you breaking several barrels that appear randomly on the stage, another has you popping balloons in a specific order, and one has you trying to remain in the spotlight which constantly moves. There is even one that has you playing a “Simon Says” type game where you have to memorize and duplicate a specific button sequence. While these are all simple enough, the difficulty comes in the fiendish instruments of death that the ringmaster throws at you while you’re trying to accomplish these tasks. These include, but aren’t limited to: Giant bowling balls, rockets that track and follow your position, spinning blades that crawl on the floor, a giant laser that moves across the screen, and long dragons that jump in an arc. Touching any of these once results in instance death which forces you to redo the challenge from the beginning again.
It sounds quite frustrating, and it definitely can be. The levels themselves are fairly simple. Each stage is comprised of platforms of varying length above and below each other. However, the difficulty stems mainly from the obstacles that instantly kill Willy if he touches them. Each obstacle has a certain pattern that needs to be recognized and accounted for while you’re doing the objective. However, it’s easy to simply mistime or mistake the approach of an obstacle, or even be cornered in an inescapable situation.
Needless to say, timing plays a huge part in being able to do well in this game. A single misstep or an extra second of indecision can lead to instant death and being forced to redo the entire level all over again. As the game progresses, so too does the complexity of the mini game. That includes having more barrels to smash, popping more balloons, or memorizing longer button sequences. Dealing with multiple obstacles at a time also becomes the norm, which adds to the already difficult situation. While the levels allow you to jump off of the edge of the left screen and land on the right screen (and vice versa), certain obstacles (like bullets and missiles) are also able to take advantage of this, which can add to the frustrations.
Because Penarium is a game that is all about timing and perfect platforming, having controls that are equal parts intuitive and responsive is of the utmost importance. Fortunately, that’s the case here for the most part. The controls allow for precision jumping based on how long you hold the jump button. Anyone who has ever played a Mario game would feel at ease here. Willy can also double jump in the game, which works for the most part, except for the rare occasion where I wasn’t able to jump a second time which made me fall to my death. Despite the increase in difficulty in the later stages of the game, I rarely felt that it was cheap or broken. Since the obstacles were always the same, success boiled down to figuring out the pattern of the obstacle (or obstacles) and practising the perfect method to navigate through them.
Aside from the story there is an arcade and multiplayer mode in the game as well. Arcade mode is similar to the story mode, except with the main goal of staying alive for as long as possible. The obstacles changes constantly which keeps the player on their feet, and leaderboard support means that you’ll have bragging rights if you beat your friend’s score. In arcade mode you can also collect coins which can be used at the store to purchase cards that provide a temporary bonus or a perk in arcade mode. Multiplayer mode allows two players to team up or go head to head locally.
The graphics reflect the same old-school approach that the gameplay employs. The pixelated graphics are very reminiscent of games from the old NES or arcade days like Mega Man or Contra. It’s a simple style that is visually appealing without being too distracting. There isn’t much to the soundtrack, but the tunes are catchy and fit with the circus motif perfectly. There aren’t many arenas in the game unfortunately, so the maps can feel quite repetitive by the end. This isn’t helped by the fact that they all look the same, so they kind of blend in anyways.
Even when I was forced to replay the same levels multiple (or in some cases, dozens of) times, Penarium rarely lost its momentum. Except for the rare occasion where a double jump wasn’t recognized for some reason, I never felt like it was the games fault when I fell to my death or got crushed, shocked, chopped up, or blown up by an obstacle. This was due mainly to the tight and responsive controls of the game.
The levels got progressively difficult as the game went on, but none felt impossible after a few attempts at learning the pattern and practising it a bit. Finally beating a level that took several attempts (and caused multiple expletives thrown at the screen) felt extremely satisfying, and the desire to have that same experience again was what kept me going until I finally beat the story. Your personal mileage may depend on how naturally inclined you are to these types of games, but if you consider yourself a fan of platformers and wish to test your skill in that genre, you may want to secure your ticket to Penarium.