Have you ever wanted a game that makes you swear so much that you could pay off someone’s college debt with your swear jar? Ever wanted a game where you can scream, “Bees!” and “Not the Chinese Dragons!” in the same sentence?
What’s that? No? Oh, yes you do. You just didn’t realise it before this game arrived.
Today we shall be delving into the upcoming new title from Self Made Miracle and Team 17, Penarium. The game is a simple throwback to the old, pixelated 2D arcade games of many of our childhood days. It is, however, published by the same sadistic demons that made those same older games so ungodly difficult. Penarium is outright, and even self-admittedly, sadistic. Your goal in the game is to have your hapless, pot-bellied character survive an onslaught of traps, weapons and various concoctions that would even make Pinhead bothered.
The game revolves around a strange mix of circus- and gladiatorial-style survival. The traps vary from almost anything the developers could imagine: bees, Chinese Dragons (or Lung dragons, for the nerds among you), cannons, flame walls, spikes, and many more. You name it and these clever, whip-cracking devs have probably thought to throw it in.
From what we can tell, through our tears of frustration, Dutch studio Self Made Miracle have all the basics down pat. Penarium’s controls are satisfying and solid; taking charge of your poor, doomed character, Willy, feels very natural and all of the frustration accumulated from failing was down to user error. There was to be no game shaming in our darkest hour – we just suck at Penarium.
The overall sound design is particularly noteworthy. The background music and main theme sound like something directly out of a Tim Burton movie with no additional exaggeration. It is upsetting, cruel and hilarious in all the best ways for a creepy circus theme to be. The sounds of the traps, the gooey deaths and the audience urging poor Willy to die sound crisp and immersive from the moment the game starts up.
Now, the story of our anti-hero, Willy, is not fully plotted out within the game yet. Looking at the Penarium website, it seems that he is actually a kid that has been captured in this sadistic circus so that the audience can essentially watch him die. In order to get back to his, and we quote, “beloved father’s farm”, he has to survive and escape the cruel Penarium. It is admirable that this game really wants you to know that it is outright macabre and mean-spirited. Penarium isn’t going to skirt around the issue or even dull it, which is somewhat refreshing to see in what is honestly such a cute-looking game.
The art design on display is absolutely fantastic, and a loving homage to the previously mentioned pixelated games. Bright colours are absent, save for some vivid reds; a design choice that resembles the old Hammer horror films. We’re not sure if this was an intentional choice or not, but it really highlights the mood the game presents and makes everything seem a bit colder and darker.
There are varying levels of difficulty that the initial build presents: Medium, Hard and Hardest. What this translates to is actually: “you’re dead” , “you’re really dead” and “what are you even doing here?”. In a nutshell, the game is challenging. It is tooth-grindingly difficult and only gets harder the longer you manage to keep poor Willy alive. This sort of challenge, however, is a ton of fun. It’s a title you can put your best up against time and time again, and come away from with a real sense of progression – while at the same time being that bit closer to punching a wall.
The current build features both arcade and multiplayer modes that offer co-op and competitive methods of playing. In versus mode, you can step on buttons to turn the tides against your opponent. In co-op, the aim is just to stay alive as best you can. Both of these options play just as well as arcade mode and it’s easy to imagine this being great fun for folks to swing at together.
All in all, this is another impressive showing from a team we’ve always been fans of. Ironically, we’re usually not fans of mean-spirited games in the slightest, or even opportunities in games to be a jerk to someone, but we thoroughly enjoyed playing this. Our hands are twitching towards the mouse as we’re typing this to play it some more. Perhaps, in time, we will be skilled enough to do the impossible: