Penarium – Preview

Title   Penarium
Developer  Self Made Miracle
Publisher  Team 17
Platform  Windows PC, Mac
Genre  2D arena, Arcade
Release Date  Late 2014
Official Site

One of the few tiny pleasures of living in a small, northern town is that there’s plenty of open space around. Rolling hills, perfect for the horses to gallop and llamas to… do whatever it is llamas do on llama farms. Fields big enough to hold festivals, even though only one nearby ever has. And, for reasons I’ll never know, a strip of land that was used yearly to stage a travelling circus. Oh, how delighted we were when the circus rolled into town! The lights, the acrobatics, the animals! So when I saw the bright circus colours displayed proudly above the Penarium stand at Play Expo, I leapt at the chance to relive my childhood. Until I actually sat down to play it.

Penarium gives the player control of Willy, a young boy who’s been forced to partake in a “sadistic circus”, with almost no hope of escape. Far from swinging on the trapeze and riding an elephant, Willy must dodge a variety of things designed to kill him, including machine guns, rocket launchers, flying Chinese dragons, a giant rolling ball or simply the lack of floor beneath him. It’s pure, frantic, twitch-based platforming, created to frustrate and irritate until you throw down your controller, before returning for just one more go.

Normally this type of game annoys the crap out of me, but I actually found the whole thing really quite fun. The aim is to avoid the deadly contraptions while smashing into barrels and collecting the coins found within, with the killing machine swapping out every time you destroy a certain number of barrels. It starts fairly simply, with just one machine trying to murder you, but survive long enough and eventually the landscape changes and more machines get thrown in, forcing you to rethink your tactics and pay extra attention to your surroundings. There’s no set pattern to which machines will come out either, so you need to remain vigilant at all times if you’re going to survive.

It helps that Penarium controls wonderfully, with Willy responding to the smallest of nudges and jumping as soon as the button is pushed, making the whole experience a smooth and pleasant ride. And the pacing is fantastic too; just as I was getting a little too used to the patterns of the machines, the game threw in something I hadn’t seen before and added another weapon at the bottom of the screen. That said, I couldn’t work out what half of the power-ups do; after a certain number of weapon changes, you’re granted a power-up from a list randomly assigned at the start of the game. Some are obvious, like the Icarus wings giving you infinite jumping ability, while some are apparently useless, such as the shield which, believe me, does not stop a giant rolling ball. Some clearer explanation on that end would be useful, though with enough trial-and-error it should be easy enough to work out what’s going on. Although, with a one-hit-kill system and no checkpoints or lives to speak of, trial-and-error doesn’t seem all that appetising.

That said, there’s time yet to change these things, since the game is clearly nowhere near ready for release. The graphics were all there, and it does look beautiful, with bright colours bringing out the 2D pixel-art in glorious tones. But, for example, at the time I played it, attempting to bring up the leaderboards caused the game to crash and required someone to rush over and sort it out for me. This did give me a chance to ask what exactly Penarium was, though the response I got was very vague, almost like no one else really knows either. All I managed to get was “fast-paced arena platformer” and “two-player mode”, something I haven’t found mentioned anywhere else, and therefore I’m claiming that as my hot scoop.

It’s evidently a fun game, and will likely satisfy those old-school platformer fans looking for something ridiculously hard to throw away a few minutes on. But it feels like after those few short, insane minutes are up, the majority of people aren’t going to want to come back. There seemed to be higher levels of difficulty to play, and with leaderboards and potentially some kind of multiplayer thrown into the mix, it definitely looks like developers Self Made Miracle are looking to throw in some variety. It just remains to be seen whether that will keep players coming back for more.

Penarium is set for release “later this year” on PC.

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