A family day out to the circus sounds like fun right? Walk into the huge marquee, grab a drink and some nuts before setting in to watch the show. Cheer from the crowd as you watch the lion tamers, trapeze artists, tightrope walkers, oh, and of course the abducted farm-boy who gets smashed into smithereens by a giant dragon. Don’t you just love the circus? Welcome to Penarium, an 8-bit carnival of death, with you: young Willy, the main attraction.
The game begins with our introduction into the world of Penarium. You play as a young lad called Willy. Willy stumbles into an open trailer one day and ends up being abducted by the evil, moustache twirling ringleader of a circus designed to delight and enthral the audience, a circus where most of the acts end up as a rather unpleasant stain on the floor.
I enjoyed the deliciously dark humour, most of it delivered by the ringleader of the circus, from little jabs at the previous contestants who never made it past the training phase, to demanding that you create his favourite moisturiser. There is so much personality in Penarium that it is hard to dislike and, I for one, think that Self Made Miracle, the games developer, can hold their heads high in this regard amid the myriad of mediocre games that share the genre.
The Campaign mode will see you training for, and eventually attending, the grand circus. There are three arenas, two of which are available after unlocking them through completing levels. In each level you will be given an objective, There are a few objectives that the game will throw at you, smashing barrels is a common one, as well as pressing a sequence of buttons in a certain order or, as I said before, collecting items for a dark potion (moisturiser). All of this can be accomplished by jumping on the various platforms that will litter the level, in a nice mechanic, the screen “wraps”, so if you jump off the right edge of the screen, you show up on the left. The challenge in Penarium isn’t accomplishing the objectives, in fact, that part is easy. Each stage of the level will throw different dangers at you, these are usually in the form of weapon rails. Most of the game will see you dodging death from both above and below, and when the game feels really sadistic, it will put killer spikes at each edge of the screen that prevents the “wrapping” and has no problem slamming into the middle of the screen.
The weapons that will plague you throughout gameplay are varied and offer a huge challenge at times. Most of the weapons will kill you outright (at the slightest of touches), rockets, machine guns, ice spikes and spinning blades are all very common. Individually these obstacles are bad enough. Some weapons don’t have a lethal effect of their own but will actively hinder your evasion of their more dangerous brethren: pipes that pump water will push you to your doom or into harm’s way, whereas a pink glue gun totally ruins the flow of the gameplay and will inevitably have you making a mess out of poor Willy more times than you care to remember. Penarium doesn’t let you rest on your laurels though, after each death, the sequence of enemy combinations can change, meaning you can’t rely on repetition to memorise your way to success.
In truth, I found that Penarium doesn’t allow any thinking time. The gameplay is so frantic and fast-paced, and death so close at hand, that anytime I actively tried to think about what I was going to do, I would immediately slam into a spike, be blown up by a rocket or crushed by a giant bowling ball. When I was in the zone, it was simply my unthinking mind and reaction speed that carried me to victory, I loved Penarium but it made it clear that Penarium doesn’t love me. The gameplay can be brutally hard at times, with levels that genuinely felt impossible, I spent over half an hour trying to avoid Chinese Dragons as they launched themselves at me from what seemed like all sides. Penarium expects you to die over and over again, hell; it even has an achievement for dying 50 times (an achievement that I picked up embarrassingly early in the game). The only real problem I found in the controls was that Willy would often refuse to double jump, and that always sent me straight to my death.
Outside of the Campaign, we have Arcade and the Multiplayer. The Arcade is lackluster and simply asks you to smash barrels and the like, until you die. It was nice to see how long I could survive but didn’t really add much to the game as a whole. There are upgrades that you can buy to help you in arcade mode but it didn’t hold me for long. I did love the multiplayer. It is local and can be played cooperatively or competitively. I had great fun playing with a friend of mine but if I had one complaint, it’s that the sole objective is to stand on two buttons simultaneously and while it was fun for 10 minutes at a time, it will lack longevity.
The soundtrack is brilliant too, with retro style circus music and nice voice acting in the cutscenes, it really did add a layer over and above the generic. I have to admit to growing tired of the 8-bit visuals, this isn’t so much a complaint about Penarium but the market as a whole, there are so many games with this art and visual style that it is losing its appeal.
Penarium follows a trend in the indie game market, one that I am beginning to grow rather concerned over. Now, so we are clear: I enjoyed Penarium, it has many positive aspects and only a few negative ones, however with the flood of retro styled, low-resolution games that are being released of late, it makes it all the harder for a decent game to stand out. There are no shortage of games in a similar state as Penarium, but with so many, it means that the semi-nostalgic thrill of playing games of this nature has worn off, and that just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Penarium is a fun little game, it has a brilliant sense of humour and doesn’t take itself too seriously. The gameplay can be brutally hard but can be amazingly rewarding once you overcome a difficult level. The soundtrack is very fitting to the setting and by and large, the control system works well (with the exception of the double jump not registering sometimes). In the flood of indie titles that are being released now….. I’m not sure Penarium stands out enough amongst the herd.
Penarium is one of many 2D, 8-bit platformer games that are available on the Xbox One. It has a deliciously dark sense of humour and fundamental gameplay that is entertaining in small bursts, but grows frustrating in longer sessions. It is a punishingly difficult game that wants you to know it hates you. Penarium is a fun game but doesn’t stand out of the crowd.
• Graphics – 40/100
• Audio— 78/100
Overall – 61.8