by William Thompson
reviewed on PC
WELCOME TO THE CIRCUS... OF DEATH
I used to love the circus when I was a young boy. Every few months, the touring acrobats and wild animals would visit my local area and amaze with their stunts and tricks. Times have changed though…a circus rarely features any animals due to animal cruelty concerns and they mainly focus on human performers.
Penarium is one such circus, with a slight difference. The main performer, a former farm boy known as Willy is actually performing for his life. Willy decided to leave home for the lure of the circus, but this was definitely not what he had in mind. The Ringmaster has Willy performing all manner of deathly stunts in order to keep the patrons entertained. Players are tasked with keeping Willy alive as they leap from platform to platform on a single screen like a game of Jumpman, while dodging a range of killing machines. As you would expect, the campaign begins quite sedately, easing the Willy into his role as "daring entertainer". Willy jumps from one platform to another like a trapeze artist, albeit without the trapeze or a safety net. But as he completes one task, another more dangerous mission is placed in front of him.
Penarium comes complete with three different game modes – Campaign, Arcade and Multiplayer. Although the goal in the Campaign is to survive, each level also has a different objective. Many levels have Willy collecting a number of barrels, each barrel appearing when one is collected. Another level tasks Willy with collecting potions of varying colours and then distributing them into the appropriate cauldron. Levels that I like to call 'Balloon Chase' has balloons that light up in a specific order. Willy must reach them before they run out of air and then move onto the next one in sequence.
The levels I named "Button Press" have four coloured lights that light up in a particular order which requires Willy to press them in that same order (akin to the memory game Simon). But unlike Simon, Willy has to contend with the deathly devices as he attempts to complete the sequence. Time in Spotlight levels have a light that moves randomly across the screen. Willy then needs to stand in the light for an allocated amount of time.
Arcade Mode has Willy attempting to collect as many barrels as possible before dying. On collecting the barrels, he is awarded with coins which can then be spent in the shop, granting him short term bonuses during games. The online leaderboard allows gamers to compare their top score with others. Games don't generally last for too long, but there is that 'Just one more turn to improve my score' addictiveness.
KILLING TWO BIRDS WITH ONE MACHINE
Multiplayer is fun as well, with two modes to choose from. Versus mode plays out much like a game of capture the flag. A button is placed in a random position and the two competitors must stand on the button long enough to activate it. As well as dodging the various death-traps, gamers must also beware of their opponent. A jump to the head will leave an opponent concussed for a short period of time, usually long enough to score the point. Co-op mode plays out much like the Arcade mode. But where in the Arcade mode you need to collect as many barrels as you can, in co-op, each of the players must stand on a colour coded button for a period of time. Once the buttons have been activated, another appears. The game keeps going as long as at least one of the two players lives.
The music in Penarium suits the game perfectly, with classic tunes that reminded me of the circuses that I went to as a kid, or from those shown on TV or in movies -albeit in an old-school electronic style. And although it plays in a constant loop in the background, there is never the feel that it is annoying. Both the music and the visuals look like they've come straight from the Commodore 64 era. The single game screen (no scrolling) and the 8-bit pixel setting works well. Although everything is pixelated, it is all clear and easily to see what is going on at all times.
Frustrating but addictive
Penarium is a game that can be played in short bursts, but having said that, the addictive nature of it means that the fifteen minutes you wanted to play during your lunch break can end up being two hours as you attempt to make it pass the next level only to fall agonizingly short again. The levels are varied enough to keep the game interesting despite the fact that the setting rarely changes. The arcade mode, with its online leaderboard only makes the game more addictive, as you attempt to move high up the list. With old-school visuals and audio, simple controls and some devilishly tricky levels, Penarium is a heap of fun.
Simple, yet addictive levels
Can be frustrating when you keep dying