Ever thought of running away to join the Circus? Well, our protagonist Willy, who’s fed up of life working on his Father’s farm, does exactly that. However, the reality doesn’t quite live up to the dream. Willy is caged and unwittingly put into the Penarium, that’s basically a Circus themed arena of death. There he’s to perform like a circus animal and complete many tasks for the Ring Master.
Published by Team 17 (Worms, Alien Breed) and developed by Self Made Miracle, Penarium is a platform arena adventure with a 16-bit retro style. The music complements the overall Circus theme of the game. The level design is fairly basic with a death pit below. There’s a wraparound screen edge in a similar style to Pac-Man that allows you to instantly get to the opposite side of the arena. Which seems straightforward until you have to complete objectives under fire of the traps, with only one life!
The traps have an impressive variety from homing rocket launchers to dragons and lasers that force you to run while trying to achieve goals. You will most likely be up against several traps at the same time, which is where things get interesting. Some traps actually compliment each other filling holes in each other’s abilities you would otherwise exploit. There are traps that shut down your ability to warp from one edge to another. The water level can rise covering lower platforms so you will have to swim in a bubble to get certain objectives. The thing is, it feels procedurally generated even though it’s not. When it comes to the traps the game design constantly keeps you on your toes.
The gameplay is solid. Though, I guess it’s not hard to get running left and right and a double jump wrong. Though what is hard to get right is how precise and responsive it feels. It never feels cheap; any misadventure with the environmental challenges was entirely my fault. Although the level design rarely changes I never felt it needed to. For this game it suffices, as what makes the level isn’t the platforms but the hazards and objectives. The sheer variety of traps and different types of tasks from the Ring Master created their own difficulty with how they’re implemented.
My only real issue I had was that some levels had almost impossible challenges that will lead many to frustration. You will be asked to do a task several times over with increasing difficulty. For example, level 6 you have to stay in a spotlight that moves randomly at the top of the screen from left to right. You have to build up a meter to do this that slowly drains every time you’re not in the spotlight. You have to do this three times in a row as if you die once you have to start from scratch. The very next level it’s the same kind of deal only you have to remember a series of lights in order 20 times without dying. Multiple increasingly difficult tasks you have to complete flawlessly or start over due to having only a single life will potentially put many off.
However, There has been an increasing rise in the popularity of insanely difficult games. Possibly because core gamers are always seeking the next level of challenge that pushes their limits. This is a very well made game though the prospect of repeating tasks over and over due to a crushing difficulty may only appeal to a niche crowd.
There’s a ‘Multiplayer’ and ‘Arcade’ mode on offer so you can take a break from the campaign if it starts to become monotonous. The multiplayer is actually a lot of fun as you race against your friend to complete the tasks like breaking barrels and collecting coins. The Arcade mode is pretty much the same thing but single player. The coins you collect can be used to purchase upgrades. This certainly adds to the game and gives it some credible replay value. However, upgrades can only be used outside of the main campaign.
To conclude, Penarium is a punishingly hard game that will either frustrate you to point of not playing or be a rewarding experience of excelling under fire. There’s no denying it only appeals to very select type of gamer. That said, the Multiplayer kind of flips it on its head; the crushing challenge actually makes it more fun. There’s also no complete this task ‘X’ number of times with increasing difficulty without dying even once, which kind of breaks the game for me as it will many others. A simple thing like a shield pick up could have made this game more accessible to a larger audience. Forgoing that, just a checkpoint when you’ve completed a task so you don’t have to repeat them all every time you die as it gets monotonous. If you can get past that and have the skills and patience required then this is a great game for those looking for that next seemingly impossible challenge.
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