Circuses are often more nefarious than they appear and Penarium is no exception. This over-the-big-top 2D dodge 'em up puts you in the shoes of an unfortunate son of a farmer who becomes Penarium's latest attraction, but will he perform the greatest show on earth?
You play Penarium by dodging numerous hazards while trying not to fall within many unique challenges. Almost everything you can think of is trying to end your life such as homing missiles, bowling balls, bees, and dragons being shot out of cannons. Thankfully, controlling the flabby kid is incredibly easy with fine-tuned and simplistic controls. All you do is basically run and jump which may not sound as exciting as it is, but once you play it you'll find that it's quite a difficult game to put down. On top of that, you'll struggle almost constantly with the high degree of challenge which will make you keep telling yourself to try again just one more time. It's this addictive quality that illustrates how well done the gameplay is. After you recognize scenarios that arise, you'll switch to an appropriate strategy to survive unscathed and that feels extremely rewarding every time you do. In the end, its simplistic yet brutally challenging gameplay is satisfying as long as you're the kind of gamer who keeps striving for perfection.
Penarium's visuals fit the retro mold that indie developers can't get enough of lately. However, it does have an edge over most games since the easily distinguishable action and detailed backgrounds filled with comical animations are carefully calibrated to maximize enjoyment. That being said, considering there are only three circus-themed locales to play within, you don't get much variety when it comes to environments. On the audio side, music sounds like its straight from the soundtrack of Big Top Pee-wee which amplifies the sinister undertones. Sound effects highlight important events since these are louder than the rest. This helps you use your ears to scope out danger, too. Overall, the detailed visuals and fantastic audio are well handled for such a simple game.
As I already mentioned, there are three areas to play in. Each of these contains campaign, arcade, and multiplayer modes. Campaign mode consists of 10 challenges for each area that'll have you performing such feats as smashing a certain number of barrels, popping balloons in order, playing Simon Says with buttons, staying in the spotlight, and catching lotions to put in cauldrons. These different kinds of challenges do a great job of keeping the gameplay fresh seeing as they constantly mix things up. However, with only 30 challenges total; it may be on the short side for more skilled gamers.
Arcade mode essentially tests you to see how long you can last which hopefully results in your ascension up the leaderboard. Your goal is to smash barrels that coins burst out of. After every five barrels, the hazards change so you'll have to adapt your strategy constantly. To assist your efforts, an interesting power-up system is implemented that takes the form of purchasable tarot cards. Before beginning a new arcade attempt, you can either be assigned four random cards or test your timing skills by picking your favourite via a randomizer similar to a slot machine. The equipped cards randomly appear as you play and have the potential to greatly help you out.
On the other end of the spectrum, I'll just say that they shouldn't have bothered with multiplayer mode. You and a friend can either work together or battle, but it's mostly the same experience no matter which option you choose. Cooperatively, you try to stand on your corresponding buttons until the next set spawns and see how many times you can do so before both players perish. Battling is the same except you fight over one button. Both choices are tedious and pale in comparison to the far superior single player modes.
Penarium is a very fun single player challenge for gamers who aren't satisfied unless their skills are thoroughly tested. If you fit this description then you'd be a clown not to purchase tickets to this big top extravaganza.
- + Awesome survival gameplay mechanics will compel you to give it just one more try
- + Many different challenges keep things fresh
- + Nifty power-up system in arcade mode
- - There is multiplayer, but it's so boring that it may as well have not been included
- - Environments don't offer enough variety
- - The main campaign is quite short