Penarium is a 2D arcade-style game about survival. When a boy named Willy is tricked into joining the circus, he quickly finds out it's not what he expected. The man running things, referred to as the Director, imprisons Willy and forces him to endure one of the most inhumane big-top shows of all time. With simple pick-up-and-play controls, the agenda is all about dodging a gallery of hazards and traps that enter the arena, while collecting items or completing other basic objectives. You will die. You will succeed. And you will likely have a lot of fun in the process.
With beautiful, detailed pixel graphics, Penarium's deranged tone is somewhat unapparent at first glance. However, as soon as Willy collides with a rocket, circular saw, or swarm of bees, the bloody mess of body parts ensures you don't mistake the game's mature intentions. The thought of imprisoning a child and forcing him to survive deathtrap after deathtrap merely to entertain an audience is disturbing on its own, but somehow Penarium manages to make it feel silly enough that it's not all that offensive. It's a good thing, too, because the gameplay is frantic and addictive.
Since the controls are limited to directional inputs and a jump button (which allows for a standard or double jump), it's easy to pick up a controller and get started. Willy moves in a tight, responsive manner, making the blame of any failure reside with the player. Every now and again screen-wrapping can lead to a cheap death, but that's a very rare occurrence. Directing Willy across small platforms and throughout various dangers requires split-second reflexes and reactions, so even though this is an accessible game, it's still very challenging. It's not quite as hard as Super Meat Boy, but it's surely going to put your skills to the test regardless of your level of experience.
Unlike most arcade-style games, Penarium has a campaign mode. There are 30 stages divided equally among three arenas, and each stage has a specific objective. These range from collecting barrels, staying within a ray of light to reduce a meter, popping balloons in a specific order, and engaging in a game of Simon Says where it's required that colored switches are stood on in sequence. Even though some of it does get repetitive, there's just enough variety within these 30 stages to keep the campaign enjoyable until the end. It won't be a particularly long venture for those with veteran platforming skills (we beat it in about 2.5 hours), but given the price of admission and other gameplay modes, it feels like a substantial enough piece of the package.
Once the campaign has been completed, there are two other modes to extend the life of Penarium. The first is Arcade, which will surely satisfy those looking to chase high scores and climb online leaderboards. Here it's all about breaking barrels, collecting coins, and surviving the onslaught of deathtraps as long as possible. It's essentially a slice of what's found in the campaign, but there aren't any objective variants to deal with. What is different, however, is that any money earned can be spent to unlock power-ups to assist during play. This addition adds a hint of progression to a mode that is otherwise about repetition and setting personal goals. Overall, arcade mode is highly enjoyable and hard to stop playing, which is good because it becomes the main focus after completing the campaign.
The other mode is Multiplayer, which allows two players to join up or go head-to-head locally. Both options feature the usual deathtraps, but scoring is determined by how many switches have been stood on and activated. Playing competitively is where most of the fun is at, as racing from switch to switch while trying to temporarily knock out your opponent is a riot. It's too bad that there aren't more objective variations or playable characters, though, because multiplayer alone could've been a reason to invest in Penarium. But even though it's not quite the star attraction, it still manages to compliment the other modes, helping to round out the experience.
There are a few other criticisms that we could spend time discussing – lack of visual diversity, limited number of arenas, Simon Says can be a grind – but there's nothing meddling enough to disrupt what makes Penarium so entertaining. Even though the difficulty can intensify rather quickly, the inviting controls and reliable mechanics make you feel like a win is within reach – and that's really the sign of a great arcade-style game. When you can taste success despite the odds being stacked against you, the greatest challenge is putting down the controller.
Penarium is one of the best arcade-style games we've played this console generation. The campaign doesn't last all that long, and more multiplayer options would've been appreciated, but all in all, there's a healthy amount of content for the price. If fast-paced gameplay and high-score chasing are your thing, we suggest planning a trip to this sadistic carnival. Just don't be surprised if you end up imprisoned, losing hours upon hours of your life to the addictive chaos.