Ah, the arena platformer. Truly, it has been one of the best genres to take prominence in mobile gaming. A big reason is because the combination of a small enough arena to fit on one screen, with simple controls, and endlessly-repetitive high score chasing, is a package that’s almost the platonic ideal for a mobile game. We’ve seen it through countless fun games, with one of the more prominent examples being Super Crate Box ($1.99) from Vlambeer. However, with Vlambeer seemingly not updating the app for 64-bit appocalypse, that means that not only can a great arena platformer shine, but it could possibly take the crown. Penarium ($1.99), much like Super Crate Box, started on PC before moving to iOS. In this case, Team 17 published the game, developed by Self Made Miracle, and helped to bring the late 2015 release to iOS a while later. And it’s quite a welcome title on iOS, while perhaps not as tight as some of the finest entries in the arena platformer genre.
You play as Willy, who has been trapped by an evil circus master. He’s a bit of a fat kid, his shirt’s a bit too small, and he’s constantly being made to go through danger for strangers’ amusement. Basically, this is my life story, and I will be contacting my lawyer when I am done with this review. Thankfully, Willy has surprising athleticism for a big man, and he can find a way to survive. Mostly, this involves collecting barrels while dodging buzzsaws, ice spikes, lasers, and swarms of bees. OSHA is going to have something to say about all this. The hazards are focused around constantly altering the level, and changing the dynamics of the platforms. Water can fill the lower half of the arena, or lasers can destroy parts of the platforms, or rockets that fire out of all but one launcher force you to find new safe spots, and avoid danger where previously there was none.
Where Penarium differs from many similar arena platformers is that it features a full-fledged campaign mode in addition to the arcade mode. You’ll play through 30 levels that not only introduce you to the game’s elements and its challenges, but also give you some unique scenarios to take on. Many of these are just collecting barrels against particular level configurations, but others involve trying to stay in a spotlight, or hit a pattern of buttons while traps attempt to impale you. They’re particularly bedeviling, but will test you and your skill. Meanwhile, arcade mode is a high score fest. In both modes, new traps appear every 5 barrels you collect, but in arcade mode the next set of traps you get is random while each level’s traps are in consistent sequence in campaign mode. The two modes are somewhat intertwined, as new layouts and backgrounds become available as you advance further in the campaign. There are also new sets of powerups that you unlock for arcade mode, but the downside is that you have to buy them with coins that you can only get them in arcade mode. Considering that the campaign mode winds up being the big hook to the game, it means you really have to work in arcade mode to unlock the powerups that could give you the edge in that very mode. Arcade mode just feels secondary, and I wish that you could get coins from campaign mode so that you go into arcade mode with more of the powerups to unlock.
You can only really jump and run with the controls, so you have no offensive/defensive maneuvers besides running and/or jumping like hell. This does kind of limit the game. It’s not terrible, and certainly the scenario provides plenty for you to do. But, ocmpare some of the weapons-based arena survival games, and the way they give you something to defend yourself with, or even just have some way for the player to interact with their opponents instead of just dodging any hazards. Where Super Crate Box‘s brilliance was combined in making every new weapon be a major change, along with the difficulty that was just persistently difficult, Penarium just winds up being a lot more basic, more of a raw survival game. This might be more to your taste. Penarium feels rather brutal and difficult, but is a bit easier to get into.
There’s a particular issue with the controls on the 10" iPad, with version 1.0. The left and right control adjustments are flawed to where you can’t extend the positioning out to the edge of the screen. This means that on a large iPad screen, you have to stretch your finger pretty far to move left and right. It’s not absolutely terrible, but it’s rather inconvenient. I can only imagine what it’s like to play Penarium on the 13" iPad Pro. The control adjustment works without issue on the iPhone. I hope an update to fix this is in the works, but there hasn’t been one as of writing. I also would like iCloud support to sync up progress between devices.
Penarium is an entertaining enough arena platformer. It will test you and frustrate you, but keeps things from being overly complex for better or worse. It’s entertaining, I like the art and sound work, and the dual aspect of campaign and arcade modes though I would like more of a link between the two for progress. If you like arena platformers, you can get a lot of fun out of Penarium, though it’s a game I have a few misgivings with. But still, I find myself compelled to come back again and again. And hey, with Super Crate Box‘s time limited thanks to it not being updated to 64-bit yet, what else are you gonna play?!