The coulrophobic have it easy: At the circus, they only have to look out for the clowns. Poor abducted Willy, on the other hand, has at least 13 different types of monstrous traps to contend with at Penarium’s circus of death. This is no mere “lions and tigers and bears, oh my” situation either, as there are also sawblades and lasers and bees and dragons—just to name a few obstacles. As with the classic arcade games Penarium so clearly owes a debt to (the ringmaster even references the familiar savagery of Donkey Kong), it’s easy enough to dodge the stray icicle and homing rocket, but almost impossible to master the pixel-precise maneuvering required once platforms start disappearing and the speed and number of simultaneous traps increases. Then again, despite the presence of an endless arcade mode and local co-op, players have essentially seen everything after the first 20 levels, and they’ve completed it after only 10 more. Penarium is a retro showstopper, but only until the moment the show stops.
Strip away the in-game adrenaline and there’s not much to Penarium that hasn’t been done before. The competitive co-op isn’t nearly as satisfying or precise as that of Towerfall, and the campaign could’ve used some of the imagination and nightmarish gore of They Bleed Pixels or the finale of Psychonauts. The game itself stands as a good companion piece to Ryan Murphy’s brand of storytelling, especially American Horror Story: Freak Show: Everything’s thrown to the wall, and only some of it sticks. In fairness, circus entertainment only promises to provide a brief divertissement, and for only a sawbuck, it’s hard to criticize Self Made Miracle for not developing even trickier traps.
That said, it’s disappointing that Penarium feels so fatigued and repetitious by the third and final act, especially since it’s scarcely even a two-hour game. (It’s possible to beat each of the 30 levels in two minutes or less; they’re all literally stages, shot on a single, steady screen.) Up until that point, the novelty of racing to burst blood balloons in a particular order, or maintaining your poise in a roving spotlight (and while always dodging the various contraptions), provides a sort of pure, childish bliss and concentration once reserved for, well, the circus. Given the imaginative killing machines and sadistic design of some challenges, Penarium could’ve been the unholy child of Dr. Seuss and the Marquis de Sade. But that’s the problem of performing without a net: One minor misstep or overreach and the whole thing falls apart.