Amnesia: The Descent, PC – Review
Review by Ben Tyrer (Tumblr)
Fresh from the Penumbra series, I pre-ordered Amnesia: The Dark Descent with a spring in my step. Interested not only to see whether the formula had improved any, but whether my experience with Overture and Black Plague had made me any less of a coward, I launched into the grissly world of Brennenburg Castle. Was I still a pathetic craven? Was the game scary? And just what makes a survival horror horrific?
If you’re a fan of the survival horror genre, and have never played Frictional Game’s Penumbra (for which you are to be publically berated, you scamp) let me quickly describe the wondrous and immersive mechanics for which the games are praised. Running on the HPL engine- a tribute to HP Lovecraft- games of the Penumbra series require the player to interact with the game world in a much more tactile method than simply pressing ‘E’ to open a door, and so on. No, in Penumbra you have to grab hold of a door by clicking, then sliding your mouse forward to ease it open lest it slam and attract the attention of any nasties in the area. The same was true for drawers, cupboard doors and essentially every interactive element of the game. The mere act of physically turning a valve to open a gate creates a level of immersion pretty much unsurpassed by any other game, RSI be damned.
Amnesia carries over these mechanics in a shiny, updated engine and with a brand new setting and storyline. One burning question inevitably asked of all horror games is relatively simple: is it scary? The short answer is yes. The long answer is OH MY JESUS CHRIST IT’S COMING IN, WHERE CAN I HIDE, THERE ARE BEETLES SCURRYING OVER MY EYES. Perhaps more importantly, however, is how the game is scary. Two games in the horror genre which are often called upon as examples of not being particularly scary are Doom 3, and F.E.A.R, but I think this is relatively unfair. Both have their share of scary moments, and I’m not talking about making you jump; I don’t consider that to be a true method of the genre. A kid in a dolphin costume could kick the door in behind me and release a primal scream, and I’d probably jump. But are children in dolphin costumes scary? I’m talking about true, anticipatory fear, the disempowerment of the player leaving him feeling totally vulnerable against a vastly more powerful, opposing force. That’s scary stuff, and Doom 3 has it by making you choose between either wielding a weapon, or being able to see who’s attacking you. F.E.A.R has it by occasionally removing your weapons or simply making the nasties unkillable, rendering your big strong-man attempts at keeping control completely moot.
And Amnesia? Amnesia has it by the truckload. Castle Brennenburg is a dark place, and I often found myself running blindly around desperately hoping to come across some tinder to light a few candles, or some oil for my lantern. It’s a profound design choice to actually impede the player’s progress with such claustrophobic blackness, and it’s really effective, not only because I literally found myself creeping along walls for direction but also because Daniel, the protagonist, doesn’t handle the dark so well. Extended exposure to terrible lighting conditions puts Dan in a fragile state of mind, making him harder to control and, more crucially, easier to be found. So, you’ll need to keep a healthy supply of lantern oil and tinderboxes, but even choosing where to spark up involves a level of consideration. There’s no way to put out the candles you light, so once you illuminate a room it’s lost forever as a potential hiding place.
What of weaponry? Surely Daniel can sort out whatever’s waiting for him in the darkness with a well placed lantern swing, or aptly thrown rock? Sorry, no dice. There is not a single weapon in the game, and it’s vastly better for it, for two reasons: Firstly, combat in the first Penumbra game was dire, and was removed from it’s sequel. While the interaction system worked wonders in almost every other aspect, combat is one area that did not benefit from having to wave your mouse around like a lunatic. Secondly, going back to my point of the disempowerment of the player, the horrendous creatures to be found lurking in the dark are infinitely more terrifying when your only option is to run and hide.
The monsters themselves are varied enough to still feel terrifying after you’ve seen them a few times, with some only inhabiting specific areas of the castle. It has to be said that it felt as though I encountered a lot less monsters (in terms of actual attacks) than in Penumbra, but unlike Penumbra I was never given the luxury of presuming an area to be ‘monster safe’, making for much more nail-biting fun and a more satisfying pace to the levels.
As you’ll know if you’ve watched the trailers or even played the demo, Amnesia has a fair amount of voice acting. While not the best I’ve ever heard, it’s certainly believable where it needs to be, and is more than welcome when the alternative is reading a lengthy piece of text. This often becomes your task however as, of the many notes and memos left around the castle, only a specific set are voiced. This niggle was enormously outweighed by the appreciation I have for Frictional taking the time to flesh out their world and narrative with these notes, however, and most are optional anyway so if you’re truly averse to these types of pick-ups you need only endure them a few times.
Throughout the course of the game, Amnesia jumps from strength to strength with a thickening plot and heavy atmosphere. The only- and I stress the word only- thing that left me wanting for more were the endings. Oh Frictional, you and your endings! There are a few of them, based on how you handle the closing events of the game (which far be it from me to spoil) and none of them really square up to the be climactic finale I was hoping for. It’s not that they undermine the process of actually getting to the end, it’s just sad to see such care was taken with detail up until then, only to play through what feels like a comparatively rushed segment. I’ve spent nine hours working toward this finale, Frictional, and I want to relish in my accomplishments (or indeed my own demise) rather than gruffly being shown the door by a game that doesn’t seem fully convinced of how it should tie up it’s loose ends acceptably before letting the curtain fall.
All things considered, the games released by Frictional continue to carve out the delicious little niche they hold in the survival horror genre. The interaction system won’t be to everybody’s tastes, but I commend them for having the guts to include it anyway. While still incredibly worth your time, with a sharper ending I feel Amnesia would have been an even more unforgettable title.