Amnesia: The Dark Descent Review

Ever been scared by video game? And I don’t mean the generic Hollywood style “jump scare” kinda thing here; I’m talkin’ REAL terror. The terror of what could lurk around every corner, the terror of knowing your avatar is never safe wherever they hide, terror so deep that you contemplate never playing the game ever again. If yes, then on to question 2: Did you just carry on playing anyway? If so, then you should NEVER UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES PLAY Amnesia: The Dark Descent; otherwise you can say goodbye to sleeping with the light off for at least a week or two.

The first object you find in Amnesia is a letter from yourself, to yourself. It tells you that your name is Daniel, that you have amnesia because you CHOSE to forget your horrible past, and that your objective is to descend to the deepest depths of castle Brennenburg and kill Baron Alexander for some undisclosed reason. Oh yes, and one other thing: There’s an unstoppable, unknowable, shapeless, malevolent eldritch Lovecraftian entity chasing after you. If it catches you, it’ll destroy you. You’re weapon of choice? Running. Lots of running.

Much of the narrative progression from then on focuses far more on revealing how Daniel got into this horrible mess rather than your current quest to murder Alexander. But as there’s no NPCs around that don’t want to eviscerate your very soul, most of the plot has to be fed to you through Daniel’s frequent hallucinations of past events as well as the ever indispensable diary pages scattered around each location. All this exposition is extremely well written, but is somewhat let down by Daniel’s rather uninspiring voice. Sadly it often comes across a lot more like a parent reading a bedtime story than a normal everyman trapped in an unending nightmare of unrelenting terror. It’s not a game-breaker or anything, it’s just disappointing when every other aspect of the game has been so well realised.

 Loading screens give you brief snippets of a mini-novel that transcribes the events leading up to Daniel's hellish adventure. There’s quite a few and they’re in a kinda random order, so piecing them all together takes a bit of dedication (or you could just cheat by snooping around the games text files).

Loading screens give you brief snippets of a mini-novel that transcribes the events leading up to Daniel’s hellish adventure.

Still, it’s a rather embarrassing oversight when you consider this isn’t Frictional Games first attempt to crack the psychological horror formula, as for the last few years they’ve been busy peddling their “Penumbra” franchise with mixed success. While those games were pretty scary for similar reasons as Amnesia, they were let down by some slightly lacklustre graphics, which is to be expected frankly. There’s a good reason most small independent studios don’t generally make these sort of “first person perspective with realistic graphics” type games; they can never live up to the absurdly high expectations that all the big name console releases have forced upon us. But instead of learning from their mistakes and opting for a more stylised approach in their next game, they just went ahead and tried it again with Amnesia……and totally pulled it off. Judging from visuals alone you’d not be blamed for thinking it’s some sort of high profile console game and not a crazy independent title you bought on a whim while browsing Steam.

But of course, what indi game would be complete without a quirky mechanic that’d make a publisher throw a hissy fit? The graphics might be distinctly mainstream but Amnesia still proudly upholds the time honoured indi tradition of making a big deal about simulated physics. In this case, just like the Penumbra games, you interact with objects by making push and pull gestures with the mouse. That is to say, to open a draw you’d have to click it to “grab” the handle then pull the mouse towards you, or to rotate a crank you’d have to “grab” and then move your mouse around in a circular motion. It’s easy to write it off as a simple gimmick with no real purpose, but how many horror games let you slowly open a door just a crack so you can peak at what’s on the other side, then slam it shut when you realise whatever’s there probably doesn’t like you very much? It’s all part of Amnesia’s finely crafted atmosphere that’s designed to make you feel far more human and vulnerable than you’ve probably ever felt in a video game.

 You’ll quickly become accustomed to closing doors behind you, not out of politeness but so you gain a few extra seconds warning should one of the hell-spawn pick up your trail. It’s also a good idea to leave open any cupboards you come across, just in case you need to make a quick dash to a “secure” hiding place.

You’ll quickly become accustomed to closing doors behind you. Not out of politeness or anything, more so you gain a few extra seconds warning should one of the hell-spawn pick up your trail.

While most modern horror games get in your head through grotesque imagery, Amnesia’s main entrance into your fear centres is through your ears rather than your eyes. Right from the start you’re bombarded with sounds of distant footsteps, eerie moans and blood curdling screams. And don’t even think about trying to play with the sound off! As scary as they are, those sounds are also essential for your survival. Lacking any sort of HUD or gadgets, the only way you can tell if something just around the corner is about to chew your face off is to listen out for the right audio cues. From a gameplay perspective it’s rather a haphazard method of threat detection as the game delights in throwing numerous false positives at you at every turn. Without trial and error there’s no way to know if that noise you just heard was just some ambiance meant to creep you out, or a warning that Cthulhu is standing right behind you and wants to scoop out your brains with his giant claws. It keeps you on edge and everything but it also means avoiding an untimely death can be as much about luck as it is skill. But as frustrating as that can be, it’s also an integral part of the Amnesia experience.

You see, it’s not the physical monsters you’re going to fear the most, it’s the ones you don’t see. The ones you slowly begin to conjure up in your mind long before you even encounter something that can hurt you. It’s all about an irrational fear of the unknown, of what MIGHT lurk round the corner, rather than a very rational fear of a slack jawed zombie tearing chucks out of your face. That’s not to say Amnesia doesn’t have its fair share of violence and gore, but its more there for the purpose of mental suggestion rather than shock value. That’s the case for both the player AND Daniel by the way; turns out he finds this stuff pretty freaky too.

 There’s a monster in this picture. You can’t see him because he’s invisible. What, that doesn't sound scary? Oh god, you have no idea.

There’s a monster in this picture. You can’t see him because he’s invisible. What, that doesn’t sound scary? Oh god, you have no idea

Keeping Daniel sane is in fact a major part of the game, spend too long in dimly lit areas or witness too many unsettling events and he’ll begin to flip out. While the sanity system isn’t as crazy as the one in Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, letting it get too low will distort your vision and extenuate some of the already disturbing ambient sounds. The only items you have available to stem the tide of Daniel’s psychosis is some oil for a handheld lantern and a few tinderboxes for lighting candles, both of which are in very finite supply. However, trying to keep Daniel both sane and alive this way is a very dangerous economy. Even though it sends him crazy, the darkness is the only place monsters can’t see you very well, so get too carried away with bathing yourself in light and you’ve got nowhere left to hide when the time comes. This dynamic makes you torn between making the game a little less scary, but at the same time making you more of a target for the shambling horrors. That is, unless you go into the options and turn off the insanity effects……ya big wuss.

The sanity system does fall apart a little bit once you realise standing in the light doesn’t actually recover any sanity, it just nullifies the effects and stops Daniel freaking out anymore than he already has. To actually recover sanity you have to reach progress checkpoints or complete puzzles. However what passes for puzzles in Amnesia is rather laughable, it often feels like they’re just excuses to show off the physics engine rather than present any sort of cerebral challenge. But somehow they still manage to be difficult, not in the traditional sense but more in a “how the hell was I meant to know that” kind of way.

So you know what I’m talking about, here’s the first “puzzle” in Amnesia: The door to the next level is behind a bookcase, but to move the bookcase you need to find and pull a switch. But you’re not told there’s a switch or that the way forward is behind the bookcase. You’re just expected to know without any indication that that small wooden thing in the corner that looks an awful lot like a clothes peg is meant to be a switch, and it happens to be one you need to pull in order to progress. The checkpoints can be a bit of a hassle too, a lot of them tend to cause new monsters or scripted events to spawn that will almost instantly negate a good chuck of the recovered sanity anyway.

But that’s fine right? All Survival horror protagonists these days come equipped with an armoury of weapons complete with copious amounts of ammo! Who needs to worry about recovering sanity when you can just blow the zombies away with a shotgun? Erm, no. Amnesia brings you crashing back down to earth pretty fast by giving you a grand total of zero ways to fight back; if something spots you, it really is run or die. You can try using the physics engine to throw stuff at the monsters if you want, but I can tell you right now that’s not going to work out well for you. Hell, that’s if you can even bring yourself to look in the general direction of the damm things. Amnesia might be all about the horrors of the unseen but that doesn’t stop the monsters appearance from being truly horrific at any distance, the game even starts hacking away at Daniel’s (and your own) sanity as well as giving away your location if you glimpse them for more than a few seconds.

 As well as being realistically well equipped for a zombie attack (i.e. not at all) Daniel lacks the fortitude usually given to game protagonists and can’t take more than a few hits before he’s downed; if you get cornered then it’s game over. Also, getting this screenshot is one of the scariest things I've ever had to do in a video game. Hope you enjoy it! Now I'm going to go lie down for a bit......

 Getting this screenshot is one of the scariest things I’ve ever had to do in a video game. Hope you enjoy it! Now I’m going to go lie down for a bit…..

Your only real means of defence is to try and hide like some sort of medieval Solid Snake. Huddling up inside inconspicuous cupboards is the most effective method, but in a pinch the best you can do is take advantage of the monster’s poor eyesight and the camouflage bonus given by crouching. Yes that’s right, your best method for hiding from the monsters is to cower away in a dark corner with your back turned and just pray to god they don’t notice you. Let’s be honest now, this is exactly what most of us would do if confronted by a monster in real life. If you don’t start eyeing up the Esc key at this point in the game, then you’re certainly made of harder stuff than I. It’s also a perfect example of how all the games mechanics (both good and bad) come together to hit your fear senses on the most primal level. The first person perspective, HUD-less interface, realistic object manipulation, lack of ways to fight back, sanity system, noise based threat location and absence of the usual super human endurance are all designed to force one idea into your head: You are Daniel; his pain is your pain.

So as long as you don’t let its few minor flaws get to you, then Amnesia can become one of the most immersive experiences you can have with a video game. But be warned: it’s also an experience for sensory masochists only, don’t enter unless you’re sure you can take the punishment Amnesia dishes out……or just don’t ever sleep again I guess, it’s you’re call.

The Good

  • Utterly terrifying.
  • Near perfect atmosphere.
  • Immersive control scheme.

The Bad

  • Simple puzzles that are somehow still difficult to figure out.
  • Sanity too difficult to recover.
  • Avoiding monsters based 50% on luck.
  • Daniel’s voice actor.

Recommended similar games
Penumbra: Black Plague/Overture/Requiem (PC)
System Shock 2 (PC)
Condemned: Criminal Origins (PC/Xbox360)
Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem (GameCube)

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