I just recently finished playing Sanitarium and though I liked the game I would hardly say that it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Well, that can't be said for Amber: Journeys Beyond. Amber is an acronym for a cutting edge piece of psychic detection equipment that the player employs throughout the game. What really sets Amber apart from the recent crop of horror adventure games is that it succeeds in scaring the hell out of you. It manages to capture that fear you feel when you have just watched or read something scary and then gone to bed, only to find yourself straining to hear any noise out of the ordinary, positive that this will be your last night on earth. The really extraordinary thing about Amber is that it doesn't use dismembered heads, bleeding walls or jarring sounds to create this mood; it lets you create the fear all by yourself. It creates a situation awash in ghosts, paranormal activity and unfinished business that slowly lets your imagination do the work.
The game starts out by cleverly having the player receive an email from a friend asking you to check on his colleague, Dr. Roxanne Westbridge. Roxy is a parapsychologist who has recently developed equipment to identify and monitor paranormal activity. Turns out Roxy has purchased a psionicly active house where she has been trying out her untested equipment. Your friend wants you to go out and check on her. So, you drive off to see Roxy, but just as her house comes into sight a ghostly apparition appears in front of your car, causing you to swerve into a pond.
After pulling yourself out of the pond, you make your way to Roxy's house only to find that all the lights are out. All you see are shadows dancing across the walls. This suddenly reminded me of every movie I have ever watched where I screamed for the on-screen character to turn the lights on, which intensified my need to find a light switch quickly. Once light was restored I could easily navigate the house and the grounds and I started to search for Roxy. Amber is played from a first-person perspective allowing you to move throughout the environments in the four cardinal directions. After a shaky start where I thought I could will my character to move diagonally, I got the hang of it and was off.
Hue Forest, the developers of the game, decided to go in an interesting direction with the graphics in Amber. Rather than having the graphics take up the whole screen, they are shown in a letterbox format, much like movies on video. Then they took this process one step further and added a special framing treatment to the slides used in the different ghostly realms. This creates a distinct mood for each realm and adds atmosphere to the game's story line. But the graphics aren't the only part of the game that take the minimalist approach: the soundtrack does as well -- or should I say lack of a soundtrack. There is no background music, only the authentic sounds of cabinets opening, crickets chirping and at one point a spectral finger writing on a mirror that nearly sent me into cardiac arrest! Unlike newer games, Amber's graphics are slides like Myst rather than full explorable 3D environments like Riven. But every part of the game integrates so well that you will hardly notice that you are manoeuvring in 2D rather than 3D.
Amber is a hybrid game combining both inventory gathering and puzzles. Most items are easily found as the cursor changes to signal hotspots. The puzzles will be a bit of a disappointment for seasoned gamers as they are quite easily solved; for newer players they will seem challenging but not impossible. However, this does not disrupt a player's enjoyment of the game. In fact, I found this only helped me to become more engrossed in the story. I could not pull myself away from this game and that was in large part due to the game's story, which centres on helping a number of ghostly residents cross over. There is a puzzle and sliding tile puzzle which some gamers despise but they are quickly solved and fit it with the current game play. The puzzles you complete are always integral to the story and never seem inappropriate or extraneous. At no point did I feel that they did not fit in perfectly with what was going on in the story.
This is one of the best games I have ever had the pleasure to play. I loved it and would recommend it to anyone. Though the game is quite short and some of the puzzles quite easy, this is hardly a reason not to play this captivating game. Amber offers new and experienced players a roller coaster ride of goosebumps, dread and fun that will not be quickly forgotten. The best part is that this game is completely affordable; forget paying a king's ransom, you can order it for $14.95 from Hue Forest's official site. Happy ghost hunting!