Amnesia: The Dark Descent review
Adventure Gamers Awards
Last year, I reviewed Dark Fall: Lost Souls and gave it an enthusiastic endorsement. What made it stand out was that it filled me with dread and kept me on the edge of my seat for most of its duration. At the time I proclaimed the game to be “the scariest adventure game I’ve ever played.” I meant it. But that was before the release of Frictional Games' latest offering, which blows that assessment completely away.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent makes Dark Fall look like Monkey Island.
Fair warning: While the review below doesn’t contain spoilers in the traditional sense, this is a game that operates on mystery and fear of the unknown. Thus, the less you know, the better. If you enjoy tense, immersive horror games, and don’t mind a bit a mind of running and hiding from danger in your adventure games, you can stop reading right here and go buy Amnesia. It’s good. It’s really good. You won’t be disappointed. Really. If you need some convincing, follow along, but you won’t for much longer.
Amnesia is from the developers behind the Penumbra series. In fact, players familiar with those games will have a pretty good idea of what this one has to offer, though it’s improved and more polished in almost every regard. Both involve a lone protagonist wandering through dark, foreboding environments, solving physics-based puzzles and attempting to avoid confrontation with pretty much anyone (or anything) else. But don’t mistake Amnesia for a sequel; it is a spiritual successor that has no story ties to its predecessors.
The premise behind Amnesia is, upon first impressions, almost yawn-inducingly generic. Luckily, the plot turns out to be far more interesting than it might originally seem. You play as a man who wakes up alone in a desolate Prussian castle with (all together now!) amnesia. All you can remember is your name—Daniel—and that something is pursuing you. As you explore, you’ll begin to piece the backstory together through scattered notes and journal entries. Since much of the game revolves around uncovering Daniel’s past, I'll only say that at some point in the 1830s, while on location at an archaeological dig, Daniel came across a strange orb that seemed to defy the natural laws of our universe. The orb was accidentally broken, however, and Daniel was eventually contacted by Alexander, a baron living in Castle Brennenburg. His terse note said only that he can help, and that Daniel should hurry.
Suffice to say, things do not go smoothly, and the story becomes increasingly more intriguing and disturbing. Torture, blood, insanity, and other unspeakable horrors are par for the course within these stony walls, and not merely hinted at or referenced. Players are plunged into the midst of some truly disturbing stuff, intended only for those who can handle mature, intense subject matter. The documented background presentation is nothing terribly innovative, but the writing is solid and often surprisingly eloquent. The script evokes the old masters of horror—Poe, Lovecraft, Shelley—without ever feeling uninspired or lazy. Between amnesiac heroes, spooky castles, and mystical orbs, there was a lot of room for retreading tired paths, so kudos to the writers for avoiding the clichés to which they so easily could have fallen prey.
Unfortunately, Amnesia doesn’t quite stick the landing. All of the intrigue leads up to a somewhat middling climax that feels like a bit of a letdown. Even the multiple endings (which depend on your actions during the finale) fail to provide satisfying closure to the story. In retrospect, it seems as if the writers were going for the clever ambiguity of classic horror stories that leave the details to the imagination, but here it simply leaves us hanging with a muddled, vague outline of what exactly was going on. The story certainly has its moments, and even manages to achieve some kind of thematic poignancy, but I walked away from the game more confused than stimulated by the mysteries of the orb.
Still, it’s easy to overlook any shortcomings of the plot as a whole because it works brilliantly as a breadcrumb trail that guides the player through this masterfully constructed game world. And let’s be honest, people play horror games first and foremost to experience horror. They want to be scared. And Amnesia delivers in spades. The gameplay, graphics and sound all coalesce into a perfectly-paced, unforgettably terrifying experience.
The game is played from a first-person perspective and controls more like a shooter than a point-and-click adventure. That is, the WASD keys are used to move, while the mouse controls your viewpoint. When the crosshair in the center of the screen passes over a nearby interactive hotspot, it changes to denote the type of interaction possible. Daniel can jump and crouch, and he’ll have to do a fair amount of both at times, as some areas of the castle do involve a bit of light platforming. It’s all very intuitive, though players with little direct control experience may find themselves stumbling in the few places that require precise movement.
While this may sound fairly action-oriented, Amnesia is a blend of what you might expect from a standard first-person adventure and a survival horror game. You’ll spend your time roaming various areas of the castle, gathering objects, reading notes, and solving puzzles either by using inventory items or physically manipulating the environment, yet there is real danger as you explore. There are monsters in the castle—exactly what they are I can’t say (I mean it, I’m not really sure)—and they are shuffling about in the dark for you. Without warning, your immediate task can shift from searching for clues to running for dear life and hiding, heart pounding and mouse-hand trembling as you wait for them to pass by your position. And there’s no alternative to hiding, because you are defenseless. Literally, completely defenseless. In Penumbra, combat was discouraged, but as a last resort you could strike out with a pickaxe or some other weapon. Not so here. Your only option when faced with an enemy is to flee and cower in some dark corner, hoping that your pursuer will walk by without noticing.
That’s not to say that you are always under attack by the castle’s mysterious denizens. Rather, you are always potentially open to attack. Most horror games rely on peaks and valleys of tension to build anticipation and give the audience time to breathe. Silent Hill alternates between the relatively safe real world and the nightmare world, Dark Fall has well-lit rooms where you can be mostly sure nothing creepy is going to happen. Amnesia doesn’t bother with that. From the first moments to the last, you are never really safe. You learn very quickly how difficult it is to predict when the game is going to move from eerie, atmospheric puzzler to “oh god oh god it’s coming after me run run hide somewhere anywhere please don’t see me oh my god now I’m lost what’s going on oh god” scary. Yet the design is smart enough that you rarely see the developer’s hand at work. How many times have you been scared by a horror game at first, only to figure out the enemy’s AI or predict when the story is going to throw in a scripted “scare”? That never happened for me in Amnesia. Actual enemy encounters are fairly rare and often separated by substantial portions of exploration, but the game succeeds in keeping you uncertain, maintaining a pervasive sense of unease throughout.
Even the save system makes you feel perilously trapped inside Castle Brennenburg. Brilliantly, Amnesia does not allow you to manually save or reload your game. Rather, it invisibly auto-saves at certain checkpoints, but doesn’t inform you that it has done so. This lends gravity to everything you do in the game, because your actions are more or less permanent and you can’t suddenly decide to quick-load as soon as things start to get freaky. Fortunately, if you ever do fall prey to the dangers, the system seems to be pretty liberal–I never lost more than a few minutes of gameplay.
While monsters certainly make life miserable, there’s really a much greater foe to overcome here: the dark. Each time you walk through a door into an unexplored area, you are faced with a wall of darkness with only your tiny lantern in hand and a few tinderboxes in your inventory, knowing that you must press forward, dreading what might lie ahead. Light and darkness are essential parts of any horror experience, but few games have made light so precious and darkness so terrifying as Amnesia. Most of the game is blanketed in near-total darkness. Candles, torches, and lanterns occasionally pierce through, but for the most part the best source of light in the game is you. Daniel can pull out his lantern that projects a much-needed but relatively tiny aura of light, but it rapidly consumes its limited oil reserves. Oil refills are scattered throughout the castle but are quite scarce. The same goes for tinderboxes, which you can collect and use to ignite any unlit candles or torches you come across, none of which you can carry with you.
Light doesn’t just serve to make things easier to see, either. Daniel’s psyche is in a fragile state, and too much time spent in darkness drives him closer to a total breakdown. For the player this means that as your sanity decreases, your vision will warp and become clouded, and your movement will grow sluggish. The game warns you that if your mental instability reaches a critical low point, you’ll die, though this never happened to me despite some fairly prolonged stretches in the dark.
All this means that light is a valuable resource you have to carefully manage. Every candle you light now is one you won’t be able to light in the next area, which might be even bigger and darker. Every second you have your lantern out is one second sooner that it will snuff out—maybe right when you need it most. The constant decrease of lamp oil in the inventory screen is a reminder not to be too greedy for illumination. The other tradeoff is that, while light restores your sanity and allows you to better explore the castle, it also exposes you to the enemy. Darkness saps your mental health but is your only escape from an enemy. The interplay between light and dark in games is nothing new, but Amnesia breathes new life into the concept and wrings every bit of anxiety it can out of it.
The combination of limited resources and an auto-save system might seem to be a recipe for frustration—after all, what do you do if you run out of oil and tinderboxes in the middle of a darkened area? Yet I never experienced that for the duration of the eight or so hours the game lasted, in part because I learned to ration my resources but also because the game is perfectly paced so that you are always almost out of items but never seem to completely run out for long. I’m not sure what the game is doing under the hood, whether the designers have supernatural powers of foresight or whether the game tracks your inventory and adjusts item placement on the fly. My vote’s on magic. Either way, it works incredibly well and adds enormously to the overall tension in the game.
The physics element in the first Penumbra game helped set it apart from its contemporaries, and it has remained a signature of Frictional’s work since. While opening a door in most games is a matter of a single click or button press, in Amnesia the player must grip the handle and draw the mouse back in order to swing the door open. Just about every object lying around can be picked up, moved, and thrown. This leads to some unique gameplay possibilities that are not explicitly called for, such as slowly opening a door to peek into the room ahead, or leaving objects on the ground as markers to denote which paths you’ve already explored. This freedom of interactivity goes a long way towards immersing the player more fully than usual.
Physics also feature prominently in Amnesia's puzzles. While some of the puzzles are fairly vanilla “use x on y” inventory sorts, many incorporate the physics engine, such as throwing a chair through a cracked window or placing weight on a drawbridge that is stuck in place. These puzzles feel like a natural part of the environment rather than something cooked up by devious game designers. The problems are always logical and often intuitive—locked doors are not kept shut by ingenious slider puzzle mechanisms or esoteric codes, they are padlocked or blocked by debris. More often than not, a solution to a given puzzle is pretty close to what an actual person in the same situation might devise instead of some hackneyed Rube Goldberg-style concoction. The more traditional inventory puzzles also consistently make sense, often involving collecting ingredients for some kind of formula and then finding the correct place to mix them. These puzzles, while nothing amazing in isolation, are never frustrating due to bad feedback or illogical design. If you’re looking for intricate brain-teasers, Amnesia might not deliver, but the emphasis on real-world obstacles and solutions is a nice change of pace from standard adventure fare and fits well in a game that values immersion over all else.
While the gameplay would probably be terrifying even with dated graphics, it certainly doesn’t hurt that Amnesia’s visuals are fantastic. The Penumbra series was always a little on the rough side graphically, so I was surprised when I booted up Amnesia to find a vastly improved display on par with bigger budget games. Detailed textures and moody, realistic lighting help sell the macabre architecture of Castle Brennenburg as a real place. Every room is richly detailed, be it a padded cell, a sewer tunnel, or a lavish study. Even as the game progresses to increasingly nightmarish locales, it remains firmly rooted in recognizable reality. You can see the mildew growing in the stones of the sewer, watch roaches scatter over rotting food, follow every trail of blood from foreboding start to grisly finish. The castle is convincing, often darkly beautiful in its ravaged, ruined state, and always creepy. It’s also more varied than I expected—despite always being shrouded in darkness, each area feels distinct and unique. The only place the graphics falter is in the character models, which look rather dated up close and lack major details such as lip-syncing, though you only run into people a couple of times. Thankfully, the prowling monsters remain truly haunting, caught only in fleeting glimpses, obscured by the darkness.
Even better than the artwork is the sound design, which is stunning. I can’t praise the work here enough. There is very little music, but what’s offered is understated and moody. For the most part, though, it’s just you and the oppressive natural soundscape. Everything sounds exactly as it should in a creepy castle: doors creak ominously, bugs skitter across the floor, torches crackle and spit sparks. With headphones on, the sound is totally immersive. The wind rattling the windows made me feel chills, and more than once I jumped for real when I accidentally bumped Daniel into a desk, knocking something to the floor with a sudden thump against the floorboards. And those are just the sounds that you’re expecting to hear. The further you progress, the weirder things get, and before long you’re hearing pounding footsteps from the floor above you, distant whimpering, and inexplicable thuds. Unsettling ambient noises play in certain areas, not quite soundtrack and not quite part of the game world: walls of white noise, low rumbling tones, gut-wrenching shrieking. These sounds lend a sense of futile claustrophobia to the adventure. As you run through the darkness, an enemy on your tail and blasting white noise in your ears, making random turns in an attempt to lose your pursuer, you feel trapped and hopeless. It’s perfect.
The very first time you start up Amnesia, a message from the developers appears, informing you that the game is best played at night with headphones on. They tell you not to worry about where and when to save, but instead to focus on immersing yourself in their world. It’s telling that they chose to include this message. It shows an understanding of what makes something scary—it’s not just having tons of gore or things jumping out at you. Horror is about facing the unknown and feeling helpless against it. For that to work, the player needs to be as fully immersed as possible in the experience, yet Frictional understands that such immersion requires effort from both the developer and the player. They’ve done their part exceptionally well. I’ve played countless horror games over the past decade or so, and only a few have managed to be as consistently and relentlessly terrifying an experience as this. If you’re the kind of person who enjoys the rush of simulated terror, follow the developer’s advice: wait until sundown, put on some headphones, and start up Amnesia: The Dark Descent. I'll see you at the bottom.