Amnesia: The Dark Descent review

The Good:
  • Nightmarishly, unrelentingly scary
  • Incredibly atmospheric graphic and sound design
  • Puzzles are logical and use physics to great effect
  • Perfectly paces supplies to be scarce without ever trapping the player
  • Clever use of light as a limited resource
The Bad:
  • Lukewarm climax
  • May be too consistently intense for some players
  • The backstory becomes more muddled than cleverly ambiguous
Our Verdict: Not for the faint of heart, this gothic horror adventure is a relentlessly intense and terrifying experience from start to finish.

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.

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