Trafalgar's Amnesia: The Dark Descent Review
- Atmosphere. Sheer, impenetrable, dark atmosphere.
- Narrative, and player immersion. Very much linked: the player is literally plunged straight into Daniel's shoes... which, in a horror game, really ups the "scary".
- ...and holy hell, it's bloody scary.
- Reasonable graphics. They definitely don't detract from the gameplay/immersion in any way, and they're pretty kind to hardware.
- Good voice acting. Although Daniel himself is a little too... British. And I'm British myself.
- Restraint. This game understands that true, lasting fear is psychological (a la Silent Hill 2) rather than visceral (a la Dead Space). It's not even possible to be attacked by an enemy until at least a fifth of the way in.
- Occasionally suffers from that old adventure-game malady of there being only one solution to a problem that could probably be solved with something else in your inventory, were this real life. Example: an item used to unlock door A that was not damaged in this process doesn't work on identical door B later on in the game.
- The ending is a bit lame, compared to the rest of the game.
- The insanity system is a little strange: sometimes, it's not clear where darkness ends and light begins. So, you'll be going slowly insane 6ft away from a candle, but one step closer and you'll be fine.
Amnesia: the Dark Descent. A game we've probably all heard a lot about on account of it being widely regarded as one of the scariest games ever made. So, when I saw it in the Steam Weekend Deal at 60% off, I naturally picked it up to put this claim to the test. I do love a good horror game, after all.
The 5 or so hours that followed undoubtedly lived up to - and surpassed - these expectations. Honestly, I've never been more scared by any entertainment medium in my entire life. It even goes one better than Silent Hill.
How does it manage this? Well, let's explore.
Amnesia: the Dark Descent is a game by indie company Frictional, a group who put their name on the gaming map with their first title - Penumbra - which I gather is in a very much similar vein. It technically fits into the category of First Person Adventure Game, though the focus is obviously on the element of Horror; and - at a contrast to it's predecessor - it takes place about 200 years in the past rather than in an apparently modern underground facility. The setting here is that of a dark, seemingly deserted Bavarian castle and the protagonist - Daniel - here awakens in its decrepit entrance hall, a locked door behind him and no clue as to his exact location, how he got there or where he must go now other than a mysterious trail of ominous red liquid leading further in. This is the only introduction the player - and, indeed, Daniel himself, for he has lost his memory - gets before the game begins.
The player is here also briefly introduced to the control system the game employs: that of the usual WASD for movement, SPACE to jump, F for Flashlight (or lantern-with-finite-oil-supply, in this case) and CTRL to crouch... but also of mouse movements to interact with the environment. To open a door, one must click on said door and move the mouse in or out depending on the direction the door opens. In this way, it is possible to control how quickly (and noisily) this action is performed, and also to hold the door open just a crack to check a room is clear before entering. The same mouse movements are used to pick up and place/throw objects, pull levers, turn cranks, etc. and are actually pretty intuitive - it's usually obvious how to apply them to specific objects and situations throughout the game. It also adds to immersion: the player is at no point made to do something that could not reasonably be expected of them in real life, and as such it makes it much easier to relate to the game's events and story.
As Daniel progresses into the castle, an oppressive presence becomes increasingly apparent. At one point, he may enter a candle-lit room only to have the door slam behind him and a sudden gust of wind plunge the room into pitch darkness, prompting the player to either instantly open the door to flood the room with light from the corridor, or to re-light the nearest candle with their tinderbox. Later, we pass a piano in a long, twilit corridor, entering a room at the far end just in time to hear it being played behind us... but of course, when we turn to investigate, the place is still deserted.
The game explains here that staying in darkness for too long will eventually drain Daniel's sanity, which causes the screen to distort and sway before eventually making him collapse. Light is provided by constant fixtures (eg. a torch fixed to a wall; a candle on a desk; a moonlit window) which must be lit using a tinderbox if necessary; and a lantern is provided with a finite supply of oil. However, with this revelation the game also provides a warning: that whilst light keeps you sane, it also makes you highly visible. In some situations, darkness is necessary to stay alive.
As the player progresses still further, the oppressive atmosphere is gradually increased. Pages of notes from Daniel's own diary tell the story of what happened before he lost his memory, and notes from other people - often victims of the despicable acts that occurred in this castle - tell the story of the place itself, complete with visual clues in their surroundings. For example, it becomes apparent through a series of notes (the last of which is written by one of the victims) that a group of men were horribly murdered inside one of the wine cellars to which the player must inevitably gain access in order to proceed. And whilst it is apparent through the numerous bloodstains and smashed bottles you come across, as well as through the eerie flashback sequences as some distant, broken memory is briefly brought back to the surface of Daniel's mind, that all of those events took place in this very room... there are no bodies. Suddenly, heavy footsteps sound directly above you, dislodging clouds of dust from the ceiling. You are not alone.
But - before all this mere suggestion of a malicious, supernatural presence surrounding you becomes the slightest bit boring, the game produces a solid threat in the form of a disfigured humanoid creature, stalking the castle halls. One of about 4 different enemies in the game, there is no defence against this abomination other than to turn tail, run, and hide in the darkness, your sanity slowly draining as the ragged breaths of the demonic thing edge ever closer. Plucking up the courage to then leave the safety of your little crevice can take several minutes, especially when the only exit is the way your enemy left. However, the "zombies" as we'll call them, simply for want of a nice short term, are generally pretty easy to avoid. In fact, once they've wandered away from your general area, they tend to vanish - so all the player must do is pre-empt the zombie's entrance and hide; wait 'til it leaves (and make absolutely sure you wait for long enough); then continue on without fear of it's return for a short while. However, having the courage to employ this tactic in game is nigh-impossible - the atmosphere is too thick. The player is too immersed. The zombies are just too damn scary.
And then there are a couple of sequences where you have to just run. As fast as you can, closing doors behind you in order to buy yourself a couple of seconds, never once having the chance to glance back at your enemy for fear of instant death at their hands. In one of these cases, you're introduced to the enemy beforehand and given a clear way in which to avoid contact with it, before this method of avoidance is abruptly removed and you're forced to just run away as fast as you can (and it moves faster than you, and it's invisible). In the other, you've no idea what's chasing you, only that it sure as hell doesn't sound friendly, and that it likes to break down doors.
There are other ways, too, in which the game heaps on the scary. You'll enter a hallway that seems safe, leave it again to pick up a couple of items thereby progressing the storyline, and then return to find that the centrepiece of the room - a fountain - is now dispensing blood rather than water and that a mutilated corpse has appeared next to it. And - holy hell - there's jam coming out of the walls.
Or, you'll enter a room with a bloodied altar at it's heart, only to experience a flashback of a tortured body laying there. As you leave the room, said body has appeared outside, hanging from the rafters. You enter another room, look around, find a tinderbox, and leave, and guess what? The body has vanished. Creepy.
The game itself is never particularly hard. In fact, the hardest thing about it - for me, anyway - is plucking up the courage to continue on after a particularly scary encounter with something you're not quite sure was real or not. True, the puzzles are pretty good, but I wouldn't exactly describe them as difficult. In fact, sometimes the hardest thing to figure out is where to look for certain items essential for their completion. This isn't a bad thing because you probably won't ever get stuck (unless you miss a note/item somewhere), but it also means there's a chance - if you're a point/click veteran - that you won't really feel like you've achieved anything by the end of it all. You'll have had a rounded, enjoyable, *bleep*ing scary experience... but it won't have tested your skill so much.
So, would I recommend this game? Absolutely. It's one of the most original, immersive gaming experiences I've ever had. Never have I felt so part of a game's atmosphere, so included in its story, so fearful of its events. However, it is VERY scary, and as such if you're a total wuss there's actually a chance you won't be able to finish it. Really.
However, if you can pluck up the courage, buy it. Buy it now. I can't recommend it enough. The narrative - as both you and Daniel learn the dark story of the place you have found yourselves in note by note; the atmosphere - as a strange flashback is immediately followed by the slamming of a door behind you and an inexplicable, disembodied moan; the fear - as you spend literal minutes trying to pluck up the courage to progress as your camera shakes wildly with Daniel's rapidly decreasing sanity... for an indie studio's second ever release, this is utterly brilliant stuff.