Amnesia: The Dark Descent review
I'm half-scared to be writing this review right now.
By now, you've probably heard folks talking about the pants-wettingly terrifying game, Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Myself, I've never been one to get swept up in the hype for a game, as so few actually live up to expectations. But my god, is Amnesia the exception. It has its flaws, but if someone tells you it's scary, they're not telling you the half of it.
So, you start the game and instantly you're plunged directly into the main character's shoes. And right there is my first commendation for this game. In most first-person adventures, I never really feel like I'm actually my character. It always feels like I'm controlling someone else, rather than physically being in the situation myself, which is what the first-person perspective shoots for. In Amnesia, despite the main character being British (which I am not), and instantly being named Daniel (which is not my name), somehow, something was inexplicably different. I really felt like it was ME waking up in that bleak stone room, and throughout the course of the game, I got simply sucked into Daniel's shoes to the point where every trembling step he took felt like my own.
I think the reason for this is the little nuances that developer Frictional managed to get perfect. For example, your virtual "eyes" take a second to adjust to the darkness if you've just been lingering in light, and if there's a loud noise off to your right, your "head" immediately snaps in that direction. Quite a few times, a scream or a loud thump scared the bejeezus out of me, not because of the noise itself (honestly, in the atmosphere of the game, you expect as much), but because its suddenness was highlighted by Daniel ACTUALLY REACTING TO IT - a minor detail that I never noticed was missing from other horror games until I played this one.
As the game starts, it becomes clear that the title is in no way a misnomer - Daniel has indeed lost his memory, and must piece together the story himself as the player does. It's a cliched plot device, but it actually works here. You'll also be given a brief rundown on the controls throughout the first few rooms, which are pretty basic. WASD moves, Ctrl crouches, etc. But Amnesia shines in its simplicity with the mouse controls. Everything Daniel can do to manipulate the environment - from opening/closing doors, to pulling levers, to picking up and throwing objects - is controlled by the mouse. But you don't just click on an object; instead, you have to click and actually move the object yourself. Doors can be opened just a crack to peek into the next room, and then quickly slammed shut when you discover that you REALLY don't want to go in there, all of which helps to pull you into the game even more.
Throughout maybe the first quarter of the game, you never run into another soul. The story is told through notes and rather violent flashbacks that turn the screen bright white and actually make you squint if you're playing in the dark - another bonus to the immersion factor. Yet, before you discover that there is a presence following you, you can FEEL it. You can tell yourself you're alone in the castle all you want, but deep down, you know you're not. Even before I encountered the other inhabitants of the place (and I use the term "inhabitants" lightly), I was positive that something was going to jump out at me around literally every single corner, even in rooms I had already fully explored. The experience is intensified by events such as doors slamming shut behind you, corpses that weren't there before suddenly appearing in an explored room, or a piano that actually moves when you approach it, and then of course starts playing itself once you exit the hallway.
Witnessing these events, however, will cause Daniel to begin going insane - literally. You have a limited amount of sanity, and it is drained not only by frightening encounters, but also by staying too long in the oppressive darkness that permeates every room. And yes, you guessed it, that's the biggest factor in the game. Sticking to the shadows will cause Daniel to lose his mind, represented by the screen distorting and hallucinations appearing, until he ultimately collapses. Candles are sparse, and your lantern has limited oil, but standing in their light will calm not only Daniel, but you as well. Remember when you were eight years old, and thought that there was a monster in your darkened room? Remember that warm, comforting feeling that light, any light, brought you? That's exactly how you're going to feel playing this game. You will be so desperate for light sources that it is tempting to burn up all your oil just to bask in the wonderful comfort of light for a few minutes. However, as the game so helpfully points out, light keeps you sane, yet makes you visible. But visible to what, you might ask yourself?
You will quickly regret asking that question. The nightmares that stalk the castle's halls are not to be trifled with. No, seriously, you are physically incapable of interacting with them in any way other than running away like a bat out of hell and then hiding in the darkness as the creature slowly lumbers by, inches from your face, all while the screen starts trembling and you know you have mere moments until Daniel completely loses it. These encounters are so utterly terrifying, so brilliantly scary, that you may find yourself incapable of leaving your hiding spot for minutes after the creature has left. The one downside here is that you'll quickly discover that once you escape from something, it's gone for good. It won't turn around and come marching back through the hallway to chase you again, which is a little disappointing. However, this is balanced out by the horrifying possibility of encountering it or one of its buddies in the very next room you enter.
The narrative is also brilliant. Frictional has managed to take an overdone subject (man wakes up in haunted castle with no recollection of his past) and put a new and interesting spin on it. It's rather short, maybe around ten hours or so, but throughout the game, it's fairly obvious that the story is building up to some kind of big plot twist, and it is so intriguing that it will pull you along through the castle, even though most of the time you'd much rather just stay in the safety of the slowly burning candle above your head.
Now, the game isn't actually very difficult. It's got the normal first-person adventure puzzles, where you use your wits and your inventory to progress, and there are some moments where you might get stuck, but a quick bit of backtracking can turn up a note or item that you missed the first time. It will never really be taxing. In fact, the hardest part of this game is mustering up the courage to continue. The environment is so abhorrently creepy, the ambiance so gloriously nerve-wracking, and the encounters so alarmingly terrifying that it's possible you might not have the fortitude to finish it. Seriously. Those with weak constitutions, heart conditions, and expectant mothers should stay away. Everyone else, buy this game! It's short, but the $20 pricetag won't break your wallet, and it WILL scare the pants off you.
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