Amnesia: The Dark Descent review
Haven't we been here before?
I’ve said in the past that I’m not the sort of person who tends to find joy in scaring himself witless, but like many I still find myself drawn to the macabre despite myself. My problem has been that modern horror games will try to disgust you with blood and guts, or provide cheap thrills in the form of jump scares, rather than outright horrifying you. This is why I usually prefer the F.E.A.R.’s to the Dead Space’s, but the latter approach seems infinitely more common these days than the former. Yet Frictional’s Amnesia: The Dark Descent repaid my curiosity by providing a genuinely creepy atmosphere, as well as decent (if uninventive) gameplay to supplement it, without resorting to gore or screamers. Consequently it immediately became one of my favourite ever horror games simply for its more psychological approach, filling you with dread and fear rather than jumpiness.
Amnesia is one of the genre’s more well-worn clichés, but for very good reason. For one, it removes the need for a lengthy orientation so that the developers can throw you straight into the game and establish mood from the outset. It also helps you to identify with your character, since you’ll only be finding out information at the same time as he or she does. In The Dark Descent you wake up in 1830s Prussia in the bedroom of a huge, gothic castle. You find a note you’ve written to yourself on your desk; your name is Daniel, apparently, and the castle belongs to one Alexander of Brennenburg. You don’t tell yourself why, but it’s clear that your pre-amnesiac self has a score to settle with this Alexander, and you task yourself with tracking him down and killing him. Thus the adventure begins with you making your way through the cavernous castle, solving puzzles to progress and discovering journal fragments which either fill you in a bit on your past, or otherwise point you in the direction of your nemesis.
Oh, but there’s one other teensy, complicating factor of which you decided to remind yourself: a ‘shadow’ is following you. You don’t know what it is, you don’t know why it’s after you, but it’s coming, and if it finds you, it’s curtains. And there’s nothing you can do about it except to try to outrun it for a little while. Thus forms the single most effective element of Amnesia’s approach to horror: you can die, but your enemy can’t. You can’t even fight it as there are no weapons for you to use. All you can do is run, or hide. And it’s this overwhelming sense of powerlessness which provides the backbone of Amnesia’s dreadful tone. Running from an immortal enemy is infinitely more terrifying than unleashing fifty rounds and a few rockets at it.
And it’s precisely this psychological, Lovecraftian approach to horror which is so gloriously effective. While the Poe-esque Brennenburg castle is pretty spooky by itself – there’s a reason Gothic horror was so popular after all – not much happens initially to outright horrify you. But Frictional understand that true horror is a slow burn. The first third or so of the game is all about pacing; occasionally a door might open by itself, or you’ll hear some mysterious music playing with no apparent source. But just when you’ve come to grips with these supernatural occurrences, you turn around and see a monster for the first time: at the end of a long hallway, or on the far side of one of the castle’s more gargantuan rooms. At this point you have no option but to dive for the nearest cover, quietly rocking back and forth until you work up the courage to peer around the corner and check whether the coast is clear. And Amnesia works so well because of how effectively this idea is implemented in conjunction with the graphics, sound, and remaining gameplay elements.
Historically I’ve figured that graphics are one of the more important aspects of horror games, but The Dark Descent has really changed my mind. That isn’t because the graphics are terrible – they’re actually pretty good, and the gritty textures and washed-out colours combine to give Brennenburg a real sense of authenticity. But half the time you don’t get to see much of it due to the pervasive darkness, so instead Frictional have focused on making their lighting effects and contrast really shine. Standing near a light source will make you temporarily nightblind, and Daniel’s vision has to adjust whenever he once more steps into the shadows. In particularly dusty or misty rooms you can’t see more than a few feet in front of you, enhancing your paranoia at what might be lurking just beyond the edge of your vision. Sound plays a much bigger role and reaffirms itself here as the most important element of horror – particularly in this setting, where a howl in one of the castle’s cacophonous chambers could be coming from a mile away or right behind you. There are also some really neat touches like Daniel’s teeth chattering more frequently the longer he stays in the dark. In this way Amnesia exemplifies Lovecraftian principles – unseen monsters are scarier than in-your-face howlers because it’s your own imagination which is terrifying you. And my imagination, at least, can be a real bitch – Amnesia is one of the most atmospheric horrors I’ve ever played, but I never got more than a vague impression of what the monsters actually looked like up close. Even when I died I was in full flight, and so never got to see what dealt the fatal blow. That’s one hell of an achievement. I also liked that there were random monster encounters to supplement the scripted events, which became a bit predictable (usually on completion of a puzzle). The random encounters help to keep you on your toes, never letting you feel completely safe even when exploring.
The story as a whole is very Lovecraftian, with the mysterious villain, allusions to ancient powers beyond mortal comprehension, and nameless, immortal horrors for antagonists against which you’re completely powerless. Of course you’ll miss much of it if you don’t find or read the journal fragments, and it might be a bit fantastical for some people’s tastes. But Amnesia is one of those rare games where the narrative can be considered an optional extra without it negatively impacting the game.
There are two other main gameplay elements that tie in with each other and will make or break the game for you. The first, and most successful, is its system of light management which replaces guns and ammunition to make Amnesia resemble survival horror. As you explore, you’ll find tinderboxes which can be used to light candles or torches in fixed locations. You’re also provided with a lantern from the outset, but this requires oil to burn, which likewise must be found and is in limited supply. The second element is a sanity meter, which reflects the physiological effect that constant exposure to terror is having on your character. Witnessing a paranormal event or staring too long at a monster decreases your sanity, as will staying in the darkness. In addition to physically allowing you to see where you’re going, light is thus also your most important resource in staving off madness. But it’s a clever trade-off: it’s easier to hide in the shadows, and monsters are attracted to light sources. Every potential light source you pass becomes a tactical decision which depends on your current sanity level, your perceived proximity to monsters, and how much oil or how many tinderboxes you have remaining. There’s also the question of whether you personally can handle wandering around in near total darkness. There’s a constant pressure to explore in order to find more resources, but of course you don’t want to explore for fear of what you might find. It’s a genius and relatively unique interpretation of survival horror mechanics.
It’s therefore principally Amnesia’s atmosphere which is spot on, but the game is let down in other respects. For one, I find it difficult to praise aspects such as the sanity meter or UI since they’re all borrowed from Frictional’s previous games from the Penumbra series. In fact it wouldn’t be unfair to simply regard this as the next instalment – certainly better written, a better overall production value, but otherwise identical. In many ways Frictional are probably fortunate that Penumbra wasn’t that popular, since it makes Amnesia seem more revolutionary that it really is. With experience, the sanity meter also loses its initial potency since the primary consequences of ‘madness’ are blurred vision and increased frequencies of audial hallucinations. So long as you don’t mind stumbling around in a drunken haze, there’s no major consequence to ploughing through the game without any light sources, and the game turns from survival horror into more stealth-adventure. The game remains a spooky experience, but since this is one of its unique elements it’s a bit of a letdown.
There’s also the fact that the game isn’t entirely bug or glitch free. I imagine experience varies hugely for each player, but at one point I hid from a monster in a cupboard and it somehow managed to attack me through the closed door. I also experienced a major crash towards the end which I was forced to work around by downloading another player’s saved game. It amounted to a single room which was particularly graphically intensive, but since it was necessary to pass through and didn’t occur until right at the end, it was especially frustrating. While it was probably due to having a relatively low-end computer I can’t really ignore it for review purposes, especially since the game worked fine up until that point – and I’ve subsequently discovered that others have experienced the exact same crash. It presumably reflects a comparatively limited budget, but these kinds of oversights are what will always separate a game like Amnesia from the AAA titles.
Conclusion: I’ve always figured that horror is one of the genres where video games should really shine, since the interactive element ought to make them scarier than any movie. You can’t just cower behind your fingers until the monster goes off screen; the story won’t go on without your input. You have to embrace your fear, and work up the courage to plunge on despite it. Amnesia: The Dark Descent represents a change in thinking and a move away from modern horror tendencies, resulting in a game that actually scares you for once rather than shocking or disgusting you. It might not be the greatest or scariest horror game ever made, but it’s certainly a big leap in the right direction and worthy of any horror fan’s collection.
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