There are games that are played for relaxation, entertainment and just plain fun. Mainstream gaming largely falls into this category. You play those games everyday, you have fun, you relax. Then there are games that are meant to be experienced, savoured like aged wine or good ale. This is one such game. And boy, does it make me glad to be a gamer.
To get the necessary facts out of the way; Amensia: The Dark Descent is a horror/survival adventuring game. It was made by a five man development studio Frictional Games, who apparently code their own game engines. Which I was surprised to hear, as the game itself doesn’t come over as an indie game, it’s just so well made. The core idea behind the game is solid, the horror components are fresh and unique and the whole game is very well executed. I haven’t played the Penumbra series made by the same team, so I can’t make any comparisons, but if they are half as good as Amnesia I’ll have to pick them up.
Make no mistake though, while the game itself is quite brilliant, it’s not a mainstream game by any means. There is a very specific crowd this game is targeting and will appeal to. Not to mention the fact that the adventure games are becoming somewhat of a niche by themselves. But if you like highly atmospheric games, adventuring, getting scared or just want to experience something new and powerful, then read on.
If you’re scratching your head at the horror/survival adventuring game genre, well that’s exactly what it is. You play as Daniel, a character who wakes up in an ominous castle having lost all his memories. You need to figure out what is going on by making your way through the castle and solving puzzles. If you survive the horror, that is.
The game is incredibly immersive and atmospheric. If you play it as per instructions (you are advised to play it in the dark with headphones for the best experience) and are willing to immerse yourself, I can assure you that you’ll be terrified. Every corner will be an exercise in dare, every shuffle will speed your heartbeat, and darkness… You’ll learn its power. If you think that this game will scare you with gore, huge enemies or cheap startles like Dead Space, F.E.A.R or Doom 3, think again. To put it another way, Amnesia is the Psycho of video games. Here’s why it’s scary.
The most basic of human fears is the fear of the dark. The game capitalises on that fact and absolutely envelops you in it. It’s such an essential part of the game, you are actually asked to calibrate your gamma beforehand for the best experience. The darkness hides and conceals, it makes things invisible and intangible, but hints at a presence of something terrifying. A lot of the time you won’t be able to see two steps in front of you. Other times you just won’t be able to make out the sinister-looking object at the other end of the hall. And since your character is of a fragile mind, staying in the dark will sap his willpower and decrease his mental health. Stay in the darkness for too long, and you’ll turn into a shaking, nervous wreck. But there are ways of illuminating your way. There are torches and candles all over the place and you’ll be picking up enough tinder boxes to light some of them. And while once lit, will burn through the game, they are stationary and can offer only a moment’s respite from the dark. There is also the lantern, which is portable but burns oil. You won’t have enough to have it always lit, so you’ll need to be conservative with using it unless you want to get stranded in the dark.
But as much as you’ll hate darkness, there are several downsides to lighting a torch or a lantern. The main reason for keeping to the shadows is that you are harder to spot, and it is easier avoid unwanted attention when hiding in the dark. You can also see things coming before they see you. And if you thought that the saying “The brighter the light, the deeper the shadow” is just nonsense, then you’ll realise it’s not just a metaphor, as you will be struggling to see faraway objects because of the contrast between bright and dark parts. This means that the darkness will be your enemy and your ally. Stay in the dark and keep falling off the chair every time you bump into an empty suit of armor, or always keep near well lit areas and draw enemies like moths to a flame.
While your vision might be impaired and toyed with throughout the game, your hearing will be making you wish you were born ears-less. The ambient sounds are incredible; muffled footsteps that aren’t yours, distant screams that will chill you to the bone, the creaking of the floorboards on the floor above you, squeaking of doors opening in the room adjecent to the one you are in,… There are mindgames played on a whole new level. A lot of the time those sounds will turn out to be false alarms, or just there to scare you. But ignore them completely and you’ll defecate bricks when it turns out they were warnings. I can’t imagine what Frictional Games could do with the newest in surround sound technology. And although some complaints have been made on the account of the voice acting, I found it adequate and somewhat familiar, which only exacerbated the contrast between the scary atmosphere and Daniel’s soothing voice, toying with my head even more (which is a good thing, or a bad one if you are already scared senseless).
Then there’s the unknown. The game understands what so many modern horror movies don’t get. You can’t just put a monster, no matter how horrifying, in front of the audience, point at it and go “that’s the thing you need to be afraid of”. The imagination of each individual will always produce the scariest monster and the most horrifying turn of events. Finding that fine line and showing the audience just enough to scare them, but not enough to allow them to come to terms with what they are dealing with, is what makes a movie, a game or a book really scary. And I feel Amnesia does this well. It will tease you with sounds and glimpses, but most of the time you’ll be unable or too scared to take a closer look. Add to that the background story which keeps you in the dark on what exactly you should be afraid of, and your mind will be racing to fill in the gaps.
And finally, there’s the weakness and helplessness. Daniel is just a regular guy, he’s no hero. You are defenseless and have no capability to fight. Only your wits and staying fast on your feet can save you. A fact which you will be reminded of time and time again. Daniel’s heart will start pounding when he’s scared and he’ll let out whimpers and groans when witnessing unsettling events. If you spend too much time in the dark or see too many scary things his mind will start to disintegrate. Your vision will become blurry and start swimming, his legs may even give in and you’ll be forced to crawl. Solving puzzles and advancing the story will restore his sanity and at the same time let you feel like you are in control of the situation, and not the other way around.
There are also some bad things though. Some textures in the game aren’t up to the modern standards and some of the level design is quite confusing and feels artificial. All of which can break immersion, the very foundation the game is building on. But for every instance of a sub-par texture or inadequate level design you’ll find a dozen of great ones. For the most part though, I don’t think you’ll really have time to examine the textures or level layouts because you’ll be too busy being scared. The puzzles aren’t anything groundbreaking, although the innovative way in which Amnesia let’s you interact with the world makes for some very smart ones. The replayability value is also rather questionable, since the game is quite linear and scripted. But replaying the game with director’s commentary (you can enable it in the options), or issuing challenges to your more cowardly friends will keep you entertained for far longer than most games of a higher pricing.
I honestly can’t recommend this game enough. It’s a horror experience you aren’t likely to forget and one of the most immersive games to date. If you think you lack the courage to play it through, find a like-minded individual and embark on a journey into your psyche together. The game offers between 10-15 hours of gameplay for just 15 odd euros. Go check it out, I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.