Thursday, 28 April 2011

Amnesia: The Dark Descent - The Review

Developer: Frictional Games
Publisher: Frictional Games
Platforms: PC, Mac OS X, Linux
Release date: September 8th 2010

Well bugger me, only a week or two after my post about trying the demo to finally silence all the requests for it my birthday came around and some generous mate had gifted me a copy of amnesia on steam.

Whilst the demo left me a bit cold I gave it a go, being a freebie and a gift after all, and in a brisk 6 hours I was done.

What is amnesia? Well if you haven’t played it the game is an indie developed action adventure horror game with light puzzle and stealth elements.
You are Daniel, a man who wakes up in a dark, seemingly very recently abandoned mansion with no memory of how he got there and only a note from his former self to guide him.
Unfortunately for Daniel said note directs him not away to safety but deep into the bowels of the castle to kill a man who put him in this situation. Sort of. It’s difficult to explain without spoilers but basically Daniel was at an archeological dig and discovered some artifact of a lovecraftian style origin and now a sentient ‘darkness’ is after his soul and has killed anyone associated with him. He came to castle brennanburg for help and unfortunately for him the help came in the form of another evil which in its own way is far worse than the darkness chasing him.
Essentially Alexander, the castles Baron. Has made Daniel do terrible, unspeakable things in attempts to ‘cure’ him of the darkness. Things that will literally come back to bite him as he makes the trip from the upper castle to the deep bowels beneath it.

The game itself is a first person physics interaction game.
To begin with you can pull and push open doors and draws, pick up items like chairs and rotate them and throw them and the game eases you into the mechanics of it.
A major mechanic being the lack of weapons and sanity.
As Daniel progresses the game becomes darker, both in tone and literally. Staying in this dark allows Daniel to creep about but at the cost of his sanity which can only be restored by completing the puzzles required to progress.
OR he can use a lantern with a finite amount of fuel or tinderboxes to light candles and torches to create light and keep him calm and sane.
-but also make him easy to spot for the castles residents.
Said residents are the remains of Alexanders experiments. Mutant hulks like a cross between Frankenstein’s monster, a cenobite from hellraiser and the average walking fleshsacks from silent hill.
They stalk the halls of castle brennanburg with purpose. To kill you. They are filled with supernatural strength and fighting back is utterly futile. All you can do is hide, either in the dark or in cupboards or closets and wait for the monsters to pass or dare to brave the pitch black darkness and lose sanity whilst you attempt to sneak away from them.
The castle itself is experienced through a series of connected hubs with a puzzle that you must solve to progress and items key to the puzzles solution hidden in side areas all connected to the hub. The first of which is a fleshy growth covering a tunnel entrance and the lab, wine cellar and storage rooms around the hub allow you to concoct an acid to allow you to melt it away and progress further to Daniels final goal.

As with the demo my experience was marred by its nature. Though not to the point of the demo which is not exactly like the final product mind you, but I found it hard to immerse myself in a game so requiring of your voluntary engagement with the world it tries to paint out.
Again the blurry jelly vision, the spawning of a monster behind you in your way as you go down a one exit room to get a key item or the many times it wrenches control away to show the character getting scared instead of letting the player become scared repeatedly enforced the notion that it isn’t real. The flawed attempts to jerry rig scares in what they felt needed to be expressed as scary rather than shown pulled me out of the game with its irritatingly uniform and obvious choices for placement and points for such things to occur at.
This is a poorly done way of not allowing the scares to come naturally but foisting them up your audience and then dashing your hopes to do so because of the very forced nature in which you attempted and failed to scare them.
Honestly at many points I myself could have been scared If only I wasn’t told I should be.
Case in point.
In one scenario I am in a dark room, my torch is out of fuel and in the murky dark I see a humanoid figure walk through a doorway down the long black hallway.
At this point my jimmies where fairly rustled.
In another scenario as I walk down a hall there is a torch at the end that bursts into flame all on its own- which has nothing to do with the plot or any reasoning and never occurs again or has any relevance- and the camera is wrenched out of my control as Daniel appears to experience severe spasms, or something.
All I could do was roll my eyes at the cheesy attempt and sit, arms folded, as I waited for the game to have the good nature to give me control of the character again.
For all the artificiality of the repeated hub layouts or lack of major story this is amnesias weakest point and makes many tense moments redundant. So surely it is a failure as a horror game, right?

Well not really.
One thing this game does well, for the most part, is ambience. The grimy, dark castle that leads onto rotten prison cells, a flooded sewer and worse is a well paced and well thought out path of an increasingly dark and oppressive location that truly makes you feel as though you do not belong there.
The is an almost effervescent creepiness that permeates every moment of this game that may come and go between little well lit areas that allow the player to catch a breath but the feeling of ‘wrongness’ about the location is constant throughout.
The music in particular is well done. It is a subtle undertone that allows the developers to alter the mood of a location at a moments notice and it’s a shame some of this subtlety did not go into the scripting of events as well.

Gameplay wise its actually pretty good. My only minor gripe is that you may be running from a monster and get ‘stuck’ on a flat surface of terrain, a common problem with many physics heavy games and no different here.
The puzzles are actually pretty easy. You collect a series of items with only one solution and you just cannot progress until you search all the off-rooms of that hub and collect them all. Simple as that.
On the whole the very nature of the gameplay is shallow. Either you are safe in a well lit room and you spend the time pulling open draws or doors to find items or you are crouched in the dark hiding from enemies that- due to a constant auto save and respawns with no progress lost- are not really much of a hindrance anyway.
Shallow is really the term for amnesia. The scares are there, the ambience is there, there is enough story, character and design genius to draw you in and get you going.
For most though its constant hammy attempts to try and force you to evoke emotion rather than naturally draw it out makes it not last longer however.
Perhaps its just a sign of its indie nature but not only are you always aware this is just a game, but the tiny budget and inexperienced design team means you can see when and where things will occur as surely as a teenager in a slasher film saying “I’ll be right back” being singled out as the next to be killed off.
It has the setting, I felt very much alone in the castle, but never truly at risk and only through design choices which hampered the experience. The pacing in particular is excellent. Many games would ram monsters down your throat but only in one instance did i ever encounter more than 1 at once. In fact i do not think i saw a monster- at least more than a shadow in the doorways for the first 2 hours of the game. It eases you in and allows you to build up to the reveals of monsters which makes there limited appearances all the more impacting. It is just a shame that this pacing is completely countered by the artificial scares put in place by the level designer.

On the whole I played through in a single sitting in which I died 3 times and was never more than mildly spooked- mostly when there was no scripted events or monsters and just me alone in the dark, empty rooms of castle brennanburg.
I felt slightly dissatisfied with the time spend during the game. The was no real change in the experience from the first hours play to the last and I never really cared for the faceless blank slate of a character as i progressed.
Don’t mistake me for out and out disappointment with the time spent. Amnesia is a unique experience that I had not played the like of before and it was certainly a memorable one.

I just cant consider it truly scary. Certainly not anywhere close to either my top horror games of all time or just as a notably great videogame because in the end, it’s kind of a dull videogame that has squandered its potential as either a fun game to play or as a terrifying experience.

I finished the game, described it to my friends with a funny wavey hand motion followed by an ‘eeehh..’ escaping my mouth but a funny thing happened the next day.
I sat down to get some work done ay my desk and as I stared at the imacs screen the amnesia icon was luring me in, making me want to revisit the experience again already even though it offered nothing new.
Doe’s that mean against all my criticisms it is a great game? Not really. An enjoyable experience you will sit through more than once however? I think that that’s probably closer to the mark.

I was not left overwhelmed with Amnesia. It has certainly been overhyped by word of mouth. However any aficionado of horror games would do well to experience the game much in the same way i would point to D's dinner table, koudelka or nanashi no geemu. None of which are truly balls to the wall scary or a truly stellar videogame experience but as an experience they are note worthy due to there unique nature and as such i recommend these oddities as something for any horror fan to play through at least once and in this respect amnesia is no different. Hell even if you are looking for cheap thrills the more susceptible players may be thoroughly spooked by it. So by all means do not let me dissuade you from this game. I would very much recommend it.

Just don't expect the be all, end all final boss of horror games most websites make it out to be.

SCORE [6/10]



gameshed said...

Amnesia is a game about immersion, discovery and living through a experience that will chill you to the core. From my point of view Amnesia, Call of Cthulhu and Silent Hill 2 are definitely the the most terrifying game on the market today.

Anonymous said...

I think your problem with Amnesia (or its problem with you) was that the it asks the player to give up some of the traditional ways of approaching a game, in favor of role-playing the character instead.
The goal here is not to "beat the game", but to "live" it.

For example, I myself didn't perceive the insanity effects as something that indicated that the experience was not real - these are never that intense to hinder gameplay (at least not for long periods of time), and when Daniel starts seeing things, and when the vision gets all twisted, I don't stop and wait for the game to behave again - I stumble to the next light, or dark and hopefully safe corner, whichever the situation demands.

However, I do feel, in retrospect, that the insanity effects should have been significantly more subtle. And maybe the game can even work without them. It's in many ways similar to the approach used in Call of Cthulhu - Dark Corners of the Earth.
If you decide you wanna play along, the insanity effect will not bother you; if on the other hand, you decide it just gets in your way - it'll get in your way.

So, sure, the game has its flaws, but not being scary is not one of them.
And I've played a lot of horror games.