Sunday, 12 August 2012

REVIEW: Amnesia: The Dark Descent

Here's a review of Amnesia: The Dark Descent I wrote for Full Circle Magazine a few years ago while filling in for Ed Hewitt. It's not really written in my usual style, as I was trying to emulate his as well as possible. I'll try to get down to editing it and bringing it up-to-date as soon as I have some time:

Filling in for Ed this week, I've been taking a look at the exciting new horror adventure from Frictional Games, the same indie studio that brought us the highly acclaimed Penumbra series. Many readers will probably remember Frictional most vividly from their inclusion in the first Humble Indie Bundle which caused quite a craze in the Linux gaming scene mid-2010 (that is, Ed and I got really really excited and talked about it a lot in a couple of podcasts). Penumbra got quite a grilling a few episodes ago however, largely on account of its clumsy interface and unusual pacing, so I thought I would set about righting past wrongs by taking a look at its spiritual successor myself, being quite a fan of the horror genre as I am.

Technically the game is a huge improvement on its predecessors, featuring a large upgrade in the graphics department, looking much more modern than Penumbra. The price for this, however, seems to have been a huge reduction in environment size, resultantly sacrificing much of the large and sprawling nature of Penumbra in favour of a little eye-candy. I was very impressed by how easy it was on my system resources, though, and I was able to play with all settings on full without any issues of any sort, often having several windows open in the background. Overall, the design quality is very high and extremely professional, and I have to say that, come the end credits, I was amazed by the very “two man and a dog” format of the production team.

The background story of Amnesia is very simple, perhaps bordering on the cliché: you are a standard video game protagonist who, much to my total surprise, appears to be suffering from total memory loss. You wake up in an old castle at some point in the 19th century with only a vague idea of who you are and what you are doing in the godforsaken place and, being very much thrust into the midst of things, you have to pick up most of what you're doing as you go along. I'm not going to go much further into it, since saying anything much would really spoil the experience, though suffice it to say that it emerges that you are being chased on your way by a nameless horror of some description: escape is in no way an option as you plunge into the damp and shadowy depths of the castle. Essentially, then, it is a typical “haunted house” type of game with a strong Lovecraftian feel. Happily I can say that all is explained as you play the game and there is less of the sequel-squeezing that is all too common in the modern gaming market. The whole thing is rather neat, self-contained and satisfying, if a little unsurprising.

The way Amnesia: The Dark Descent really makes it's quality known, however, is through its gameplay. Building on the Lovecraftian theme, it is clear that among the major influences of the game was the cult classic The Call of Cthulu: Dark Corners of the Earth, infamous for its nerve-racking chase scene near the start in which the main character must flee a hoard of baddies through a series of rooms without so much as a pencil to defend himself. While Cthulu went on to give the main character weapons and to change the feel of the game entirely, Amnesia sticks with the theme, from beginning to end ensuring that the only thing preventing you from being stuck between two slices of bread as a lunchtime snack for the beasties that lurk in the castle is your own two feet and the opposable thumbs needed to operate door handles that the enemies seem to lack.

Cutting off access to any sort of harmful implement that might be used for defence and giving the enemies complete invulnerability certainly goes a long way towards making the player feel uneasy, and when coupled with an extremely atmospheric soundtrack and a gruesome environment, what you have is the schematic of some sort of automatic pants-wetting device. Enemy encounters are thankfully rather rare, though this is scarcely any benefit at all when factored into the equation is the fact that the only thing you can do about them is hide in the corner cowering and hoping that they will go away and leave you alone, preferably with your body cavity intact, as though you're running away from some sort of slimy, spiky school bully, though one that wants your organs instead of your lunch money and who can batter down solid iron doors with his bare hands.

This is assisted in its efforts by a sanity metre-like utility, similar to the one in Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem, that is supposed to reflect the main character's fear of the dark and other such things, taking hits every time you are away from a light source for an extended period, witness “disturbing events” or so much as look at an enemy. Losing sanity makes your character harder to control and easier to pursue, so you are often forced to choose between being unseen and being unmurdered, which tends to result in a lot of unexpected encounters around corners that lead to tense chases and often premature face removal. All of this is in actual fact a dark plot by the developers to prevent you from actually being able to see and engage with the horrors that lurk in the dark, working on the idea of “the fear of the unknown”, and as a device it is incredibly effective, forcing you to run headlong down corridors away from sounds that might or might not be an actual enemy, all in an effort to preserve your precious and dwindling resources of sanity.

I have been irritatingly vague on concrete details in this review, I am well aware, though much of this is in deference to the plea by the designers upon installation to avoid the use of guides when playing the game (the rest is my own bloody-mindedness and callous sadism). They also recommend the use of headphones and suggest a properly calibrated gamma setting. While this may seem to be cheap and nitpicky, and I was indeed rather skeptical myself at first, I would strongly advise that these are instructions that you should heed to their fullest extent. Amnesia is not a difficult game by any stretch, and while resources might be stretched at numerous points (especially in that damned prison...), danger is often surprisingly far away. This game is an experience, and one to be cherished at that, as I can't imagine a studio the size of Frictional pumping out new games at much of a rate. Players should certainly aim to utilise the atmosphere to its fullest extent, as it doesn't take very long to finish and won't really tax the ol' brain cells. Trust me on this, and you will not regret it.

The final thing I will mention, and one that I feel is a nice and personal touch, is the ability to see a lot of the material used in the creation of the game after unlocking a certain secret at the end. This is actually very enlightening and reveals just how much thought went into creating each area. There is one place, for example, that will be remembered by players as among the most terrifying in the game, in which the main character experiences a number of flashbacks that seem unconnected to anything else that happens. Even after multiple playthroughs, it is unlikely that anyone will see the connection that exists with later events, though reading the notes reveals the precise nature of the place, explaining why there exists a subtle chill there that is very difficult to pin down. This is without doubt evidence of an incredible level of detail and design quality, seeking to affect players even on a subconscious level and is matched, in my opinion, only by such titans of the genre as Silent Hill which famously utilised this technique in the second and third instalments of the series to great effect.

The Good

  • Incredible atmosphere and pacing.
  • Subtlety and attention to detail in the environments.
  • Excellent graphics while being quite light on resources.
  • A level of innovation that can only be described as “inspired”.

The Bad

  • Quite short.
  • Little replay value.
  • The puzzles are very simple and can often be reduced to “throw item x at obstacle y”.
  • Sparse sanity effects, unlike the genius of Eternal Darkness.

Arbitrarily Imposed Score: 7 tinderboxes, 1 malformed portrait and the battered remains of 1 game reviewer's sanity/10.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a very easy game to pick up control-wise and, despite its numerous quirks, has made itself almost overnight into an absolute classic of the horror category and one which I would heartily recommend, even as a first introduction to its style of gaming. It is not for the faint-hearted, however, and if horror really isn't your thing then this is probably a game that will end up gathering a lot of dust. It is almost unique in its use of uninterrupted unsettling environments in combination with forced enemy evasion, and the strategy used when approaching it could be best explained by paraphrasing what the game itself tells you:

Don't play to win. Just try not to lose too badly.