Review by Jason Dobry
Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Developer Frictional Games
Publisher Frictional Games
Released September 8, 2010
Available for PC (version played), Mac, Linux
Time Played Finished in about 10 hours
Verdict: 4/5 Thumbs Up
“Amnesia differs from any horror game I’ve ever played. This isn’t just horror. This is dread, the stuff of nightmares.”
The Terrible Old Genre
I don’t like adventure games. I did, in fact, grow up playing Sierra’s old “Quest” series of games like Space Quest, Police Quest, and Leisure Suit Larry. My first PC game was Infocom’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, soon followed by Zork and Planetfall. I loved them like I “loved” my first girlfriend in second grade, but my infatuation with them diminished as I moved on to Wasteland, Civilization, and Doom.
I soon saw the adventure game genre as a dinosaur, but not one of the cool meat-eaters all five-year old boys love. They were boring, slow-moving herbivores, and worse, they continuously belched puzzles that were either too simple, or too absurd and contrived. I was tired of playing “Click-on-a-Pixel” and “Just-Take-Every-Item-You-Find-Because-You-Know-You’ll-Need-It-Eventually.” Please don”t bother me with exceptions. I’m sure they exist, but I simply don’t care. Steerpike’s been pushing Sam and Max on me for going on three years now, claiming it’s funny and fun and a riotous good time, but I’ll never make time to play the stupid thing.
My problem, however, is that I suffer from an addiction to horror gaming. When I learned Frictional Games’s Amnesia: The Dark Descent mines a mythos of unspeakable horrors and forbidden knowledge, I indulged in the rare exception. After all, they put forth a reasonable effort with the Penumbra series, and they were promoting Amnesia as one of the most terrifying games ever made.
At the Mountains of Disappointment
I enjoyed FG’s Penumbra games and knew what to expect from Amnesia in terms of game mechanics. Wander in the dark. Read some notes. Flee from monsters. Combine some items. Solve puzzles to go to the next area. Read some more notes. Rinse and repeat. Penumbra pulled it off because the solid story and voice acting created a memorable horror experience, but I expected Amnesia to surpass its predecessors.
Amnesia, however, gave me immediate reason to worry; my character wakes up with no memory of past events and must rediscover himself and his surroundings. I know it shouldn’t be a surprise given the title, but the whole amnesia-as-a-plot-device method was taught in Remedial Game Design by some guy named Bob. Even so, FG’s suspenseful story once again saves the day (minor spoilers from very early game ahead). My name is Daniel. I awake in cold darkness and soon find a note, apparently written by myself, to myself. The note makes two ominous points: I voluntarily suffered amnesia to obliterate memories too painful to remember, and I must find and kill someone named Alexander. Worse, something…evil…and ancient…hunts me. There are no explanations as to how or what I’ve forgotten or why Alexander must die, but the note’s tone carries such sad and terrible gravity that I wasn’t sure I wanted them (end minor spoilers).
I really can’t stress it enough: true horror needs a good story and good characters, otherwise they devolve into the Saw films. Simply stated, Amnesia delivers. The writers’ decision to set the entire game inside of a castle was no doubt influenced by the limitations of the graphics engine, but they make this limitation one of the game’s strengths. The claustrophobia oppressed me everywhere, and if I found respite, it was only to tease me with salvation before tossing me back into the darkness.
The story also didn’t quite end up where I thought it was heading, which I appreciate. I won’t be specific because spoilers will only diminish players’ enjoyment, but FG clearly loves the themes of cosmic horror and knowledge best left unlearned. Sure, it’s mostly revealed in various notebooks and scraps conveniently littered around the levels, but it made sense within the context of old-Daniel “talking” to post-amnesia Daniel.
The game also avoids over-exposition, preferring instead to show just enough to keep the player’s imagination preying on its conscious mind. Most divulged details raise at least as many questions as they answer, and many of those questions remain unanswered at the end of the game. One could argue they’re leaving room for a sequel (and perhaps they are), but they are also following Lovecraft’s mythos. According to the great-grandfather of modern horror, there are things just on the fringe on the human consciousness that, if fully exposed, would either drive us to insanity or suicide, or both. Amnesia hints at stark horrors without over-exposing them, and it prevents the game from being merely a “memorable horror experience.”
Amnesia differs from any horror game I’ve ever played. This isn’t just horror. This is dread, the stuff of nightmares.
The Doom that Came to My Ego
Amnesia’s press release strongly recommends players experience it in complete darkness and with headphones. I complied with their request and found I am only a half-man. In one scene, (minor spoiler ahead) I was fleeing a nearly-invisible creature only to find a gate and a rusty wheel. Turning the wheel opened the gate. Unfortunately, FG’s interface prevented me from just clicking on the wheel to turn the damned thing–I had to click on the wheel, hold, and rotate the mouse counter-clockwise. I could hear the abomination nearing me, and in my sweaty panic I fumbled with the mouse. The creature was surely right behind me when I finally paused the game, ripped off my headphones, and took an hour-long break (end spoiler). I had to call Steerpike to tell him, “Fuck this game,” when in fact I meant, “This game just scared the soul out of me and I played Fatal Frame, System Shock 2, Shalebridge Cradle, Silent Hill, and countless others in utter darkness.”
At least Fatal Frame gave me an enchanted camera. In Amnesia, I had no way to defend myself from anything I encountered, leaving me to flee or hide until I couldn’t hear it breathing anymore. My helplessness was a refreshing change from every other would-be horror game that allows me to eviscerate anything I encounter in a dozen different ways.
Of course, it’s not all sweaty panic and a frantic pulse. I heard the denizens of that terrible castle far more often than I saw them, and when I did, it was only a fleeting, blurry glimpse. Daniel exists in a fragile state of mind, and things like darkness, vile sounds, and wandering horrors will bleed his sanity away. As Daniel loses contact with reality, it distorts around him and creates unpleasant hallucinations, the nature of which are best left unspoken.
If I haven’t spent any time discussing actual gameplay, well, it’s pretty standard adventure game fare, admittedly with a few twists. I repaired machines, opened doors, improvised cutting tools, and solved host of other adventure game-type problems. Most of them are intuitive and fairly easy, but this left me to focus on whatever was shambling down the hall. The game’s more about the sound and the immersion than brainteasing anyway, and at least the solutions made sense.
There’s no stats to change, no upgrades to buy, no weapons to find , and the only loot consists of puzzle items, tinderboxes, and fuel for the ever-dwindling lamp. Darkness is not Daniel’s friend; more than a second or two of it and his sanity begins to wane, forcing him to choose between lighting candles with a finite supply of tinderboxes or depleting his fuel. The simple tension works, and I don’t doubt a more elaborate system was deliberately omitted by Frictional.
Frictional Games deserves accolades for making an affordable game ($20) and not deviating from their stated purpose of creating immersion and dread within the player. Furthermore, they accomplish their task with little more than amazing sound production and a solid story. Finally, Amnesia just does countless little things right, each of which made me feel more vulnerable. I would mention them, but like the choicest meat, they are best when fresh.
Now, pray excuse me, I can hear something scurrying in the walls.
Email the author of this review at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Minimum System Requirements (PC): Windows XP/Vista/7; 2.0 GHz CPU; 2 GB RAM; Radeon HD or GeForce 6
Minimum System Requirements (Mac): Mac OS X 10.5 or newer; 2.0 GHz CPU; 2 GB RAM; Radeon HD or GeForce 6
Reviewer’s System: Windows XP SP3; 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo E6600; 4 GB DDR2 RAM; 896 MB GeForce GTX 260
Hey great review. Really enjoyed it.
Jason is a man after my own heart. I too was pretty grumpy seeing how the ages old adventure game design is left almost untouched in Amnesia. Collecting four items in a vast unlit space then bringing them all to one room to go forth, pixelhunting, all classic (and hated) stuff from the eighties. However, the mood and the enemies make up for it. I really only half liked the game prior to encountering the first enemy but then, yes, it truly does become as scary as they describe it. What Jason talks about in the review, about ripping his headphones off and stopping playing – is exactly what happened to me at the same place in the game. I was alone at home and playing in a dark room with sound cranked up. I enjoyed it a lot but it started being so oppressive around that spot, and my cats, shuffling around the apartment were making all these small noises that I had to stop playing, get out of the game and turn the lights on just so I can have some of my composure back. There are very few games that could ever do such a thing. After that I didn’t really mind the puzzles or the fact that while mouse control is great when having to open doors fleeing from enemies, it gets rather boring when you have to open hundreds of drawers by pulling the damn things. Amnesia just feels alive and that is such an achievement. Money well spent.
The thing is, I’m financially obliged to play this thing after comfortably pre-ordering it months ago and the more I read about it the more terrifying that prospect becomes. Having said this, I’ll no doubt be starting Amnesia the moment there’s a fix for my graphics card problem.
Anyway, great review Jason and one that I’ve been eagerly looking forward to.
Thank you for the praise, my comrades.
Twice during tense moments, my damn cat jumped down from the hutch onto the desk’s surface, scaring the holy hell out of me. Imagine: you’re playing, creeping along in the vile sewer, when you hear that all-too-familiar moan. Then, you feel and hear a “thud” as a black skinned, yellow-eyed thing practically pounces into your lap and skitters off.
I’m surprised we both survived.
Meho–you’re spot on about fleeing while using Amnesia’s door opening “mechanic.” I meant to mention it, but I think the story about the gate and headphones is enough.
I only worry about this game constantly being described in the superlative sense. The film The Ring was nearly wrecked for me because word of mouth kept talking about how incredibly scary it was.
Just play it with an open mind, don’t try to “game” it, and just wander through the game.
And whatever you do, don’t go into the AIIIIGH IT’S COMING AGAIN
Oh, and some of the screenshots are pretty dark. Click on them once and then again in the new screen for a bigger version. The game’s dark, and at proper gamma small pictures don’t translate well.
Great review, Jason!
I was scared witless in Fatal Frame and Shalebridge, this would kill me.
Excellent review Jason. I tried out the demo and enjoyed it. I have been considering a purchase.
I however, do not do any PC gaming, aside from Fairway Solitaire. I have a Mac and their standard mouse. Since I never game on the pc, I had to adjust a bit to the controls using a keyboard and mouse, so I was stumbling my way through the demo like a drunk person.
Also, if I remember correctly, you can throw stuff in the game by holding it with the left button and clicking the right (something like that) but you cannot do that with the regular Apple mouse (no buttons!). Is that a mechanic you have to use a lot? Any recommendations on a better gaming mouse for the Mac, or a gamepad?
Good review, thanks. I’m playing the game at the moment and very much enjoying it.
One typo though: in the third paragraph of ‘Frictional Games-Reanimator’, I believe you meant to say “and many of those questions remain UNanswered at the end of the game.”
“Also, if I remember correctly, you can throw stuff in the game by holding it with the left button and clicking the right (something like that) but you cannot do that with the regular Apple mouse (no buttons!). Is that a mechanic you have to use a lot? Any recommendations on a better gaming mouse for the Mac, or a gamepad?”
Actually, this throwing mechanic is not that frequent in the game, but yeah, I see how it would piss off Apple users… Just bite down hard on something and soldier on, it’s worth it!!!
I fixed the typo. Good eyes, and thanks. I blame Civ V.
I believe it was a left click and hold to pick up an item and right click while left-clicking to throw. Like Meho said, it doesn’t happen all that much and when it does, I don’t recall being attacked while doing so.
Unfortunately, I know little about Macs, but I don’t think you need to drop cash on a new game interface just for this game. You’ll do far more left-click-and-drags than item throwing, and most of the pressure moments occur with the former.
Also, Tanis–this game is well-paced for you to learn on the fly and gain the “muscle memory” all gamers take for granted. It’s not like you’re trying to outplay 12 human players on some online shooter.
Thanks for the input guys. And great point Jason on this being a good game to get my PC FPS controls down, given its slower pace. I may take the plunge. I have a nice set of headphones ready for the experience . . .
Are you talking about the Apple ‘Mighty’ Mouse per chance tanis? If so, you poor thing! I used one for months at work and had to get a new mouse in the end. I think they’re horrible, horrible devices. The little roller ball breaks easily, the one piece plastic makes it difficult for certain ‘manoeuvres’ and is also rather stiff to use, and the whole profile is super low and caused my wrist to tingle and ache. They’re a prime example of function following form.
On topic: Frictional have just released patch 1.1 apparently fixing my video card problem. And with that I’ve officially ran out of excuses.
Into the breach! Better you than me Gregg. I’m with Toger, I frighten easily.
Can I be with you and Toger? I’ll bring oatmeal cookies; I don’t like them so you can have my share.
There’s safety in numbers, Gregg. And you only have to outrun the slowest to survive. 😀
I need to try this one. I wasn’t very impressed by these guy’s first release but this one sounds sort of like what SS2 did in places with the crazy-making sound design.
tanis38: I’ve been “a Mac” since 1996, so I know how hard it used to be to game on one. I now have an Intel Mac with a Windows partition, but that’s another story. As much as I love most things Mac, I’ve never met an Apple mouse that I could love. In the last 6 years or so I’ve used (how I hate to admit this) a Microsoft wireless notebook mouse exclusively. They are small, and fit my hand well. They have 2 buttons and a wheel. They can be had from Amazon for about $15US. Can’t beat them.
As to Amnesia, I played it for about an hour last week and it wasn’t holding my attention. I can’t say it’s a bad game; I haven’t played long enough to know yet. I think I’m just not in the mood for it, but I think I will be at some point and I will start a new game then.
Terrific review, Jason.
Thanks for all the “mouse” feedback guys! lol. It is pretty crappy and that little rollerball is always giving me trouble.
Spike, I’ll research that mouse. Thanks!
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[…] is the lock, stock and barrel abandonment of combat, something players may be more familiar with in Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Frictional Games’ widely praised recent release. In real terms, gutting the game of combat makes […]
The graphics are awful (they kept reminding me of the original “Thief” engine for some reason), the “puzzles” are overly easy and barely there, but damn I loved this game regardless. Definitely the scariest (and in fact, the only scary) game I’ve ever played. I started it knowing nothing at all about it, so the first time I encountered the creepy white thing it freaked me out. And a few of the later chases had me on edge (although, by the end of the game you do get sort of used to running from the same creature to the point that it becomes more tiring than scary–and the second half never really matches the first half in terms of sheer brilliance of mood). Still a great game regardless.