Monday, October 18, 2010

Amnesia: The Dark Descent (PC Review)

Before I actually begin the review, let me state that I HATE this game...

Okay, now let’s get started.
How often is it do you find yourself “afraid”, more or less, to move forward in a videogame? Particularly in recent horror games? Once those hands and fingers are accustomed to severing limbs with plasma beams, or those boulder punching biceps are flexed to high heaven, nothing stands in your way, not even gargantuan Godzilla sized bosses. This is not the case in Frictional Games Amnesia: The Dark Descent. The game is a first person survival horror experience. You awake in a castle, and the only memories are your name and where you live; the rest is gone like leaves on the wind.

Taking place sometime in the 1800s, Amnesia’s setting is a crumbling castle. Our protagonist, Daniel, finds himself stumbling through hallways and speaking to himself to make sure he remembers certain things, and then collapses on the ground. He wakes to find rose petals falling from the ceiling, which are easily mistaken as blood, and notices a trail of pink liquid lining a path through the castles pathways in splotches. Some halls are completely cut off, collapsed ceiling and stone and wooden framework making advancement impossible, and the few large doors which one would think to be the front doors of the castle, will not budge by the arms of one man alone. And so feeling light headed, suffering from delusions and sounds and scares, Daniel follows the trail of pink liquid to find someone. This is the opening of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and the descent which Daniel progresses is easily one of the most frightening in horror game history.

The games narrative is told through notes, the old school horror way, and vocal flashbacks. Many times you will enter rooms or look at certain objects and sounds will flutter in, and then the voices of Daniel and another character interacting with one another. You slowly piece together what you can, while also receiving bits of texts from the loading screens which are hard to place as to where they belong, but they get the imagination running. I can’t say much more without spoiling the story, and it’s certainly something I don’t want to do. Predict what you want, but the story is good and original, and I was interested the entire time.

As for the gameplay, Amnesia has you wandering around an empty castle which is half plagued by darkness and other strange apparitions. Is it real or all in your head? Are you remembering things correctly? You open cabinets and drawers, pull levers to move bookshelves, turn cranks to open hatches, stack barrels to barricade yourself in a temporarily safe room from the screaming and banging outside. Daniel has sanity which must be kept in check, as he suffers from fear of the dark. You find a lantern early on in the game which is your mobile relief of the dark, and you must constantly keep your eyes peeled for oil to refill it. You also find dozens of small tinderboxes throughout the game which you can use to light candles, torches, hanging lanterns, and fireplaces to create light and erase the darkness. This is most helpful in rooms which require a lot of exploring so you can light the lights and just douse your lantern to save its precious oil. What happens if your sanity runs out? Many things, and it’s not always the same. You’ll first notice Daniel’s eyes going blurry and distorted, and then you find it hard to pick up objects and light lights correctly as your vision jerks. If your sanity goes too far below the likable level, you see some really cool, and scary stuff, ranging from creepy sounds and sights to mind shattering events. On my first play-through of the game, I didn’t really know what was scripted and what was happening due to my sanity, which was at dangerously low levels a majority of the game. On my second, at least two different events were experienced in the first hour. It’s a cool system to scare players and it definitely adds replay ability as the player won’t really know if something is scripted or not.

The puzzles in the game make you think. Amnesia tries to keep its puzzles in the realm of reality and possibility. If a crank won’t turn, perhaps it’s jammed and you must unjam it. If you need to create a potion, not only must you find the ingredients, but understand how to work the machine. The puzzles range from simple crank and gear turning to mixing items to make combinations which you’ll use in other areas and simply opening locked doors or getting through walls. There are some that are very smart, and I won’t spoil, as I was stumped a few times before I had to re-explore an entire area, but they won’t make you want to quit for good.

The most exciting part however, and the reason I hate to play this game, is where the main terror comes from. All throughout, you hear sounds, see shadows, and your imagination takes over. Frictional understands that a game is most scary when they give clues to the player so they think for themselves. See too much of one enemy, and your done for. The sound in the game is amazing. Boards creaking above your head as dust falls, screams and whines of women and animals in the distance. The game does an amazing job at getting your imagination going and at pacing as well. They know how to calm you down just enough to throw you back into the dark hell. When an enemy is nearby, your immediate action should be to douse your lantern and hide, hide well. You are completely defenseless in Amnesia. You have no knife or sword, no matchlock handgun or even fire to burn the enemy with. Throwing objects may slow them down, but that isn’t stopping them. I first played the game for about two hours in my first sitting. I stopped for a good reason. I came to a point where I had to traverse a basement and make my way around obstacles until I came to its end at a long hall and found what I was looking for. On the way back, I turned the corner, fully shown in the light that I myself had lit to get here on the wall, and I see that disgusting face and monstrous wobbling figure in the doorway at the bottom of the steps moving its legs in my direction. I freaked, ran to my left, went back up the stairs and into the end of hall, hid behind a box and prayed that it wouldn’t find me, as I hid in a dead end, with no means to escape if I was found. Before I could find out, I turned the game off to take a break. I had done this at least three more times before I managed to finish the game. The last time I did this was two years ago when I finally was able to play Fatal Frame II, and it felt terribly good that a game scared me to the point of turning it off to get away from it. This event may not sound too terrifying from reading it, but once you play the game for a short while, you’ll understand the power of immersion; lights off and headphones recommended.

The voice acting is amazing. Unlike Penumbra, Frictional Games first and also amazing horror title, Daniel has a voice, and a damn good one. I don’t remember a single cheesy line or mispronounced word or phrase, so immersion was present the entire time, and I enjoyed listening to diaries and conversations. As for graphical quality, Amnesia excels very well. The water looks great, the fire looks great, and the shadows are of course amazing as the game forces you to choose between going crazy by cowering in the dark, or running from a creature which will get you brutally murdered. The physics are nice as well. You can pick up and rotate anything that isn’t bigger than you. Moving blocks and chairs are necessary to solve some puzzles, or to be used as stepping stones to explore entirely optional areas. The castle itself looks very good and it sells the idea of the events that happened there. There are points where the game is so dark, you simply cannot be frustrated because of how terribly scary and immersive it is with the sound and movement of shadow.

Surprisingly, there is very little frustration in the game. Having a low sanity doesn’t make it difficult to interact with anything, just helps to sell the mood. Checkpoints are generous and if you have serious trouble, the game will give you hints at each death. The game itself is about a 6 to 8 hour dark descent into madness, and even more if you take it slow, real slow.

In the end, Amnesia is a land mark in survival horror gaming. It does exactly what horror is meant to do; interest you, immerse you, terrify you. The story is excellent and keeps interest, the setting and environment, bundled with the sound and excellent graphical value, makes you feel like you’re in a real castle that’s being attacked by a dark presence. There’s very little to complain about, and what you can complain about doesn’t even affect the game or your experience. For the price of only 20 dollars, this is a game any horror fan shouldn’t pass up.


Written by Taylor Dean

This review was originally formatted for a different website. It has been edited to display correctly on, however, inconsistencies may occur. Future articles may appear differently.


Ian said...

just curious why did you review the game that you hated O_o

(this is Ian BTW)

Jack Claxton said...

Ian, Taylor does not hate the game. The first sentence referred to him hating it because it's got him so shit scared.

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