I’ve never done a game review on this blog and my intent was not to for the most part. Aside from the fact that no one really cares what I think about a particular video game (who could blame them really), there’s a million and one other places out there to get reviews that do a far better job than I. However, there are certain circumstances where I think I may be able to lend a unique perspective on a title based on personal experience. Amnesia: The Dark Descent for the PC, developed by tiny Swedish team Frictional Games, is most certainly one of those times. The game is approaching two and a half years of age so anyone who has considered buying it likely has by now but I wanted to write down my thoughts on it as I come at this title from a different angle than most and to my great surprise, it actually didn’t live up to its hype for me. I still think it’s a great title and astounded that it was made by a tiny team but it has some major flaws, most of which I think can and will be address in the forthcoming sequel, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs.
After a long series of delays due to life happening, I finally did my single session playthrough of the entire game last Sunday as my second Extra Life 2012 stretch goal. This was a goal I purposefully set high, thinking it would never be met and I only just made it thanks to the absurdly awesome generosity of some people. I absolutely detest horror. Books, movies, TV, games, I don’t like any of it. This type of content thrives off of the rush people get from being scared but I’ve never seen the point of that rush, though I respect those who can work it into pleasure. Consequently, this has made me into a triple-A grade weak sauce. I’m a guy who has a hard time getting through DOOM 3 and F.E.A.R, two games that very much relied on cheap jump scares. Amnesia doesn’t do this at all, it instead take the Lovecraftian route, aiming to just spend 10-12 hours messing with your head and making you fear what could be, rather than what is.
I won’t discuss the plot at length as there are plenty of places to find out about it. The story is not necessarily straightforward or easy to follow but that’s also kind of the point. Since I spent my time with the game interacting with my viewers while playing, I wasn’t able to give it the level of attention it deserved. I did enjoy it though, particularly the voice acting which delivered much of the important character events. Quality voice acting is not common in indie titles and it’s clear that Frictional put a lot of effort into this aspect, a very smart move. If there was no voice in the game or worse, if it was poorly acted, it would have taken a lot away from the impact. Amnesia is all about atmosphere and this is where things really shine, or rather not literally. The environments are dark, depressing and terrifying and while not a visual stunner of a game, it still manages to be striking in places, even more impressively when you realise that these guys wrote their own engine for it too.
The core mechanic of the game involves the balance of keeping yourself in light as much as possible but also hidden from view of the enemies. You can’t fight anything, only run away and when you’re in the light, you are more exposed and easily spotted. However, staying in darkness for too long will cause you to go mad, adding in visual distortions, misleading sound cues and eventually, hallucinations and unconsciousness. You have a lantern as well as tinder which can be used to light fires and torches in the environment but both of these are limited and can’t always be relied on. Should an enemy spot you, your only hope is to either book it to one of the doors that transition you from one environment to the next or into a room where you can close the door and hide in a closet or dark corner until your pursuer gets bored and leaves. Everything in the environment that you can interact with you do so by clicking on it and moving your mouse so as to mimic the desired motion of your character’s hand. You literally pull doors and objects open and can grab and throw things. This has been a hallmark of all Frictional’s titles so far. It feels a bit clumsy but also really immersive. Trying to get your hand to co-operate to close a door when you’re being chased by a monster is truly terrifying. Having no map can also make both evading pursuit and regaining your bearings after doing so a challenge, though being able to ditch a monster simply by going through a “loading screen door” is a bit jarring.
Beyond just the voice work, Amnesia has some of the best atmospheric sound design I’ve heard in years. Since you often can’t see much, you’re relying on your ears to help guide you as much as your eyes. The sound can be deceptive though as once you spend too much time in the dark, your brain will play tricks on you, making you think things are present that aren’t. The insanity effects are often very subtle, just enough to make you pause and question whether or not you heard something. This little uncertainty can create incredible feelings of isolation and dread. There is one major fault though which after a few enemy encounters, really breaks some of this tension. When an enemy spots you, a very specific announcement sound is made. This sound is so different from the others, it’s almost cartoonish. When you hear it, you know an enemy will be on you soon and you know to turn around and run. The sound never changes, it never fails to play and it always seems to play at the same volume, regardless of the enemy’s distance from you. The difference stands out so significantly, it makes me wonder what the motivation behind designing it this way was. Enemy encounters are purposefully rare but this always makes them obvious and as a result, less scary. Either changing up the sound, not playing it at all sometimes or making is blend in more with the insanity effects would have gone a long way.
Another disappointment that I discovered while playing one of the game’s final areas is that many of the enemy encounters are scripted. Several times near the end of the game, I died in an area and respawned, only to have the same enemies sound off their presence in the same location. This is a common design practice and makes sense in some circumstances but in a game that’s all about tension, a lot of it is lost when after failing an area a couple of times, you’re able to plot out when and where the enemies will appears. At that point, you’re just running a pre-determined gauntlet and that’s not entirely the point of a game like this. The main goal of most areas as well involves either simple environmental puzzles or going on a quest to find an item which allows you to move on. There’s little variance and aside from one memorable section near the end where you interact with another character and a terrifying area where you’re trying to evade an invisible water demon, this is most of what the story involves. It’s not that bad and really, it’s the journey itself and the atmosphere that are the biggest selling points but a little more variety would have been nice.
My biggest complaint by far is the massive periods of down time in Amnesia. There are several sections where the game goes out of its way to let you know that you are in no danger whatsoever. The areas are brightly lit, you can see far ahead of you and there is no music playing or it’s “happy music.” These areas usually have a bunch of puzzles to solve but they can be spread across several different rooms and in some cases, took me well over an hour to complete. These are devoid of any tension or horror whatsoever and I would estimate that at least 25% of the entire game is played this way, something that really shocked me. This is one area where I freely admit that the way in which I approached the game may have distorted my impressions. It’s pretty clear that Frictional did not intend or expect people to play through the entire story in one sitting. I suspect that had I played in several shorter sessions rather than one big marathon, I would have found these periods of down time less of a drag and more interesting. I get that they can’t have the tension turned up to 11 the entire time, lest the player become numb to it or worse yet, bored. Having down time is not a bad thing in and of itself but I do think they could have condensed them down somewhat.
Amnesia has 3 possible endings (technically 4 but the last is something you only really get by accident) and the choice I made got me the “good ending.” I thought it was a satisfying enough conclusion and though I haven’t seen the other endings yet, I imagine they are good as well. The story does wrap up and doesn’t really end on any cliff hanger which I will give props to Frictional for. Other than going back for the multiple endings or to play with the developer’s commentary enabled (which I would like to do some day), there is no real replay value to Amnesia but that’s not really its intent. There is a “custom story” option available which is essentially the game’s version of mod support. As I understand it, there are some great custom stories available but I haven’t tried any.
Despite the flaws I listed above, I still really liked Amnesia: The Dark Descent and it scared the crap out of me multiple times. I’m hoping to cut together a freak out highlight reel at some point soon. Even though having the Twitch chat room kept me grounded and removed some of the fear, I was absolutely terrified on some occasions and if I was playing this by myself, I don’t know if I could have managed to finish it. Many horror aficionados have called this the scariest video game ever made and while I don’t have the experience to question them, I could totally believe it. For such a small team, Frictional Games truly created something special here and they are to be commended for that. Everything I’ve criticised could be refined and polished for Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs and given the supposed great success of this game, they hopefully have the resources to do so. I still don’t like horror and this game hasn’t sold me on getting further into the genre but that I both finished this and did so in one sitting is something I will wear as a badge of honour on my gaming career. The experience I had with Amnesia: The Dark Descent was unique and not something I’m going to forget any time soon. When critiquing a game, I think that’s some of the greatest praise that can be levied. I really hope Frictional Games meets continued success.