Monday, 31 October 2011

Amnesia: The Dark Descent

Post-Launch Review, Special Halloween Edition
Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Developer: Frictional Games
Publisher: Frictional Games
Released: September 8 2010

I apologize for the lack of screenshots; as I wrote the review I realized I'd already uninstalled the game to free up space. They may be added at a later date.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a first-person survival horror adventure game (that's a mouthful) inspired by classic adventure games and the work of H.P. Lovecraft. You play as Daniel in the year 1839, who awakens in seemingly abandoned Brennenburg Castle with no memory of how he got there. All he can remember is that something is hunting him, and that he must escape it.

At Launch
Amnesia received very positive reviews and was widely cited as one of the scariest games of all time, with reviewers praising the game's atmosphere and sound design. Oddly, while the game received high but not perfect review scores, I can't find much in the way of negative criticism other than a couple of publications that said the narrative was rocky at times.

Post Launch
During the Portal 2 ARG, Amnesia received the “Justine” DLC. In a short story unrelated to the main plot and inspired by Portal's test chambers, the player, guided by phonograph, must navigate three test chambers to escape the captor.

The Good
Amnesia is the scariest game I've ever played. It's the only game that has ever caused me to quit outright and not come back to it for days. For maximum effect play in the dark with some good headphones. I find it much more effective at building tension than any other so-called horror games on the market. And don't worry, I'm not going to just say it's scary and leave it at that — take a look at the next few points.

No Combat
If a monster comes after you, you can't fight it. If you don't find a hiding place, the monster will kill you, and there's absolutely nothing you can do about it. The only way to protect yourself is to run away, find a good hiding spot, and hide in the corner until it leaves, and this makes you feel very vulnerable.

Sound Design
The sound design in Amnesia is incredible. There are some very clever subtleties that really reinforce the horror. One is your character's breathing: at most points you can hear your character's breath, and it gets more ragged and intense as you become afraid. Other games have tried this, but Amnesia is more successful — your character actually sounds terrified, and he sometimes moans or screams when he's really freaked out.
The best part of the sound design, though, is the music that plays when a monster appears. In most games, when the scary thing shows up, the scary music starts, and when the scary thing goes away, the music stops. In Amnesia, the scary music starts when the monster appears, but you can't use the end of the music as a cue to come out of hiding, because the music won't stop until you leave your hiding place and check if the monster is gone. It's wonderfully effective — even if your hiding spot is relatively safe, you don't feel safe until you've worked up the nerve to see if the monster is still there, and don't find it anywhere.

Sanity Mechanic
As you lose sanity, your vision gets distorted and you begin to hear things. At extreme levels of insanity, you see things that aren't really there, hear the constant scratching of vermin, and the game controls become sluggish.
When you see something scary, you lose sanity. When you solve a puzzle, you gain it back. More importantly: when you're in the dark you slowly lose sanity and become more afraid... but not only is your lamp oil limited, when you're in the light, monsters can see you better. You're forced to choose between going insane or being spotted, or to choose between sanity and lamp oil.

Lighting Effects
Speaking of light, the game handles that very well too. Firelight is warm and inviting, but casts flickering, moving shadows. In the dark, you can see enough to make the game playable, but your range of vision is limited. Most interestingly, there's a short adjustment period when you go from light to dark: when you turn off your lantern, you have a few seconds where you can't see at all before your character's eyes adapt.

Plot and Characters
Much of the plot, backstory, and character development is told through journal pages and notes you'll find in the castle, so make sure to explore, because it's damn good. The journal pages are narrated, and the voice actor is quite convincing. Everything comes together quite nicely in the end, and as far as I can remember, no plot thread is left unresolved. And of course as you piece together how your character came to be in the castle in the first place and what's happened there, the situation seems worse and worse.

Heavy H.P. Lovecraft Inspiration
Lovecraft is one of my favourite authors, specializing in the horror of that which is unknowable or alien. Amnesia's plot and settings are heavily inspired by Lovecraft's writing, even including some direct references to specific stories.

There are three possible endings to Amnesia. As I neared the end of the game I worried that there would be some contrived boss battle mechanic to generate a climax. There was a climax, but it was not exactly what I expected — in a good way. No boss battle. There's a major decision point but it does not feel contrived or like an “ending machine”, it's a natural conclusion to the narrative. I don't want to say much more, other than that it works very well.

The DLC story is fairly short and not overly complex, but it's very good. You wake up in a seemingly abandoned castle, and a phonograph tells you that you must pass three tests in order to escape, a la Portal. Each puzzle has an easy solution and a hard one, but there's a twist — the easy solution requires you to execute a human prisoner. The real question is not whether you can pass the tests; it's whether you're willing to sacrifice an anonymous human being to take the easy way out. There are two endings to the DLC, one for saving everyone and one for killing at least one prisoner. It's too bad there wasn't a distinction made between killing one person and killing three, but I guess that's not really the point.

The Neutral
Occasionally Fiddly Controls
The developers went for a bit of realism with the controls, so you have to make some motions with the mouse that mirror the actual motion you'd use for the task at hand — spinning a wheel, pushing open a door, pulling a lever. Most of the time this works fine but occasionally things don't work immediately. Although you could easily argue that having trouble closing a door while a monster is chasing you just makes the game scarier.

The Verdict
Recommendation: PLAY IT
While I can't say Amnesia is a perfect game, I can't really think of anything negative to say about it. The only thing that could come close is that the game is very slow overall, but that's only a problem if you only like fast-paced action. The only way you won't get your money's worth is if you're too scared to finish it. Although, since you paid money to be scared, maybe that's a good thing?
Regardless, Amnesia is something to experience if you're a fan of horror and/or classic adventure games.
And, as a bonus: Until noon Pacific tomorrow, Amnesia is only $4 on Steam, down 80% from the normal price of $20. Pick it up!

And finally, a bonus comment question!
If you buy Amnesia because you want a scary game, and it's so scary you can't finish it... did you get your money's worth?

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