Survival-horror hasn't always been horrifying. In titles such as Infogrames' Alone in the Dark on the PC, it starts off with a few scares until you find something that you can use to fight back: a stick of dynamite, a shotgun or a mystic relic that has unlimited ammunition. Yet survival-horror has also demonstrated that the genre has the potential to fit players into a skin-crawling, interactive experience dressed up in slick graphics, sound effects, and a devious sense of timing.
That is just what Amnesia: The Dark Descent brings to the blood-stained table.
Polishing the lessons that they had learned from its Penumbra series — and probably more than a few horror films — Swedish developer Frictional Games continues to throw its audience under Nyarlathotep's bus with Amnesia's mortally bent gameplay. As I begin my six- to seven-hour journey, Amnesia even suggests that I play the game in the dark with headphones. Even if you opt to play the game in a brightly lit room, it still has plenty of horrible things with which to fray your nerves.
Amnesia takes place in the early 1800s at rustic Castle Brennenberg, a small out-of-the-way place within the Kingdom of Prussia. You play the role of an amnesiac named Daniel, who has no recollection about why he's there. There is only a trail of diary entries that he had apparently left for himself and a murder mission. It's the only thing you have to go on, other than the memories that slowly surface during the course of the game.
Daniel is no soldier. He's a scared, frightened man who has no choice but to follow the trail that he had apparently prepared for himself. The hows and whys are slowly pieced together throughout the course of the adventure, though much of that depends on how many of the scattered missives that the player manages to find.
Through the use of subtle flashbacks, strange relics and scribbled papers, Amnesia's story slowly comes together, but it can also leave a few holes when you miss one of the optional collectibles. While most of those are difficult to overlook, things aren't entirely clear toward the end, when the actual "amnesia" is explained.
There's also one character who screams for a dialogue screen of some kind since he has so much to say later in the game, but you don't have that option. Still, there's plenty to fill in as a side story that could have jumped out from the pages of H. P. Lovecraft to give you a rough, if incomplete, idea of what has transpired.
There's also not much that you can do other than hide and hope that whatever is lurking in the dark doesn't find you. It's an effective foil to simply running around like you own the place because you don't. The Lovecraftian terror that is eroding Daniel's sanity is firmly in control. The best that I could do was to slip from between its fingers with every, crouching step to remain as quiet and as cautious as possible in case the darkness had its ears to the floor — and it always did. It also knew the right moment to reach out and remind me of how fragile one's sense of safety can be.
Though Amnesia is a first-person adventure, don't expect to find anything to help you fight the horrors that shamble around Brennenberg Castle. You can't. As with its previous work, Frictional Games' Amnesia strips away the hope of finding any weapons that one might otherwise expect. You feel mortally vulnerable in a genre that often gives its participants enough firepower to level cities. Wits and quick thinking are all that you have.
I started out with very little in Daniel's pockets until I started rooting through closets, drawers and shelves for tinderboxes to light torches and lamps. Finding a portable lamp was a genuine relief — as long as I find enough oil, which was always in short supply. Darkened halls with flickering candles at the far end provided only a false sense of safety, even when your eyes slowly adjust to reveal stone walls and carpeted corridors.
Oddly enough, candles and torches seem to be welded to the furniture, floor or the walls. The only portable light source you can bring along is the thirsty lantern and any tinderboxes you can collect. The tinderboxes can only be used once, though that doesn't mean that you should light up everything in sight. Being as conservative as I was with survival goodies, I had a large number of the items by the end of the game.
The visuals do away with GUI elements such as an on-screen health and inventory display. You can also have the game drop the on-screen target cursor. An inventory and a handy journal are brought up with hotkeys, the latter helping to keep track of hints and objectives, and both conveniently stay out of the way.
One small gripe that I had is that with this much effort paid to immersion, the only thing that you don't see are your own feet or hands when you climb ladders or look down at the floor. Though the game does a fantastic job of playing with the camera to deliver the knocks, falls and other mishaps, it doesn't quite take away the occasional feeling that you're a disembodied head.
Castle Brennenberg doesn't fall short anywhere else, with the gray stone chambers of its dungeons filled with hints of things that are too terrible to describe and the opulent, wood-paneled studies filled with the gory results of obscene experiments. Darkness and tiny spots of sanity-saving light are teased throughout the game, forcing me to decide whether or not to use up the limited supply of tinderboxes.
In addition to the visual creepiness, you'll also hear the sound of inhuman, guttural groans; thumping footfalls echoing on creaking floorboards; and all-too-human whispers slipping through the air. It will often be the only warning that something is coming for you. Excellent voice acting rounds out the story as memories resurface and lend each character an unmistakable sense of personality and cold menace — even in the smallest roles.
Daniel's health is shown with a text description from the inventory screen, such as whether he has a few cuts and bruises or if a wound is bleeding, but it's never permanent. There are some healing items that he can stock up on, but the game is forgiving enough to slowly regenerate his health so that wounds stop bleeding and leave him only a little worse for wear. It's largely useless, though, because if you're discovered or fail to find safety, you're likely going to die anyway.
Then there's sanity. Reminiscent of Bethesda's Cthulhu-inspired romp, Dark Corners of the Earth, Frictional Games' use of sanity is a measure of how well you can keep your mind together, and it's just as important as health. Hiding in darkness without a light, staring at something that shouldn't be walking around, or witnessing events that can't possibly occur will all erode Daniel's mental state.
If you ignore it for too long, scratching sounds will fill your speakers and the screen will start to warp as Daniel starts to see things that aren't really there. His breathing will become more rapid, and if you don't find solace within the light of your lantern or a candle nearby, he'll actually fall over — possibly alerting others of his location. In a way, you're all that he has to depend on to keep him sane.
Fortunately, the polished controls make it easy to slip Daniel inside closets or behind columns, into corners just out of sight, or manipulate doors and other props to make your way through the castle with little effort as long as you don't panic. Puzzles range from repairing a steam engine to turning wheels to open up steam valves to get a platform moving again. They're not too tough to think through, and everything that a player needs to solve them is usually within reach.
That's also ironic considering how brutal the game can be when it punches you in the face with terror, especially when you can't tap out an SOS by abusing the quicksave key — because there isn't one. Taking away a player's option to save at will usually leads to a sense of frustration in certain other games, such as shooters with poor checkpoints. But in Amnesia, it significantly adds to the gameplay's tense anxiety.
Dying was also treated not so much as a build up to frustration but as an accidental moment of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. When you die in Amnesia, you're brought back to the last save point, which it handles well. It also changes things a bit, such as moving or removing what had killed you the last time. After all, you're kind of expecting it at that point.
Well-told narratives in gaming can drive deep into territory held by more traditional fare, such as books or film. Far more than simply offering a sense of accomplishment in solving a puzzle or attaining a high score, certain games leapfrog over the stereotypical notion that it is all they are capable of providing. Amnesia utilizes subtle audio and visual cues to create a language of terror that doesn't jump out at you so much as it lingers outside your door ... waiting.
That's what Frictional Games has succeeded in doing. Amnesia's fright-filled journey into darkness, both literally and figuratively, is one of those gratifying reminders that our favorite hobby doesn't have to be driven by body count, although there are plenty of other things in the game to address that metric from a different angle. It's a welcome, cold splash of terror that anyone with a pulse should try out.
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