There has been a disturbing trend among horror games in recent years to gradually merge the genres of survival horror and third-person shooter. Resident Evil 4 and 5, Dead Space, and even the more recent games in the Silent Hill series (excluding the fabulous Silent Hill: Shattered Memories) have all had moments of tension and some cheap pop-up scares, but the gameplay focus sits primarily on shooting or action sequences. This isn't to say that those are bad games, in fact I would say that they are of superb quality as action games. For me though, some of the best horror comes the moments between the action, when an overwhelming sense of dread creeps in. And in that regard, Amnesia: The Dark Descent deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as games like Shadow of the Colossus and Portal in terms of elevating videogames as an art form. To put it simply, Amnesia: The Dark Descent is easily one of the most frightening games, if not the single most frightening game, I have ever experienced.
Follow after the break for the full review.
I won't spoil much of the story in Amnesia, because piecing it together from the environment and found diary entries is something that should be experienced spoiler-free first hand. I will say that you awaken in a 19th century castle with no memory, and quickly find that something is very wrong with the situation. Walls are crumbling, odd noises are heard at every turn, shambling approximations of a human form can be seen in fleeting moments, and a looming darkness pervades the castle halls. I have never before played a game that so perfectly captured simultaneously the feeling of complete isolation and the paranoia of constantly being watched. And because this is all from a first-person perspective, the feeling of claustrophobia is that much greater.
A lot of this credit is due to the game's sanity system. Like the classic Eternal Darkness, you have both physical health and mental health to manage, with the latter causing environmental effects when drained. Sanity is lost from witnessing creepy events (doors slamming or windows cracking) or by simply spending too much time in the darkness. You can recover sanity by standing in the light, though light is limited by your waning lamp oil and the few tinderboxes you find to light candles. Floorboards creak just a little bit louder, the camera blurs and sways just a little bit more, and many other subtle effects take hold for a very creepy effect. It's often quite subtle though, so that you sometimes don't even realize that the game has been altered until you find a light source and restore your sanity. For me, it was often hard to tell whether the heavy breathing and pumping heart rate were actually from me, the game, or both. If you let your sanity drop too low, the effects become more pronounced with slower movement, and eventually the camera dropping to the floor as your character crawls forward on his hands and knees. The effect is fantastic.
There are also enemies in Amnesia, though there is no combat in the entire game. Instead, your only means of defense is to run and hide, preferably by locking yourself in a room, barricading the door, and hoping there is a wardrobe or dark corner to hide in. The controls should be familiar if you have played Frictional Games' Penumbra series, but may require brief explanation for those who haven't. Instead of simply pressing a key on the keyboard to open a door, you must click on it, then push or pull the mouse as if you were moving a real door. The speed of your mouse movements translate to how fast and far the door opens or closes, allowing for some fantastically tense situations. There was one point where I hid in a wardrobe from a creature chasing me, and I could peek out of the door to see if it was still there. It was, and in my panic I slammed the door, alerting the creature which promptly broke down the door and devoured me. There are many equally tense scenarios throughout, with another early part of the game making me more afraid of water than I can ever remember being.
Oh, and did I mention that looking at enemies also drains your sanity? So not only are you hiding in the dark, but merely looking at your pursuer drives your character even further insane. It creates an effect where even places of safety never feel quite safe. To be honest, enemies are sparse; but their encounters are spaced just far enough apart so that you never actually know when the next one is coming, but are always expecting it. There can be a few snags in the game's pacing due to getting stuck on some of the less obvious puzzles, but for the most part the balance between scares and safety is excellent.
The puzzles in Amnesia are of the adventure game variety, meaning you'll be collecting items and combining them to use them in another room for some purpose. It's not always obvious how items should be used together, though there is usually a lost diary page or flashback sequence (which occurs by hearing a conversation that previously took place in a room upon entering) which gives hints as to what should be done. Thankfully, important objects have a faint purplish glow to them, which eliminates much of the frustration that would have been caused by trying to find them in the game's mostly dark environments.
Your playtime with Amnesia can run between 8-15 hours depending on how long it takes to solve some puzzles and how much time you spend cowering in the corner. But even so, this review took far longer than I had anticipated. For me, the fear from the game was so intense that I couldn't play for longer than hour at a time before I become so overwhelmed that I had to come back to it later. When you first turn the game on it suggests that you play with the lights off and headphones on, which I was not brave enough to try more than once. I found the fear every bit as palpable in a well lit room.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a horror game through and through. The atmosphere is impeccable and the scares are genuine. It avoids the common pitfalls of the genre by simply eliminating them entirely. There are no monster closets, no dodgy camera angles, and no awkwardly limiting combat controls. There's just you, a dark castle, a lamp, and a shambling horror that can easily run you down if you don't find somewhere to hide. Amnesia distills horror to its purest form, and plays like a less verbose Lovecraft story come to life. If you're the type of gamer that likes a good scare, then you owe it to yourself to pick up this gem of a game. It will keep you up at night and haunt you in your dreams. And you will love every terrifying moment of it.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent is available for $20 for PC, Mac, and Linux through Frictional Games' store, as well as for PC through online retailers including Steam, Impulse, and Direct2Drive.