REVIEWS -- Amnesia: The Dark Descent -- PC
Paint the man, cut the lines
by Mike Sicliano
Fun factor: Fun
Worth to: Buy
Absolute fear is unforgettable, and ĎAmnesia: The Dark Descentí is unforgettable.
Castle Brennenburg, a twisting, malevolent foundation in which dark secrets of unspeakable acts were performed: practices of the occult, temptation of the forbidden, and the greed of pure conceit. You awake as Daniel, surrounded by the tainted walls of this Brennenburg. Your mind is a clean slate save for your name. As you venture forth into the unsettling darkness, within which a living nightmare stalks, you find a note writtenÖ by you, its author then a clear and focused man. Its directions do not sit well with you, a command that goes against your morals. It tells you, implores you, to kill the Baron of Brennenburg -- kill Alexander.
To say any more of the story would dip dangerously into the territory of revealing too much. The way in which it unfolds throughout AmnesiaĎs Lovecraftian-plot is like something from the horror master himself. Via journal entries written by you and various documents about those who have come and gone through the halls of Brennenburg, you learn the history of this malevolent place. Dialogue is some of the finest in recent memory, echoing back to a time when words were handled with a passionate touch by writers of the romantic era. Make no mistake, if you want to fully engross yourself in this world, you will be doing a lot of reading. But the eloquence with which the notes are written will make it a true pleasure, and Danielís own journal entries scattered about will be read by the voice actor.
In darkness breeds insanity
Fans of the Penumbra series will find themselves right at home with AmnesiaĎs evolution of the same physics-based gameplay. With that series, Frictional tested the waters of modern day point-and-click adventure and physics puzzles. With Amnesia, they perfected it. The game is played through a first-person perspective with the player assuming the role of Daniel entirely. You will interact with objects in the environment -- doors, drawers, virtually anything that is feasibly moveable -- in a realistic and incredibly fluid way. Rather than clicking on a door to open or close it, you must click and hold the left key and move the mouse in the appropriate direction. Minor tweaks to the formula over the Penumbra version make this a much more polished mechanic. Doors and drawers will no longer bounce open or closed should you forcefully pull or push on them, which created quite a few frustrating moments in Penumbra. Similarly, using the right mouse key in conjunction with the left, youíll be able to kick doors open and slam drawers shut.
When not exploring the environment, youíll be solving logic and physics-based puzzles to progress through the game. Rarely will they ever stump you for too long, but occasionally you might find yourself in a bit of a stalemate if thereís something lurking right around the corner of where you need to be. Fear not, though, because enemies provide little challenge. Any time one of them shows up, you can just whip out your plasma cutter andÖ oh wait, thatís a different game. In Amnesia, you are utterly and hopelessly defenseless. I mean it. You have nothing. All that stands between you and a bloody death is whatever kind of wood the closet door is made of.
Darkness is at once your best friend, and other times your most feared enemy. In the dark, youíll find yourself best hidden from the horrors that stalk the castle corridors. After a few moments, Danielís eyes will adjust, allowing you to see a bit better in the darkness. But stay shrouded for too long and Daniel will join the ranks of the less mentally-inclined. The screen blurs and his vision distorts, movement becomes sluggish, the sights and sounds of the environment will change, and the further you dip, the more intense this gets, until Daniel is literally a mass of flesh dragging his face across the floor and breathing like heís suffering from a record-breaking asthma attack, alerting everything in sight.
But thereís hope. You have access to light! In your possession is an oil-based lamp and tinderboxes youíll find throughout the castle, used to light any candles or torches you may find. Both are in very short supply, however, so conservation is key. Oil to refuel the lamp is usually found with or near tinderboxes and can rarely be completely refilled from finite oil drums. So when the darkness proves too much, turn on a light. But donít get too comfortable in the light, because it attracts the enemies. And should you find yourself relying on it too much, you may soon be without either source of illumination and once again plunged into the darkness. Itís a tightrope, and one that works absolutely flawlessly to create an atmosphere that is unrivaled in this or any generation of horror games.
The ScreamsÖ My God, that sound
Fear of the unknown is perhaps the most intense fear there is. Once you give aesthetics to something, the mind begins to conjure up assumptions about it. No matter how hideous or how grotesque it may look, it has a defined shape, it has characteristics, and it has movement. But when you take away all that, when you remove the visibility and keep everything else -- the distant roars, the footsteps on the floor above you, the sound of a door closing in the next room or a woman screaming bloody murder down the hallway -- thatís when the mind wanders, and thatís when true fear kicks is. The guys at Frictional Games know this better than any other developer, and that is why Amnesia succeeds at being a genuinely frightening experience.
The sound design of this game is absolutely brilliant. The effects, the ambient noise, the music, all of them combine effortlessly to immerse you in this terrifying nightmare. What falls just short of a homerun is the voice acting: Danielís own does exceptionally well most of the time and Alexanderís is flawless, but most supporting cast, which plays out through various flashbacks that Daniel has throughout the game, are below average. This doesnít do much to hinder the experience, but itís spotty enough that you can rarely take anything they say seriously, even when itís a grave situation.
The castle looks as if it were crafted piece by piece, though itís not a demanding game by any stretch. The environment still holds up well to create a unique sensation in any room you walk through. The light and dark work beautifully together and the variety of colors youíll come across in this seemingly dank and aged castle is refreshing. The monster design, when you finally do come face to face with one of these atrocities, is the stuff of nightmares. Iíll not spoil anything by telling you what they look like, or when they appear, but know this: looking directly at one of them will cause Danielís sanity to take a dive into the deep end. Itís an appropriate mechanic, because I wouldnít want to stare at one of these things for too long, either.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a masterpiece horror game. If you played the Penumbra series, you shouldnít even be reading this. You already have the game. If you enjoy horror games, this is a top priority. If youíre someone who thinks you canít get scared from a video game, let Amnesia sink its teeth into you. If you enjoy spending copious amounts of time on the computer, check out Amnesia. Hell, if you have ever played a video game in your life, play Amnesia. Itís available via digital distribution through Steam and Frictional Gamesí main website, and for $20, itís a steal. Play it at night, in the dark, alone, with headphones on. Youíll hate me for it, but you will not regret it in the end.
Pros: A genuine sense of fear and helplessness; clever puzzles that are never too cheap; brilliant sound design; remarkably rich atmosphere and stunning environments; improved physics engine allows for greater immersion; the sanity meter will cause panic; dialogue and journal text are expertly written.
Cons: Voice acting is hit or miss.
Publisher: Frictional Games
Developer: Frictional Games
Release Date: September 8, 2010
Review Date: 19-09-2010
Numbers of Players: 1
Players Online: No
Notes: Available for Mac and Linux, Downloadable Game, Available on Steam, Direct2Drive, Gamer's Gate and Impulse Driven
The gameís incredibly optimized performance and immaculate attention to lighting and detail make it stand out as being an exceptionally gorgeous looking, and admittedly terrifying experience.
Frictional Gamesís HLP engine improves from their Penumbra series to offer much more fluid controls and a greater sense of object interaction, and the Newton Game Dynamics physics engine is at its best in Amnesia.
With a core team as dedicated and small as Frictional, itís no surprise they put their heart and soul into their products. Amnesia is no exception and it shows in the gameís outstanding balance of puzzles, storytelling, and absolute terror. For $20, itíd be a crime to pass this up.
The sound design is one of the best to ever grace a video game, and if the sights donít draw you into this twisted world, the chilling ambiance of the castle will. Itís just shy of a perfect score only because of some spotty voice acting.
The game itself may not warrant continuous playthroughs unless to experience it again with developer commentary turned on or to re-explore the story with a better understanding, but the recently released editing tools will certainly keep the modding community active for a very, very long time.