I’m walking down a dark passageway, devoid of any light to guide my path save for the lantern in my shaking hands. The walls of this centuries-old dungeon are stained with blood and suffering. I know I’m in for some trouble, because whenever any survival horror suddenly dumps you in a place like a dungeon, or a morgue, or a cemetery, the foreplay is over and the flaming sh1t is about to hit the metaphorical fan.
Which is to say that you’re going to scream. A lot.
It’s abundantly clear that terrible things have transpired here, but I’m not sure I want to know any more than that. I light a torch on the wall, more for my own sanity than the virtual character I’m controlling. Chains rattle in the distance, followed by moans of the unseen damned. As I walk, I could swear I hear a second set of footsteps accompanying my own. I stop, and look around. Nothing. No more footsteps. I continue on, and the phantom footsteps rejoin me. I’m sweating so much I’m worried my keyboard might short out.
Don’t judge me. I’m totally a real manly man, pure testosterone and all that, damn it. I ignore the sounds. A door! Slowly I pull it open, peeking inside to see what’s what. Nothing. I take a step through the open doorway and that’s when I hear it. It’s not quite a growl – the sound this ghastly thing makes isn’t something so simply described. I don’t even turn around. The screeching emanating from my blaring speakers tells me to run, makes every manly muscle in my manly body tense up all manly like. I might have whimpered a little, but it was totally a manly whimper. I literally slam the door behind me and sprint through unfamiliar corridors, Daniel (the game’s protagonist) breathing frantically and desperately wheezing all the while. I hear it smash through the door behind me as I slip into a room with a closet, which I promptly jump into. It’s coming still. I hear it snarling right outside my claustrophobic hiding place – my new best friend.
I gently open the door to take a peek at what’s happening. Daniel spots the inhuman thing and lets out a yelp of his own. It hears this and lurches towards me. It’s all over. Sh1t. Have thirty thousand cigarettes, and then reload from last save. Manly.
I’ve played many survival-horror games over the years, from the very first game-inspired yelps that escaped my trembling lips when playing the original Alone in the Dark, to the pants-filling terror of Clive Barker’s Undying. I sweated buckets traversing the horror-filled hallways of Dead Space’s USG Ishimura. Condemned: Criminal Origins and its sequel, Bloodshot, terror-kicked me in the nuts so hard that I’m fairly certain I’m unable to have children. When I first began playing Amnesia: The Dark Descent, I could handle playing it for maybe an hour at a time, maximum. As I progressed through the game, this time whittled down to short, ten-minute play sessions. It was all I could muster. Again, don’t judge me. Amnesia is truly terrifying.
Naturally, as with all games that attempt to scare players, your own mindset and the way you approach the game will decide whether or not Amnesia’s excellent ability to build tension will have an effect on you. Walk in thinking “oh, it’s just a game” or “how could this possibly scare me” or “only pansies allow themselves to get fully immersed in games LOL” and Amnesia’s horrific charm will slip right through your undeserving fingers. It’s terrifically, horrifically immersive, but only if you want to be immersed by it.
Amnesiabegins with Daniel awakening in a creepy castle with no recollection of his past. A letter from himself informs him that he’s inflicted this memory loss on himself and that he needs to delve into the castle’s depths to kill someone named Alexander. He’s also being hunted by a malevolent force referred to as The Shadow. That’s all I’m going to mention of the story, because part of Amnesia’s brilliance lies in the discoveries to be found within and the exploration needed to uncover Daniel’s past. Before you groan at the thought of yet another videogame starring a protagonist who’s lost his memory, all I’ll say is that this game is absolutely allowed to roll with the amnesia cliché because uncovering the reasons for Daniel’s voluntary memory wipe is part of the game’s allure.
Developed by the creators of the Penumbra series, Amnesia shares the same physics-based gameplay of Frictional Games’ previous offering. Objects in the world are manipulated as they would be in real life, albeit using the mouse and keyboard. Doors, for example, require that you click and drag the mouse toward or away from you to open/close them. Moving the mouse swiftly means the door opens faster, the opposite is true for slow, careful movements. Likewise, the drawers of a table need to be pulled open individually, their contents responding to the force of your movements as they roll around within. In action, this uniquely enthralling way of interacting with the game world serves to not only further absorb you in an already absorbing experience, but it also heightens tension in situations where you’re furiously attempting to mimic actions like rotating valves and slamming doors shut while monsters breathe down your neck.
Aside from physics-based puzzles, much of the gameplay involves collecting/combining items and using them to manipulate the game world. Oil, the game’s rarest commodity, is used to fuel your lantern – an important tool for fighting back the darkness. Tinderboxes can be used to light torches, candles and fireplaces to save on oil and provide some very welcome light in Amnesia’s dark rooms and passageways, but tinderboxes are also in short supply, so choosing when to use them is a gamble. The lantern and tinderboxes are important because darkness and light are crucial to the game. Stay in darkness for too long and Daniel’s sanity levels drop rapidly. The results of this loss of sanity are quite profound: the screen becomes hazy as it stretches and bulges, Daniel begins hallucinating and mumbling incoherently to himself, and he’ll collapse on the ground in fear at the worst of times, forcing you to literally drag him towards the light. Illuminated areas will stop Daniel’s sanity from dropping, but recovering your sanity requires progression: completing puzzles and continuing onwards even though all you’ll really want to do is curl up in a corner somewhere.
Part of the game’s terror arises from the fact that it goes where few games are willing to go by shunning any form of combat. Come across one of Amnesia’s horribly deformed denizens and you’re left with no choice but to run and hide, staring hopelessly at a wall in some dark corner because simply looking at these creatures causes Daniel’s insanity-o-meter to go berserk. Even when there are no enemies around, the creepy setting, outstandingly unsettling level design and staggeringly atmospheric audio make every moment a disturbing one. The Lovecraft influence can clearly be seen in every aspect of the game, from the disjointed story that rarely allows you to fully understand what’s happening until the very end, to the fear of not knowing what horrors lie in wait around the next bend and whether or not you even want to face those horrors. What you don’t see is often more terrifying than what you do. You’ll not find any monster closets in Amnesia: it’s a game that excels at dishing out psychological terror and unyielding tension rather than cheap scares.
In a game so superbly atmospheric and engrossing, bugs and technical issues stand out so much more and while these annoyances aren’t plentiful in Amnesia, they do show up from time to time. The voice acting, which is inconsistent, also hurts the immersion factor. Daniel’s lines, for example, range in delivery from decent to noticeably forced and overly dramatic. Alexander, on the other hand, is expertly characterised by his voice actor.
I’m struggling to find anything else to complain about, because Amnesia is one of those games that rocks up every now and then that leaves you with an experience that you’ll remember forever – even if those memories are of you screaming like a schoolgirl and running away a lot. It’s easily the most thoroughly frightening game I’ve ever played. Before you buy it, you should know that the $20 asking price (which is a seriously low price considering how good this game is) is a load of crap – because you’re going to spend a lot more cash than that on the supply of pants you’ll need to play this game.