Frictional Games’ survival-horror/adventure Amnesia: The Dark Descent came out back in September 2010, so why am I only now writing a review of it? I could say I’ve only recently purchased it but it’s been squatting on my hard drive, like some squamous gargoyle of Dis, since I first played it on release day for all of 45 minutes. In the 7 months since then I completed a whole host of other titles, spending an average of about 30 hours on each, so explanations like “lack of time” or “real-life commitments” go flying out of the window like defenestrated children. My excuses are many, varied, and all lies. Truth is I’ve only recently managed to complete it, for one very good reason.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent is fucking terrifying.
Now I’m no stranger to games that are genuinely scary, and I don’t mean pansy-arse games like Resident Evil or Dead Space. I’m talking games that genuinely get under your skin, like the insects that only exist in a lunatic’s mind, and turn you into a nervous wreck. The Shalebridge Cradle level in Thief: Deadly Shadows is one of my all time favourite gaming experiences, slightly ahead of The Haunted Cathedral from the first game. I completed System Shock 2 in the dead of night with a pair of headphones fixed to my ears and my skin glazed in adrenaline and sweat. The underrated Clive Barker’s Undying regularly manifests on my hard drive like a ghost ship near a forgotten coastline. Silent Hill 2, the pinnacle of the series, still haunts me to this day with its masterful use of psychological and supernatural horror.
None of these games prepared me for Amnesia.
The game’s title is also its initial story hook, and one that works well for Amnesia thanks in part to its literary influences (Poe and Lovecraft being the most obvious). You play Daniel, a 19th century scholarly English gent who wakes up in the middle of the dank and gloomy Castle Brannenburg, in Prussia, with absolutely no sodding idea how he got there. Luckily your pre-amnesiac self kindly left you a letter telling you to penetrate Brannenburg’s inner sanctum and murder its resident lord-cum-sorcerer Alexander before he does something ghastly. Pre-mother-of-all-benders Daniel also tells you you’re being pursued by a shadowy Nightmare From Beyond that will drive you mad, tear you limb from limb and devour your soul if it catches up with you. As post-bender Daniel you must explore the castle armed only with a lantern and a limited supply of tinderboxes, solving puzzles in your quest to reach Alexander and find out what the hell is going on.
I say armed but that’s a bit of a misnomer as there is no combat whatsoever in this game, unless you count screaming like a woman while a groaning, disfigured once-man hacks at you with rusty blades embedded in the bleeding stumps where his hands used to be. Ideas of self-defence in this game are a fool’s dream, an idealistic notion Amnesia cruelly snatches away and replaces with cold, hard, uncompromising vulnerability. Stealth is your only real defense, and you can avoid most monsters by either sneaking around them or finding a nice dark corner somewhere to cower in like a whipped dog. If there are no dark corners nearby you can also hide in wardrobes, behind racks of dead pigs hanging from meat-hooks or in any other secluded enough place where bad things can’t see you.
Preferably where you can’t see them either. Whereas in other stealth games you’re encouraged to keep the enemy in your sights as much as possible, Amnesia actively discourages this by increasing a monster’s chance to find you the longer you look at it. You know in horror movies where someone hides in a cupboard but can’t help copping a peep at the monster through a crack in the door? Only to gasp in fear and alert the creature to their presence. It’s a bit like that. In fact there was one part of the game exactly like that where I risked a look for all of half a second, then frantically tugged the cupboard door shut and held my breath until the horrible flayed thing outside wandered off.
Besides physical health there is also Daniel’s mental wellbeing to consider. Spend too long cowering in darkness, witness things best left unseen or stare a monster right in the eyes (or lack of them) and Daniel loses sanity, represented by blurred vision, auditory hallucinations, insane gibbering and wobbly controls. Basking in the soothing glow of a torch or lantern will calm him enough to act with some semblance of stability, at least until the next atrocity he foolishly blunders into. You can only properly heal your psychological injuries through progression however, and that means pressing ever onwards into the all-consuming darkness where further madness and death await you.
While heavily inspired by Eternal Darkness and Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, Amnesia doesn’t take its insanity effects to ludicrous extremes like pretending to delete your saved games or having ladders cause instant drunkenness. Few of the effects have any real serious gameplay repercussions until Daniel goes totally mad, whereupon he stumbles around the castle like he’s quaffed the entire contents of the wine cellar. Some players may chafe at any loss of control, however minor, but the insanity effects contribute far more to Amnesia’s immersion than they detract from it.
Speaking of controls, Amnesia’s will be familiar to anyone who has played one of Frictional Games’ previous titles like Penumbra: Black Plague. Standard first-person WASD movement is complemented by a context-sensitive targeting reticule that changes to a hand when pointed at objects you can manipulate. Rather than simply pressing a key to search a drawer or turn a wheel however, you have to click and hold the mouse button while moving the mouse in an appropriate way. To open a drawer for example you “grab” the handle and “pull” it towards you, and how fast you move the mouse determines whether you gingerly ease the drawer open or yank it out from the desk and cause any objects inside to roll around.
Opening and closing doors work the same way. You can open them a fraction to peer through into an unexplored room or slam them behind you while fleeing an invisible flesh-eater to buy precious time. Other objects like chairs, rocks, buckets, crates and stoves can be picked up, opened, thrown, stacked and otherwise manipulated, all with some button clicks and mouse movements. Some items stay resolutely nailed to the ground however and one or two fall victim to adventure game logic (why can’t I use that hammer to smash that ugly bastard’s face in?), but you still have a lot of freedom to manipulate the environment. It’s such a tangible, immersive control scheme you have to wonder why other games don’t do something like this more often. It can feel a bit finicky at times however, particularly when you’re trying to escape some slobbering fiend from the sulphurous pits of Hell itself.
Amnesia’s graphics, particularly the lighting, are particularly impressive for an indie game made by such a small team. Each area of the castle is visually distinct, packed with little details and ooze so much atmosphere you could lick it off the walls. Where the game truly excels however is in the sound department. Dear gods, the sounds! There are discordant whispers, eerie moans, heart-pumping musical cues and sinister thumping footsteps that may or may not be your imagination playing tricks on you. Some of the voice acting can be a bit hammy but that’s one small sour grape in a delicious and satisfying auditory feast.
Overall Amnesia is an experience that you will not forget yet desperately wish you could, like a harrowing war or a night spent all alone in a ramshackle cottage in the woods with a serial killer on the loose. It’s an experience that took me eight months to see through to its conclusion. I’m pretty sure I’m going to have full-blown nightmares about this game for weeks to come, and I won’t be going back to it anytime soon. Some of you reading these words may be inclined to dismiss them as the ramblings of a coward. Maybe you’ve played Dead Space, Doom 3 or every Resident Evil and consider yourself above petty emotions like fear or terror. I used to think like you, and I thought I’d breeze through Amnesia in a matter of hours with courage in my heart and a song on my lips.
I was wrong. So very, very wrong.
Imagine waking up in the middle of the night to find a pale, gaunt, naked figure looming over your bed. There are only pitch-black hollow sockets where its eyes should be and its flayed, toothless mouth hangs permanently open, slack-jawed and useless. You have no idea how it got there. For all you know it could have been stood there watching you ever since you fell asleep. None of that matters. As you stare frozen with terror it whispers, in a voice like the rustle of dead leaves brushing across a tombstone, “Where is your god now?”
That’s Amnesia: The Dark Descent, available on Steam or directly from Frictional Games. If you’re brave enough to give it a try then do what the game tells you and play it in the dark with headphones on, although I won’t judge you if you don’t. Amnesia is a pure horror experience that sets out first and foremost to scare the bejeezus out of you. While it’s no whiz-bang AAA title it is genuinely terrifying, so if you’re sick of horror games not living up to the horror part then buy this and be afraid. Be very afraid.