Amnesia: The Dark Descent ReviewJoe Shaffer
I've played my share of horror games that started off tense, but eased up on the scare factor as I advanced (Penumbra: Overture). I've also plunged into a few that featured mundane introductions, awkwardly interrupted by spookiness (Silent Hill 3). Usually, though, I enter a game that's so desensitizing that it becomes about as frightening as a old sock before I was even halfway through its campaign (The Suffering). Such is typically my lot with horror games, yet I still play them in the hopes that I'll find one that's thoroughly frightening. Accuse me of "chasing the dragon," if you must, but I see it as a worthwhile hunt.
For every few horror games that fail to thoroughly frighten, I manage to find one that makes me regret hooking up my PC and game systems in the basement. For every Penumbra: Overture, Silent Hill 3, and The Suffering that I encounter, I run afoul of an Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
Few games can make mundane activities like traversing an empty hallway or exploring a chamber consistently maddening. In Amnesia, every step you take seems to taunt and terrorize you. For your character, Daniel, loses increments of his precious sanity as he prowls through the darkness. As your senses escape you, crazed thoughts and whispers in the darkness plague and bombard you and grow in intensity until you've completely lost your mind. That's when the game's mechanics join in on the menacing, slowing your motions to a gentle plod while the screen drunkenly wobbles and stretches. That's when you become careless, stumble around in the shadows, and make all kinds of noise that might attract unwanted attention.
It is possible to find reprieve from the Lovecraftian madness that ails you in Amnesia, mainly through escaping the darkness. Using tinderboxes scattered throughout the premises, you can light torches and lanterns that not only stave off insanity, but aid in repairing your damaged psyche. There's even a portable oil lamp you can carry with you (with a finite amount of oil, of course), in case you're plunged in blackness with nothing to light.
As with anything in a well-concocted horror piece, that which is rewarding can also be damning. You may think yourself safe in the light, until you whirl around and stare into the putrid, deformed mug of a Gatherer. That's when a dark spot begins to form near your groin and you either commit to one of two tasks: stand still and pray that you die quickly or run like hell.
Gatherers may seem clever, but they're not immune to classic trickery. Run far enough away and duck behind barrels or lock yourself in chambers and they may run past you or lose heart. May being the operant word... More often than not, though, they'll find you and taste your flesh. There are some scenes where the monsters do not relent and all you can do is run until you find the entrance to the next wing of the castle. Conveniently, at such moments you bump into most of the game's closed doors, which require you to click and hold the 'left mouse button' and essentially "drag" the door open.... all while a hideous hellspawn is right on your tail. Worse yet is when you have to open a door inward and your body prevents it from opening fully, usually requiring you to take a pace-killing step back while opening the door. You can imagine the kind of tension mechanical quirks like these build when you've got a hungry, invisible beast splashing through knee-deep water to get to you. I don't think my heart ever pounded so hard in any other horror game as when I struggled to open a door in the inundated sector of the castle, while the sound of heavy splashes drew ever closer...
The grotesque partnership between the Gatherers and insanity is part of what makes Amnesia so terrifying. At times you'll wonder if the groan you just heard is a Gatherer brute that has sniffed you out or a terrible trick played by your frail mind. Gatherers are not everywhere, after all, and their intermittent presence can sometimes instill in you a sense of false security. For instance, I recall one occasion in my playthrough in which I figured that the coast was clear, so I ran about the neighboring rooms and made as much noise as I pleased, and I only stopped because I ran headlong into a Gatherer grunt who must've heard my mischief. Other times, I tiptoed carefully in the darkness because I swore that I heard something open a door in the distance. Chances are that I was just being a weenie...
If all there was to Amnesia was pressing 'W' and 'left shift', then it would have been more appropriately named Slender. Thankfully, the developers at Frictional brought their puzzle-designing savvy when programming this adventure. Many of the game's puzzles are as clever as you'd expect from Frictional, like one that involves repairing downed elevator. This task sends you into a machine room to deal with steam pressure, igniting furnaces, and setting misplaced cogs. Unfortunately, most of the game's areas consist of maybe one or two major puzzles. Beyond that, most of the game's locales consist of sprinting away from beasts (both real and imagined) or locating items to aid you in completing a puzzle. It seems like the developers crafted each locale as a means to hide an item, which could give you the impression that some of the game is filler.
That might be the case were Amnesia not a horror game. Of course, the ridiculous number of corridors and avenues are there to put you in a constant state of alert. Moreover, if you've played your share of horror games, then you know what interacting with certain items and advancing the campaign usually settles on. That's when you hear sharp raps upon the door, as if someone (...thing) is trying to break it down. That's when you hear a snarl in an adjacent room and footsteps approaching your location. That's when you re-darken that spot on your pants and use your noggin to get yourself out of the forthcoming bind in which you're sure to find yourself.
After my first substantial session with Amnesia: The Dark Descent, I didn't want to walk through my dark house and go to bed. I wanted to stay where the light was down in the family room. Then I remembered that light attracts Gatherers, which made me want to walk through the darkness... but I was too terrified to do so, and therefore wanted to stay in the light... which is where the Gatherers would find me, so.... You can see what the kind of madness a game like this can spin. Conventionally speaking, Amnesia is your standard adventure game with the occasional puzzles. What makes it truly worthwhile to visit is its scare factor, which remains solid throughout the experience.
Seriously, I'd feel safer spending a night in the dog pen at Outpost 31 than setting foot in Amnesia's damned castle...
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.