Amnesia’s protagonist, Daniel, is the most recent in a long line of examples of why we shouldn’t play with mysterious artifacts: they almost always unleash some sort of malevolent spirit, and never seem to end up as sweet jewelry like we had hoped. Daniel’s particular malevolent spirit is reality-warping kind of fog, and it is an omnipresent foe in Amnesia. This is a first-person survival horror game with a strong backbone of adventuring and puzzling, and the second attempt at this particular genre-merger from Penumbra developers Frictional Games.
The fog strikes at you with hallucinations, which erode your sanity over time. Sanity is also undermined by spending too much time in the, dark or staring at any of a plethora of creepy things, and it is restored by light and puzzle-solving. When your sanity starts to slip, you begin to pant desperately, and various impairments overcome your vision. When things get really bad – which is rare – the game’s controls become less responsive.
The effect is similar to how many other games simulate inebriation, and it works to heighten your sense of vulnerability. However, in the course of my play through I never once died, directly or indirectly, from insanity. It’s even questionable if being in a lowered state of sanity is any hindrance at all. At some point towards the middle of the game, the effects of insanity start to feel like all bark and no bite.
There are really only two tangible enemies in Amnesia, and never once do you take the fight to either of these creatures. To the contrary, you cannot even defend yourself from them, and if they get close to you, as Cats once said, “You have no chance to survive make your time.” Amnesia does a great job of instilling a genuine fear of both of these monsters, with the use of music – and silence – playing an important role, and it’s a constant worry knowing you can only hide and hope you’re not seen. It’s not easy to escape a foe once it has you in its sights, as they can outrun you and will break through doors seconds after you slam them in their face. You’re probably imagining harrowing, heart thumping chases as you go from room to room throwing obstacles in the way of your pursuers – and certainly, the threat of this keeps you constantly on edge. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always play out that way, and when it does it’s often a scripted event.
But while the attempts at big scares occasionally miss the mark, the puzzling never does. My worst fear with adventure games is that I will end up cluelessly backtracking for hours, hoping to find that one glowing collectible that I missed. This almost never happened in Amnesia – partly because you cannot backtrack much, which creates a relatively small area to get lost in, and partly because the puzzles are logical and usable items are obviously highlighted. Yet at the same time, solving a puzzle feels rewarding.
It’s obvious that Amnesia is a dark game thematically, but it’s worth stressing that it is even more so visually. Since light is such an important ally, it is meted to the player sparingly. This means you’ll spend much of the game leaning into and squinting at an almost black screen. That might sound frustrating, but it works brilliantly. Fight the temptation to turn up the gamma, as doing so kills much of the excellent mood the game manages to spin.
You’ll also benefit if you’ve access to some sort of surround sound setup, or at least a good pair of headphones. Sound is unquestionably Amnesia’s best trick. Even towards the end of the game, when you feel like you’ve seen everything it’s going to throw at you, you will still be spinning Daniel in circles trying to find the origin of that distant howl, or those approaching footsteps. It’s just a shame that some of the voice acting is not as accomplished. The antagonist and supporting characters do their jobs admirably, but Daniel’s performance is generally poor, and at times mood-killing.
If the game ran much longer than its eight to ten hours, it might not have faired so well. But as it stands, its short length ensures that it’s a continually solid experience spiced with flashes of real brilliance. It’s a gem of a survival horror game, a fantastic adventure, and the way the two combine means that everyone should get something out of Amnesia – assuming you’ve a strong stomach to deal with the grizzly final third, that is.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent is available on all good digital download services, but we recommend you buy directly from the developers to give this small indie team the biggest share of your $20. Have a read of our interview with Frictional Games, and look out for an Amnesia giveaway later on.