Review: Amnesia: The Dark Descent

September 24, 2010, Author: James Sheppard

I have played quite a few survival horrors in my time; Resident Evil, Forbidden Siren, Dead Space, Left 4 Dead (if that even counts) and Clock Tower 3 for instance but few have gotten to me like Amnesia: The Dark Descent has. Developed by Frictional Games, also known for their similar Penumbra series, Amnesia is a first-person adventure game based on exploration and puzzles. This sure as hell ain’t no Zack & Wiki: Quest For Barbados’ treasure, mind.

Amnesia was my introduction to the works of Frictional Games and I wasn’t sure quite what to expect. They’re an indie developer outputting lower-budget games (at release, Amnesia will set you back a mere £12.99 on Steam) and I was therefore unsure of the quality that I could expect. Read on to find out if my fears were warranted or not (and believe me, I experienced a lot of fears).

The dubious descent
Amnesia sees you taking on the role of Daniel, a man who is understandably a tad confused and concerned when he awakens in a rather foreboding castle, having little memory of the past events that have led him there. I’d be a little uneasy too, to be fair. The storyline at least corresponds to the name of the game here, with the ‘Dark Descent’ subtitle also having relevance, seeing as the following hours will have you literally embarking further and further into the depths of the castle. A handy post-it left by your former, more lucid self, tells you that your one task is to access the lower sanctuary and kill some bloke called Alexander.

Naturally, Daniel has no reason to argue with an unexplainable piece of paper ordering him to murder someone and sets off on his not-so-merry way. En-route, you’ll discover many more of these notes conveniently scattered around to try and jog Daniel’s memory a bit. I really don’t want to spoil the story, as half the fun is in finding it out for yourself but the Sparknotes version is that a past expedition into a tomb has uncovered a treasure that really should have been left where it was. Like stealing the biscuit tin from an obese, pre-menstrual woman.

So terrifyingly ugly, your eyesight will self-destruct

You certainly won’t be chased by enraged fatties, however. In fact, the reality is far, far worse. The guardian of this magic orb is referred to as ‘The Shadow’, a supernatural presence taking several forms. I’ll get on to these later. The only way it can be stopped is by finding Alexander who has control of the orb and as the game progresses you will reveal many atrocities that have been caused as a result. The story isn’t the most original in the world but it is at least compelling and the methods of uncovering the narrative through past texts and numerous flashbacks are fascinating.

When there’s something strange, in your neighbourhood
One aspect will instantly strike you about the gameplay of Amnesia and that is the complete lack of weaponry. You are literally powerless against the ghostly forces that haunt the castle, with your only defences comprising of wit, scarpering and hiding in a dark corner, whimpering like a five year old with a boogeyman under their bed. I don’t care what people say about Dead Space being scary; at least you can still kick ass with your generous arsenal of plasma cutters, flamethrowers and who knows what else.

This is definitely the thinking man’s survival horror in contrast. The game throws all sorts of puzzles at you to halt your progress, these are generally the kind of tasks you’ve seen before in other games. A flooded section of the mansion harbours something invisible and vicious that attacks you when you enter the water; maybe it was the owner’s dead goldfish back with a vengeance. Trying to run from it quickly results in you becoming fish food but a brief ponder at the debris floating around inspires a Half Life 2-esque crate stepping stone affair. Unfortunately though, you’ll obviously be moving them around with your hands, not the Grav Gun.

There's no way in hell I'm climbing that staircase; I left my inhaler back in the dungeon.

In fact, physics play a big part in Amnesia. Pick up cogs and pipes and position them in place to get a machine working again. If a mechanism gets stuck, or you need to break through a door with a rusty lock, throw a rock at it. Also, interaction with levers, doors and crates all require a manual approach, using the mouse or sometimes the directional keys to manipulate the object exactly as you would in real life.

This is immensely more satisfying than “Press the E button to open/close doors” and leads to all sorts of possibilities, like tentatively nudging a door open an inch to see if a monster has passed by or is on the other side, ready to gnaw on your delicious flesh. It creates a fully tactile experience and really ramps up the realism and immersion. The latter in particular is delivered by Amnesia in spades.

Boot the game up and it’ll recommend you play in the dark, with headphones on. I found this a fantastic recommendation until, several minutes later, I hastily quit the game, too terrified to play any longer. The atmosphere is stunningly crafted through visuals, effects and sound; it’s scarier than living through a nightmare… of Hannibal Lecter’s.

For a good proportion of the start of the game, you don’t even encounter a single enemy but I was still on the edge of my seat, thanks to doors slamming and objects being thrown around in a poltergeist fashion. Amnesia knows exactly how to get you; the most potent thing of all is human imagination and so, with the lack of actual visual information, your mind will fill in the blanks. A scary thought, if you have a mind like mine.

Oh, I'm sorry. You didn't actually want to see what was going on, did you?

Lighting also plays an important role in the atmosphere of Amnesia. The rooms in the mansion generally are more dimly lit than a run-down public toilet cubicle, with many actually being pitch black. There is always the option of pulling out your lantern and using your limited oil reserves to light the way, or a tinderbox to light candles on the walls but oddly enough in Amnesia, darkness can be your friend. Hide in a murky corner and you’re unlikely to be spotted by pursuers. However, your sanity will gradually drain, turning you slowly mad and risking giving yourself away.

Despite Amnesia’s perpetual ability to scare you half to death, it is surprisingly enjoyable to play. It’s very easy to get engrossed within the storyline and setting and there are some wise design choices that discourage exasperation with the game. The puzzles are just the right level of challenge without being too hard and frustrating, the gameplay is quite linear and focused so that you will always know what you’re doing and won’t get lost and upon death, the game gives you a hint and spawns you in a nearby location, with the offending monster elsewhere, giving you another chance at running away from it.

Consequently, it’s not the hardest game in the world. This is very welcome, because sitting there for an hour stumped over a laborious puzzle, or failing the same section over and over again would wear thin and ruin the atmosphere. Not to mention that, if along with how treacherous this game was already on my nerves, it was punishingly hard too, I think it would have been uninstalled from my hard drive faster than a trial of Norton Antivirus.

Man, these screenshots look boring. Go over to Youtube and watch a preview of it, or something.

Less horrific-looking than you’d expect
As you’d expect from a lower-budget title, Amnesia doesn’t have absolutely top-notch graphics. That said, they’re impressive considering and certainly add to the ambience of the environment. Even if the textures aren’t the absolute highest resolution and some of the modelling is a little archaic looking, you can still tell it is all lovingly crafted, with plenty of attention to detail. From rubble and décor to dismembered body parts scattered around, the scenes are all interesting and appropriately built.

One thing that bugs me however, is the graphical fidelity of your hand and the lantern it holds. OK, I know that sounds nitpicky but seeing as you spend so much of the game looking at it right in front of your eyes, they are surprisingly clunky and unrealistic looking. It’s like a drop-dead-gorgeous supermodel with a killer body but an enormous, bushy monobrow. It’s right there, staring you in the face and you really want to tell them to sort it out.

The lighting is at least nicely done, with some beautiful light rays coming from windows for example, and a realistic effect of your eyes slowly adjusting to your surroundings when you enter a dark area. That said, it’s all very static and some proper HDR would have been fantastic. Perhaps I’m getting a bit greedy here though.

No mansion would be complete without its own creepy water feature, naturally.

All in all, there was little that glared at me during the game and made me think “Ugh, that’s ugly,” except for the aforementioned character’s hand and some of the monsters’ faces… but surely that’s the whole point there. Basically, you’re going to be far too busy solving brainteasers, running for your life and soiling yourself to be standing there, worrying about any trivial sub-standard graphical elements in Amnesia.

Things that go bump in the night
The sound once more accompanies the game well, with some ghastly howls, a terrifying scream that you’ll become all too familiar with, signifying an enemy spawning nearby and the general creaks and groans of the castle. There are almost always some very effective ambient sounds to be heard in the background and they really ramp up the scare-factor.

There is also a decent amount of voice acting in the game which is impressive but, they might as well have just pulled in a random punter off the streets and got them to read out the scripts. To be honest they probably did. Daniel’s voice is one you’ll hear most commonly through flashbacks and from him reading his notes aloud (with a dangerous, blatant disregard for the fact that he is surrounded by monsters he is supposed to be hiding from). The easiest way to describe his voice, is like an excitable narrator of a ‘scary’ children’s TV programme.

Cheesier than a Morrison’s deli, the voice acting isn’t ideal but it’s still nice to have it in there. Besides that, there are very rarely any other sounds that ever detract from the experience; they mostly take a very important role in sculpting a tense atmosphere. Seriously, even now, just thinking about the monstrous wails that erupt from any creatures in your pursuit, make a chill run down my spine.

Hmm, I can see the artist's intention in this piece. The composition and use of colour is fantastic... WHO'S THAT GNAWING ON MY SHOULDER?!

Amnesia: instantly forgettable, or scarily good?
I really didn’t need to worry about the quality of Amnesia: The Dark Descent. It’s a unique gem of a game that provides something a bit different from the standard fare and let’s face it, that’s what indie games are all about. Trying to emulate blockbuster titles with a fraction of the budget would be about as successful as the Segway scooter, so this game instead relies on good storytelling, involving gameplay and a brilliantly realised mood and atmosphere.

Amnesia is also truly a survival horror. Not through lashings of gratuitous gore but through good ol’ fashioned scaring your pants off. There are obviously some niggles: slightly outdated graphics, pretty atrocious voice acting and some samey enemies (they’re almost always a zombie-type creature), but there’s no denying that it is an innovative and solidly built game on the whole. I don’t recommend it for the faint hearted but for everyone else, it’s a thrilling, immersive experience that’ll cost you less than half of the RRP of a normal game. For that reason, Amnesia: The Dark Descent receives a:


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