Horror games are something that usually sound awesome in theory but often find themselves lacking a certain something when put into practice. A prime example of this is Doom 3. Now I loved Doom 3 as much as the next guy, but when you take a look at the horror aspects it almost always boils down to a monster in a closet. While having monsters jump out at you is definitely scary, it isn’t what I would truly call horror.
Luckily for gamers, the good folks over at Frictional Games are making huge strides in the field of actual horror games. Their latest endeavor, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, is an amazing step in the right direction for an actual interactive horror experience.
Before I get into the actual review of game mechanics and whatnot, I want to discuss what Amnesia actually is. Amnesia is a first-person adventure title. There is absolutely no combat in it whatsoever, which is a good thing. My major issue with games like Doom 3 and Dead Space being billed as horror games is the fact that you have a gun. You are empowered. You are able to defend yourself. Amnesia forgoes empowering the gamer, resulting in feelings of actual dread as you play the game. Nothing makes you feel true terror like hearing a monster kick down the door in the next room, forcing you to scramble for a hiding place.
Now that that’s out of the way, let me get into the heart of the game. Amnesia is a title that relies 100% on its control scheme to immerse the gamer. Basically, the mouse acts as your hand. In order to interact with the environment, you have to center the camera on whatever object you want to interact with, hold down left click, and drag your mouse as if you were actually interacting with the object. For example, to push open a door, you need to click on it and then push your mouse away. If you played the Penumbra series (also made by Frictional Games), it’s basically the same system.
Some people may have a hard time adjusting to this style of control, but personally I loved it. The control scheme makes you feel like you’re living in a nightmare, fumbling with a doorknob trying to get it open before whatever is in the darkness catches up to you.
This control scheme also allows for some mind bending puzzles. At one point in the game, you have to repair some dilapidated steam-powered machine. In order to get the thing up and running, you have to find a document that tells you how to repair it, collect all the items you need, and then follow the directions step by step. This involves turning a series of valves in the right order, removing rubble that has jammed the cogs, and reconnecting various cables and tubes. While it may not sound like much on paper, when you’re slowly going insane from the darkness and monsters, it’s a pretty challenging task.
In Amnesia you take on the role of Daniel, an 1800’s English nobleman who finds himself in a Prussian castle. At the start of the game, you see yourself drink some kind of potion that induces amnesia. In a short cut scene (that you get to play a-la Half-life) you hear yourself lay out the objectives of the game: out run a dark spirit that’s been following you and kill Alexander, the man who owns the castle. Your motives and the rest of the story will be uncovered along the way through journal entries and rediscovered memories.
To me, the overarching story was a fantastic blend of H.P. Lovecraft, Clive Barker and Stephen King all wrapped up in a classical Gothic setting. Throughout the game, I felt an overwhelming sense that forces beyond my comprehension were working against me and that I was helpless against them. In all reality, I feel that Amnesia is a fantastic step forward in the field of interactive story telling.
I mentioned earlier that sanity is a factor in the game. Much like the GameCube classic Eternal Darkness, Amnesia features a sanity scale. If you witness something that is unsettling (wind blowing open doors, getting a good look at a monster, etc.) or stay in the darkness too long, you start to lose sanity. When your sanity is low, you’ll begin to notice strange things happening like bugs crawling on your screen, the world becoming distorted or strange sounds coming from deep within the castle.
Personally, I love this system. Aside from providing an extra layer of immersion, this system allows for some pretty horrifying scenarios. Do you risk coming out of the shadows and being seen by a monster or do you stay in the darkness and journey deeper into madness? When playing Amnesia you’ll have to make this decision hundreds of times, and it’s never easy.
Despite all my praise, Amnesia is not a perfect game. There are several issues with it that bear mentioning, but my main problem with the game is that it’s too short. I was able to complete it in less than a week. Normally this isn’t an issue because most games offer some sort of replayability. Unfortunately this is not the case with Amnesia. and once you play though there isn’t really any reason to go back.
The good news is that Frictional Games was forward thinking enough to include mod tools and support for, what they call, “custom stories.” Unfortunately, these tools will not be available when the game is released; however I’ve been talking with Frictional Games and they have given me their word that the tools will be released shortly after the official launch (the delay is so that they can ensure that all the documentation and guides are up to date).
Seeing as how Frictional Games gave me an early review copy, I can not attest to if there will be tons of mods/stories, however there is the option for them. I’d say give it a month or two and I’m sure some of the more creative members of the gaming community will come up with some truly horrifying mods. It is also important to note that Amnesia is only $20, so expecting to get a full 20 hours of gameplay from it is asking a bit much.
All in all, Amnesia: The Dark Descent is by far the best horror game I’ve ever played. Everything from the story to the mood of the game all works towards a fantastically eerie thesis. As someone who considers himself a connoisseur of spooky things, I feel confident in recommending this title to anyone who likes the horror genre. I usually don’t scare too easy, but when playing this game I found myself gritting my teeth and breaking out into cold sweats every time I had to venture into the darkness. On a more philosophical level, I am amazed at how Frictional Games is able to use the medium of a videogame to enhance the horror story experience.
Never has a eerie mood been conveyed so well in a videogame.
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Immersive and chilling, Amnesia is sure to entertain and frighten all walks of horror fans.
Everything from the soft rumble of thunder in the distance to the click-clack of age old rubble spilling onto the stone floor works wonderfully in building a chilling atmosphere.
While the main story clocks in at around 10 hours of gameplay, the promise of mod support will help add some longevity.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a triumph, not only in the genre of horror games, but also in the field of interactive story telling.