Review: ‘Amnesia: The Dark Descent’
Does this indie darling deliver the scares?on October 30, 2012 at 8:00 am
While I may not be the quintessential Halloween lover, I do love this time of year. The weather is getting cooler, the air is brisk and smells wonderful, and the leaves; oh, the LEAVES. If you throw some rain into the mix, it’s perfect gaming weather.
So, what better indulgence on a dark and rainy night than a horror game? I decided to go with “Amnesia: The Dark Descent”.
Now, this is something that has been sitting in my ever-growing Steam backlog for ages. Like 95% of the stuff you buy on Steam, it was an impulse purchase during a “too good to pass up” sale and quickly forgotten about. You say to yourself, “Yes, I definitely want to play this one day.” You just never know when that “One Day” may be.
This was “Amnesia’s” lucky day; however, it also turned out to be a dreadful one for me. I’d heard rumblings that this was supposed to be an incredibly creepy and atmospheric game. It had me intrigued for a long time, especially since a sequel has been announced. “How scary can it actually be?” I wondered. Turns out, it’s the most terrifying thing I’ve ever played.
I wanted to give this game the absolute best chance of forcing me to sleep with the lights on. I waited until the sun was going down, so darkness would slowly descend upon me as I played, and I wore headphones. I wanted complete immersion. The cell phone went on silent and I was the only person home, so I had no distractions. I was ready.
I lasted about two hours.
The premise, if you haven’t gathered from the title, is about a man named Daniel who suffers from amnesia. He wakes up in a dark castle and has no clue who he is or why he is here. The only thing he can do is follow a trail of pink liquid left on the floor and hope it leads to a way out.
Eventually, he comes across a note, written by his past self, attempting to explain the situation. There is a man, named Alexander, who he has to kill. There is also a nightmarish shadow stalking him, attempting to kill him. The rest of the story is told through various notes you find scattered throughout the castle and flashbacks you experience as you progress through the game and slowly regain your memory.
There are no weapons in this game, so you can’t defend against enemies. Staying in darkness too long causes you to lose your sanity, so you’re constantly trying to find sources of light. To make matters worse, seeing strange or unnatural things also makes your sanity decrease. As this happens, your vision goes hazy, you can’t walk straight, and things start to happen where you’re not really sure if they’re real or not.
This constantly fluctuating state of sanity is one of the things that makes “Amnesia” work so well. There are always noises in this old castle; the wind howling through the halls sounds like screams of agony… doors slam shut when you’re not around. Sometimes, there is a persistent clicking or chattering that comes to the forefront. You see things move in the corner and you’re genuinely not sure whether it was something in the game or just your own imagination.
The game creates such a sense of unease where you’re just unsure of absolutely everything. Any new sound you hear makes you immediately respond and look around your surroundings. Was that a monster, or am I hearing things? You’ll start hiding over the smallest things, just hoping that whatever it was, threat or not, will leave you alone.
Hiding is also the only way to keep from getting killed. When a monster is lurking nearby, you have no method of fighting. You have to find somewhere to hide and you have to find it fast. It can be a wardrobe you close yourself in, a dark corner somewhere, or some boxes you’ve found; you just need to get away. To make matters worse, you can’t even look at the monsters. If you do, you go insane. It makes you feel like a little kid hiding under the covers and closing their eyes. “It will go away if I don’t look at it.”
Coming across monsters also produces a genuine state of panic. You always watch horror movies and laugh at people who can’t do something as simple as put a key into a lock, but put into a similar circumstance in “Amnesia”, you find yourself doing the exact same thing. You fumble with the controls and run into things. You’ll try to climb into a wardrobe but struggle with getting the door closed. It also doesn’t help that you’re almost always in this half-drunken state that distorts reality. Simple things suddenly become monumental tasks.
While the game definitely throws some cheap scares at you, like loud noises and the sudden collapse of set pieces, it’s the psychological horror that combines with the rest of the stuff that permeates your mind. It gets into your psyche and doesn’t let go. After I turned the game off, the paranoia still lingered. It left me with a knot in my stomach and a headache. Opening doors and just walking down a dark hall made me feel discomfort. It was in my head when I went to sleep and I woke up a couple of times that night because of random noises… noises that normally wouldn’t have bothered me, until “Amnesia” got into my brain.
If you allow yourself to become as immersed as possible, the game will have an effect on you. Sure, it borrows quite a bit from other titles. After picking up key items, it will often turn off the lights and sic a monster on you, much like “Doom”. The sanity is an obvious nod to “Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem”. Hiding as your only means of avoiding death is like the “Clock Tower” series. This game puts all those elements together and does it in such a way that it feels uniquely haunting.
I went back the next day, during the afternoon, to play some more. It’s then, when you’re thinking much more clearly, that you start to actually play it like a game. That means you recognize the patterns much easier. You noticed gaps in the AI. You find ways to keep your sanity at levels where you want it. Basically, like any game you get better at, you discover the ways to exploit certain things. When that happens, the spell is broken.
So… don’t do that. Try to play as long as you can that first night to get the most out of the game. Try to complete it on that first go. Once you’ve walked away from it, you might come to your senses and be too prepared when you come back. Unfortunately, that is a tall order. The game is a little long for a single session since it clocks in around 7-8 hours. If it were half that, it would be perfect.
“Amnesia” is a mediocre game. However, as a piece of horror, it’s brilliant. The series that used to scare me the most was “Fatal Frame”. The atmosphere, the story, the weird rituals, and the enemies all combined to really get inside my head. “Amnesia” takes all those things one step further. You have a weapon in “Fatal Frame” but the helplessness in “Amnesia” just takes things to another level. The further into “Fatal Frame” you progress, the more empowered you become, but you’re powerless in “Amnesia”.
I’m not too proud to say that “Amnesia” was too much for me to handle. In fact, I’m glad to say it was too scary for me. It did what it was supposed to do, which was terrify me. I may not have played the whole thing scared but I’m glad I gave it the chance to give me that experience.