[Shock Value is a bi-weekly segment which runs down inexpensive titles that are more than worth the money spent.]
- Title: Amnesia: The Dark Descent
- Developer: Frictional Games
- Publisher: Frictional Games, THQ
- Genre: Horror, Adventure
- Release: September 8, 2010
- Platforms: PC
- Pricing: $20
The two of you who watched the IGF Awards (Allen included) a week or so ago may recall the multiple awards that Amnesia won, including Best Technical Design, Best Audio, and the big D2D Innovation Award. All of these accolades were totally deserved. Amnesia is one of the best horror/adventure games I’ve played, and it’s more than worth the money you’ll have to put out for it.
The plot of Amnesia cycles around the events that the protagonist, Daniel, has witnessed under the employ of Baron Alexander, the mysterious ruler of Prussian castle Brennenburg. These events, unknown to the player, have led Daniel to erase his memories and seek revenge upon Alexander. Daniel must explore the vast castle, searching for the way to Alexander and for the memories of what he went through as his right-hand man. But a shadow is chasing you both, wanting to destroy the forces that Alexander has summoned to protect his castle. Daniel must outrun the shadow and its demons to find and kill Alexander and earn his redemption.
To get the main point out of the way, yes, this game is really, really scary. It oozes atmosphere and discomfort like a jelly donut of fear, keeping you on your toes almost all of the time. The sound design is brilliantly done (it won that IGF award for a reason), creating a sense of forboding and claustrophobia, instilling the fear that at any moment a monster will come out and gore your face, which does happen quite often. The art style portrays the mid-1800’s setting realistically (excluding the monsters and fantasy elements, of course), though a few of the environments give off a very steampunk vibe. All in all, the game resembles a Lovecraftian horror story.
The game alternates between stealthy horror gameplay and old-school style puzzles and meshes both together quite well. Most of the game is spent exploring the various corridors and rooms of the castle, looking for notes to remind you of your past and for solutions and pathways for various challenges. Most of the puzzles are quite simple if you explore, as the answers usually reside on a note someone left lying around, but they’re still fun and satisfying.
Quite a few of these puzzles rely on the game’s physics engine and unique interface. To perform actions like opening a drawer or closing a door, one must click on the object to grab it, then move the mouse in the direction needed to open it or close it. Seems like a chore at first, and it does take a while to get used to, but it soon becomes second nature and adds to the immersion, especially when you’re slamming a door shut and blocking it in order to slow down a monster chasing you or trying to sneak a peek through a door to see if it’s gone. The physics engine is quite good for its purposes in the puzzles, since complex physics are never really necessary. It mainly serves to make the door opening and throwing rocks for puzzles feel better.
The horror gameplay is basic stealth on the whole. Monsters that will one-hit kill you if they touch you lurk around the environments, and you must sneak around and avoid them. The aforementioned atmosphere makes these sequences very intense, especially when you’re trying to hide a dark corner and you can hear one of the abominations lurking around. It’s common to open a door or turn a corner and see one staring you in the face, which leads to some awesome chases that force the player to use the environment to block its path. It’s quite exhilarating.
Sanity plays a small role in the game. It functions in a similar manner to how Eternal Darkness used it. If you stare too long at an enemy, your sanity is drained. If you view something horrifying (which is a regular occurrence), your sanity is drained. Losing sanity creates some slight changes to the character’s viewpoint, causing the screen to go through weird effects like someone was messing with the VLC filters or causing cockroaches to skitter along the character’s face. And sometimes it starts making a noise like someone is standing next to you eating Captain Crunch without the milk. The system isn’t used especially well, but it tries to add something to the atmosphere.
Aside from the sanity, my only issue with the game is that some of the puzzles get a bit annoying. There are a few in which you have to throw something at another very specific thing, with almost no indication as to what you have to hit, which is made infinitely more annoying by some issues with what you have to hit being right next to very similar things you think you have to hit. This only happened to me once or twice, and part of it may just be me being incompetent, but it was moderately frustrating. Just follow the “if I don’t see a solution, start throwing stuff at it” mantra, and things should work out just fine for you.
Amnesia is excellent overall, despite the few niggling flaws previously mentioned. This game will go down in the annals of horror game history for its oppressive atmosphere and excellent design. I’ve never played a game that has filled me with so much discomfort and fear. At $20 (not counting the many trips to the laundromat to clean your underwear), this is a must-have for anyone with a decent PC who thinks they have the guts to handle it.