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Review: Amnesia: The Dark Descent

There are very few videogames that set us on edge through atmosphere rather than startles. Games like FEAR and Resident Evil can be scary, sure, but more because the game suddenly flings things at you rather than creating an oppressive, depressing, degrading setting. Developer Frictional Games tried to do so with Penumbra, and it didn't work out too well, despite Penumbra's status as a great game. Now comes Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and despite its generic-sounding title, it's quite possibly one of the most unique games we have ever played. It utilizes story tropes (such as the titular amnesia), physics-based gameplay, and a disturbing setting to great effect. It's quite possibly the only time we've ever been truly frightened by Lovecraftian fiction, and it serves as a good example of the polish indie developers can put into a game.
Amnesia starts out with your character, Daniel, stumbling through a forbidding castle trying to remember the basic details about his life. He eventually forgets everything except his name, and that's where the game begins. The story uses the amnesia trope to surprisingly good effect, and it never feels tired or stale. The fact that you can't remember anything is brought up a total of three times throughout the game (initial cutscene, in a note, in a voiceover), so the player isn't constantly reminded that they have no clue what went on in the castle. The player character also has a reason for giving himself Amnesia that, while not explicit, is fairly easy to realize and quite affecting. It provides the player with a drive to explore and gather clues which assemble a profoundly disturbing story. It reads like something from the Cthulhu Mythos, and the depth behind the story is only really evident if the player takes their time through the game.

As mentioned, Amnesia drives the player to explore the environment thoroughly. If it was an ugly game, this would be a major issue, but thankfully, Amnesia has an absolutely stellar presentation. Objects are detailed without lagging your computer, textures are great to look at from any distance, and the lighting is top notch. On top of that, the sounds and music constantly set you on edge. If you sit in darkness, for example, your character begins to breathe heavy and you can hear clicking noises. When enemies get near, this horrific screeching noise begins to fill your senses, sending you into a blind panic. Every part of the sound is designed to make you paranoid and fearful, and it's done to great effect. It's also worth noting that this is the first game where Frictional Games has had good voice-over work. All the character's voices fit wonderfully.

Amnesia is, at its heart, an adventure game in the same vein as Penumbra and Myst. You navigate the environment through a first-person perspective, gathering items and solving puzzles of both logic and physics. Those familiar with Penumbra will be at home here, but we'll cover the basics. You pick up, move, and manipulate items in the world through physical motions with the mouse. Left-clicking and holding will grab and hold an object, allowing you to manipulate it in different ways depending on the object. For example, you can open and close doors, push around large boulders, or lift and throw books. Right-clicking while holding onto something gives it a hearty push, which slams doors, throws objects, and moves heavy objects faster. In constrast to the physics-enabled objects, things that are faintly glowing go to your inventory when interacted with.

Your inventory functions much like a point-and-click adventure inventory would. You collect items to use them on each other and the environment. Most of the time you must select an item to use then use it on the environment, but there are a few exceptions. Laudanum heals injuries, so using it improves your health. Using your lantern can be done in inventory or by pressing F, and acts as a flashlight. Tinderboxes are only ever used by left clicking on a light source, which turns it on indefinitely (or until wind blows it out). Using an oil bottle refills your lantern a little. Any notes collected are also never put into your inventory, but rather into a separate journal that keeps track of them all according to when they were found. The notes act as both puzzle hints and story, so if you are having difficulty with a puzzle, peruse your notes for help!

The most terrifying part of Amnesia is easily your encounters with the enemies. These monsters are unexplained until a good way through the game, sometimes simply fade into nothingness, cannot be fought back, and kill you instantly. They also run extremely fast, are quite observant, and are accompanied by a horrific screeching noise that sets your nerves on edge. The one thing about them that kills this terror-inducing mood is that dying results in you merely being warped to another room in the current level, depending on who killed you and where. You don't lose any progress, the killing enemy disappears, and you are free to continue as normal. The only difference is that it uses up time, which allows the shadow to catch up.

Thanks to this shift from survival to atmosphere and puzzle-solving, Amnesia loses a bit of scariness in the same way that Penumbra did. Once enemies are shown to be trivial, there's no reason to avoid them. We personally liked this, as it keeps the game flowing and reflects the slightly shifted design philosophy. This is a game about terror through the environment, not through running from zombies. It may be billed as a survival horror game, but that's a little inaccurate. It's better termed as a horror adventure game, and we wouldn't have it any other way.

Amnesia benefits greatly from little touches the developers gave it that are only really noticeable on multiple playthroughs. Several puzzles, for example, have multiple solutions. Sanity (lost by standing in darkness and looking at monsters) warps the environment as it gets low, changing pictures into different things and making geometry bend in impossible ways. Taking too long allows the "Shadow" (the thing roaring and groaning as it chases you down) to catch up, which changes some of the environments. It's worth multiple plays, even after you have figured everything out, simply because you notice more on your second time through the castle.

Amnesia is not without flaws. The endings (yes, there are multiple endings) are universally anti-climactic and don't explain anything. The only way to understand the story is to stand in one place for almost half an hour and wait for more conversation cues to trigger, on top of reading every note and reviewing every memory in deep detail. The game is entirely linear, which allows the developers to create an interesting story but sidesteps the potential for non-linear exploration. There's no maps, which is fine for us (we have a good sense of gaming direction!) but can be confusing to others. The game can be completed in about three hours at its fastest. Expect six to nine hours on first playthrough without guides.

Amnesia may be plagued by minor issues, but it's still a fantastic game. We would even go out on a limb to say that this is our favorite adventure game we've ever played. Interesting usage of physics, foreboding atmosphere, beautiful presentation, and stellar story all combine to form a game that absolutely can't be missed. Even if you don't normally like adventure, survival horror, or physics-based games, you have to play Amnesia. It's just that fantastically mind-blowing.

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