Enough of cute graphics and hand-holding gameplay? This time, be prepared to be really scared with another highlight of the Halloween games special.
Psychological terror has never been better than in Frictional Games first-person survival horror Amnesia: The Dark Descent in wich fear becomes a gameplay in and of itself.
Young man Daniel finds himself in Castle Brennenburg without recollection of his memory and follows clues of his former self which tell him the reasons why he should kill the baron of this abode, while something more sinister awaits in the shadows.
A troubled past and tortured present
There are certainly some similarities to Frictional Games’ former games with the main character not knowing who he is and slowly unravelling the mysteries of his past and finding a way through creepy surroundings. Reading notes in the form of letters is also well established in the genre, although introducing a continuous discovery of diary entries gives the story more consistency. Flashbacks in the form of voices of the past also reveal more of the background story in quite an effective and often frightening way. Especially unsettling are scenes which are connected to torture devices which evoke a horror not only because of detailed descriptions but also by nerve-shattering sound effects. The story itself isn’t particularly new if one is versed with classic horror stories of Lovecraftian proportions, and the characters aren’t the most intriguing, but the slowly unfolding tale of madness and redemption fits the horror scenario quite well, even if most of the plot is told in flashbacks and reading notes.
Something which was always lacking in the Penumbra series was variety in the environments, and maybe the short playtime, even though the latter can be excused for the installments being episodic content. Both problems have been addressed by presenting an expansive world to the player with a playtime clocking around 8 hours or even more. Sure, the locales aren’t particularly imaginative if one has played through countless other medieval-inspired first-person adventures or shooters with sewers being the standard. But the way they are connected turns the castle into a believable setting and gives the player a sense of discovery and immersion instead of having a closed level structure.
Be afraid, be very afraid
The Penumbra series and especially Penumbra: Black Plague already played with the player’s mind by introducing blurry visuals when the character is frightened by looking at enemies or by showing quick flashbacks. But overall, navigating through corridors and solving puzzles was put in the foreground, while story and character development usually took a backseat. The use of light by using lighters wasn’t really much of a gameplay element, as increasing the monitor’s gamma was a simple means of completely avoiding these devices.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent makes it a pivotal element to make the player constantly aware of staying both in darkness to avoid enemies, but also finding light to prevent dying from insanity. The respective meter fills up every time something horrible is happening, either a creature appearing or sounds and images intruding on Daniel’s consciousness. The more he is exposed to these visions (real or imaginary), the harder it is to focus and avoid other disturbing images, like bugs crawling over the field of vision. Only by lighting candles or staying in bright environments (of which there aren’t many) helps to overcome the madness, otherwise the main character simply dies of fear.
Don’t fight, but run… or point-and-click your way out
Fighting enemies is again impossible, so hiding is the best way to avoid getting smashed to pieces, eaten or much worse. The AI isn’t the most refined, but there’s still enough challenge to get around the various creatures, even though there are not a lot. Running through water can also become a dangerous thing with unseen horrors lurking underneath and the player made aware of the presence by ripples and splashes.
Solving puzzles is much more prevalent and necessary to progress. Even if physics-based puzzles are present, the majority involves much more point-and-click adventure game inspired shenanigans, mainly operating machines, finding appropriate tools or items and combining them. Obviously with most areas being available due to backtracking, one can overlook a certain item and get a lost. Usually the tasks aren’t that difficult and the objects not far apart, but there are quite a few instances when the difficulty in solving problems is cranked up a bit. The puzzles are well integrated in the environment for the most part, but again there are also some areas where hints are rare and solving the conundrums stops the gaming flow.
Hearing, seeing things and losing control
The graphics are quite impressive with some creepy lighting effects, and the overall architecture of the levels presents some nice vistas as well. It’s maybe not state of the art compared to more prominent FPS, but the progression from the rather mundane graphics in the Penumbra series is considerable. Sound design is terrific as well, and even if the voice acting is exaggerated at some points, it’s of the highest quality and one of the reasons why the game can be genuinely scary at times. Controls are occasionally oversensitive in certain scenes when objects have to be moved around, but these never reach the point of desperately stacking boxes on top of each other again and again, which seems to be so predominant in most physics-based puzzle games. Far more annoying are jumping and running, and obviously getting lost in the environment without a map.
Mastering the fear with impressive results
Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a logical step forward in storytelling and presentation for Frictional Games and to a certain degree for the survival horror genre. The insanity meter might not be the most original idea (just as plot and characters don’t break new ground), as this sort of thing has been done before. But the way the environment functions as a storytelling device and how the player is kept at a constant awareness of horror and despair, is more than enough to recommend the game. The integration of puzzles is often well done, although as in so many point-and-click adventures, exploring the world and following a twisted story is what makes it actually a worthwile and in this case terrifyingly good experience.
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