If you think a good survival horror game involves big guns and running around shooting monsters ’til the cows come home, you really don’t know much about the genre at all. There’s a distinct difference between scooting around with a big grin ready to take on all comers and being too damn terrified to move, but being forced to because you have no choice but to do so or die. Based out of Helsingborg, Sweden, indie developer/publisher Frictional Games has been quietly crafting some truly terrifying horror experiences that go above and beyond the “expected” genre cliches. From 2006 to 2009, there were the three excellently frightening Penumbra games, first-person horror/adventures with great physics-based puzzles and death lurking where it was least expected. Their latest work, Amnesia: The Dark Descent should put them on the map and in the minds of more gamers who crave an innovative, purely fear-filled and brutally direct horror experience. If you want to play a game that will have you sleeping with under the bed with the lights on, a baseball bat, guard dog and security blanket, this one’s for you.
Pure psychological horror hasn’t been done so effectively in major games in recent years other than the trippy, excellent Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, last year’s truly offbeat Xbox 360 sleeper Deadly Premonition, Dementium II on the DS, the supremely underrated Wii/PC game Cursed Mountain and a handful of others. Most of those had some sort of combat mechanic integral to gameplay and only Shattered Memories allowed you to make it through the game without killing anything at all. Amnesia trumps all of these games simply by completely directing the experience around elements of fear and forcing you to deal with them as a “normal” person. The dark, bugs, strange noises, tight spaces, blood and more are used amazingly well throughout the game, allowing players who consider themselves “fearless” to eventually see and feel these phobias in a supremely visceral manner.
Amnesia removes the comfort of firearms, co-op or online play and even decent lighting in an intentional manner that’s welcome in this age of me-too “survival” games where the end result is generally positive. Frictional strips horror to its essence here and actually takes one of gaming’s most overused cliches, the amnesiac lead character, and makes it simultaneously innovative and terrifying. As Daniel, a man who wakes up in a big, seemingly empty castle with a very strange note nearby. The sense of dread hits you as soon as the game begins and when you read that note… well, things pretty much go straight to hell from there. It seems that Daniel’s amnesia is self-induced and he needs to find and kill a man named Alexander somewhere in the castle grounds. It gets weirder, as there are… things in the castle that aren’t very friendly and they want you dead.
The game combines first person exploration, adventure game elements, physics-based puzzles and actions (magnificently implemented, by the way) and superb use of light and shadow that’s actually tied into the storyline. Uncovering note and journal entries left by others, the story unfolds using a blend of flashbacks and real time play. As you’re in a creepy old castle, you’ll need to rely on a lantern or candles to see in the dark. However, there’s the matter of obtaining more fuel for the lantern (or tracking down temporary light sources) or feeling your way around in the darkness for more matches. The big catch here is Daniel’s fear of the dark, which sends his sanity downhill through some remarkably frightening imagery that’s also tied into the plot.Darkness may bring madness, but lighting the way all the time isn’t the best thing either. You’ll simply run out of fuel at some point or draw creatures to you like moths to a flame.
This balancing act is marvelously handled in those moments where you need to think quickly. For example, you may hear something creeping around nearby just as you’re about to relight your lantern with that extra fuel. Do you keep the light out and risk another scary vision as you try to sneak away and hide, or do you light up and try to run away? One is a more foolish choice, obviously… but the game is open enough to allow for that flexibility. Granted, Daniel will probably die horribly in any event if you panic and run into a wall instead or around a corner while being chased, but hey – what’s a little dying every now and then to keep things interesting?
While the game has those slow, methodical moments you’d expect from an adventure game, those lurking somethings (and the perfect sound design) can turn Daniel’s quest for answers into a race for his life. Running and hiding are the only ways of escaping these creatures, but sometimes that doesn’t quite work out as you’d expect. Puzzles in the game revolve around manipulating objects using the mouse, so things such as pushing, opening, lifting and such all feel realistic. Should Frictional ever bring this game to consoles (I’d LOVE to see a PS3 version using the Move and Navigation controller), the controls will at least be flawless. Again, don’t expect to find a shotgun tucked away in a corner or some hidden rocket launcher behind a bookcase. Survival in Amnesia means using your wits without losing your head and the game will do its damnedest to make sure you’re always rattled.
The presentation is stellar nearly all around, from the stylized realism of the beautifully gloomy graphics to the magnificently unsettling sound design. If this game doesn’t scare you, you’re either dead, fearlessly jaded or have some serious problems (and a few corpses in your yard). Everything about the game flows together and hooks you in so well that it’s both hard to stop playing and hard to play for extended periods. While you can complete the game in a day or two (more or less), the combination of sheer terror you’ll feel and the fact that some gamers will take longer to solve some of the puzzles (which aren’t impossible at all thanks to the great game design) means everyone will have a different overall experience. If the game has any big flaws, it’s in the character animations, which aren’t quite “realistic” but then again, the rest of the game is so well done that you probably won’t care because you’re dialed into the rest of the world Frictional has created.
My only other complaint about the game is that it’s currently download-only, meaning those with slow connections won’t be able to experience the nightmare unless they grab the game from somewhere with a decent connection, save it to a portable drive (you’ll need 1.2GB of space) and get it home. Yes, like many publishers, Frictional is saving big money by not going the boxed retail route and yes, given the game’s length, I can see this being the best way to go. Nevertheless, the market for great horror games is big enough that having the option to nab a DVD-ROM version of the game might be something the developer would want to consider in the near future. Heck, a Penumbra/Amnesia box set in a simple slim DVD case with the art seen above would be a pretty cool treat (as would a remake of the Lovecraft-inspired FIEND using the Amnesia or other updated engine… hint, hint).
2010 was a pretty slim year for great horror games overall, but Amnesia was definitely the highlight, even scoring an IGF 2011 Awards nomination (which I hope they win). Compelling, startling and brilliant, this Dark Descent comes absolutely recommended and yes, you should play at night with the lights out and a pair of good headphones on for maximum effect. Granted, the police will probably find you keeled over in front of your PC with a shock of white hair sticking straight up from your goggle-eyed corpse. But, hey – sometimes the best games have a little extra surprise you didn’t quite expect. Of course, I’m sure Frictional Games isn’t intentionally intending for a huge portion of its fan base to drop dead while playing their games – that would be kind of bad for future projects. The game may be named Amnesia, but it’s an experience you certainly won’t forget any time soon.