There are very few recent horror games that actually go for all out scares. Around the time of Resident Evil 4 the action element took precedence over the horror resulting in hordes of undead that could easily be replaced with irate soldiers.
Few developers understand how to provide even basic scares, whether it be Resident Evil 5′s gung-ho slaughter fest or Alone in the Dark’s sheer retarded terror (not to mention the crime of naming enemies Humanz or Vampirz).
Cue Amnesia: The Dark Descent, an independent game emerging from the shadows, proving that horror should have a place of honour in the halls of gaming.
Frictional Games know what scares and what doesn’t. With Amnesia they have created a game worthy of standing up there with the likes of Silent Hill 2; something which is perfect for those dark nights alone; something which may make you develop an irrational phobia of castles.
The formula is simple: provide a rich claustrophobic atmosphere, mix in the vulnerability of a five-year-old and sprinkle in some Lovecraftian elements for good measure.
To say the atmosphere was good would be an injustice. Set in an old creepy castle, it evokes the old Hammer Horror style from the offset, which may seem overused yet it feels fresh and frightening.
As the title suggests you begin with no recollection of where you are or what has happened, only that your name is Daniel: amnesia as a story telling device can be both useful and lazy. Like a hard night of drinking you try and piece together what’s what.
The only memento you have is a letter addressed to yourself by yourself telling yourself to go kill yourself some guy named Alexander in his Inner Sanctum. Oh and there’s a shadow chasing you. So with little persuasion off you go to commit murder.
Other letters and diary entries can be found all throughout Brennenburg castle and paint a macabre picture of events in the castle, along with ghostly flashbacks, that only aids in keeping the mood dark and dreadful.
The walls are crumbling, wind howls through the gaps, music plays in rooms you just left and at no point do you feel safe. And that’s just at the start. As you progress through the halls towards your goal nightmares unfold with walls covered in flesh, blood smears on the floor become the stylish alternative to rugs and of course there is that ever present darkness.
But darkness plays more of a role than just cloaking the unknown. Daniel has his issues and being in the dark for too long slowly drains his sanity. The more your mind decays the more sluggish you move as well as drawing more attention to yourself. To combat this Daniel gets a handheld lantern and tinderboxes to light candles and wall-mounted torches.
The problem? Stepping into light or walking around with your lantern can attract the attention of the ghouls that roam the halls. It’s an interesting gameplay mechanic where light is your best friend and your worst enemy; where you choose between losing your sanity or your life.
What makes the ghouls particularly scary is how they randomly appear. Beginning the game you get a sense of foreboding when gusts blow doors open or the lights suddenly go out. It’s standard horror fare but helps to set the stage. And then they just appear.
The first time I encountered them I ran to the nearest room, slammed the door, barricaded it with heavy objects and sat in a corner, huddled and afraid to get within range of the candle in the room. For then it worked but later on in the game it led to my untimely death in a pile of rotting pigs.
At times the ghouls can be a bit predictable as they appear at key moments. For the most part however they randomly roam and because of this you always feel on edge. On multiple occasions I’ve found myself building a fort out of barrels and hiding only to find that nothing was there in the first place.
Flight is your only option if you come across the undead. You have no means to defend yourself, only your wits and your light and for the most part I found myself forsaking the latter to stay as hidden as possible. At one point I had taken refuge in a wardrobe staring at my feet, hoping not to die, when it dawned on me that I was just like Laurie in Halloween. Hopefully I wouldn’t be killed off in a cash-in sequel.
All this is bound together quite nicely with the lack of a HUD and the fluid controls which have mouse movement mimicking movements in game. If you want to open a drawer you grab with the mouse and pull back as if you were opening a drawer.
This works well with the puzzles which aren’t overly difficult but feel rewarding when accomplished. If only it didn’t feel jarring to come across puzzles in every new area but then there needs to be some sort of obstacle to overcome to create some sense of structure.
For the most part Amnesia is my ideal horror game with a few minor flaws. The sanity gauge at times could be a little trying as it forced me to do things I wouldn’t normally do and towards the end I was used to the ghouls that they were more commonplace and less horrifying most likely a result of little variation in monsters. Either that or I had grown a pair nearing the end.
If, like me, you love horror then this is a must have without a doubt. Even if you are not a fan of horror Amnesia: The Dark Descent should rank high up there on anyone’s must play list. For an independent developer on a low budget Frictional Games have delivered an impressive game that can make a grown man tremble with fear. It might be short, clocking in around ten hours, but trust me it feels longer. This is the perfect game for Halloween.