Product Type: Frictional Games PC games
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Amnesia: The Dark Descent (PC)
Member Name: dj981
Amnesia: The Dark Descent (PC)
Date: 13/12/10, updated on 14/12/10 (41 review reads)
Advantages: NEXT clothing dept are a few quid up...
Disadvantages: ...I'm a few quid down
Against all instinct, I emerge back into the flickering torchlight. The bugs subside. I slowly advance down the hallway. The growl returns, only much louder this time. It must be right behind me. In panic, I sprint down the hallway toward the door at its end. I can feel it gaining on me, I daren't look back. I don't think I can make it. I hurl the solid wooden door open, but I need to stop and close it to buy valuable seconds. As I turn, I catch a glimpse of some shadowy monstrosity just feet away. I slam the door shut - almost instantly, its thick panels buckle under a thunderous impact. It won't hold long. My vision deteriorates as the stress levels increase. I have to hide. The only chance to save myself is by facing the darkness again.
At this point, heart pounding and mentally fatigued, I pause Amnesia, take a deep breath, and remove my headphones. It then dawns on me that my girlfriend has gone to bed, my coffee went cold an hour ago, and my shirt is holding more sweat than sauna full of compulsive eaters. Oh, Survival Horror - how I've missed you.
As you'll probably have surmised, Amnesia: The Dark Descent isn't a game about Dominic O'Brien's journey to the summit of Everest on a particularly clear day. You begin in the knowledge that you are Daniel, a scholarly Englishman from Mayfair, and that is all. Bewildered, disorientated, and with no recollection of what brought you here, you are trapped in the seemingly deserted Castle Brennenberg in 19th Century Prussia. The first interaction you have is with a hastily scrawled note left by Daniel for himself, urging him to summon his courage and put an end to the horror of Brennenberg. At this juncture, Daniel only hints at the shadowy forces stalking him: it's advisable to embellish his cryptic inferences, as they really do no justice at all to what's laying in wait.
Scandinavian indie developer Frictional Games flaunt an innate understanding of the constituent parts of great Horror; clearly heavily influenced by the edicts of H.P. Lovecraft's fiction. Where many games rely on the overt to provoke an audience reaction, in Amnesia and its older sibling Penumbra, it's the continued suggestion yet prolonged absence of immediate threat that is infinitely more terrifying. In this environment, vulnerability drives adrenaline, and adrenaline drives imagination. The result is a thousand nightmarish visions being created by the mind rather than a single one processed by the eyes. The lack of any physical protection and weaponry is old news - Project Zero managed this masterfully years ago - but in that game, great as it was, you generally knew what to expect from both the setting and the enemy. Amnesia gives you absolutely no compass with which your mind can map its own expectations, and the result is genuinely unsettling.
Your task is to search the castle for the truth, gathering scattered pages of Daniel's journal and other clues to Brennenberg's history, whilst battling with psychological trauma and escaping the abominations stalking you throughout the decaying structures. With his mental fragility exacerbated by disturbing events, specifically being lost in darkness for too long or encountering something horrific, awful dilemmas frequently present themselves: namely how long can be spent hiding in the gloom before being forced out to face the terror. This light and dark mechanic is Amnesia's fulcrum, with the scattered tinderboxes and oil bottles throughout Brannenberg providing opportunities to stabilise Daniel's mental state, and on a routine level, illuminate the often pitch-black environs for exploration.
Sound is pivotal to Amnesia's experience; a tangled medley of instrumental, vocal, and jarring ambient effects. It could be faint whimpering, falling masonry, or the appalling growls of your shadowy pursuers; the assault on the senses is inexorable and unrelenting as the latent menace of Brennenberg slowly manifests. Trepidation greets every closed door and new location, with shifts in atmosphere or sinister effects ensuring any perceived sense of safety is short-lived. It's not just external sounds that feed the ambience; at times Daniel suffers mental instability, from either a prolonged time spent in darkness or a glimpse of something horrendous, and your hallucinations only serve to intensify the oppressive audio. Sometimes this takes the form of scrambling insects, sometimes nonsensical mutterings, and eventually accompanied by a disorientating vertigo attack. It cannot be overstated how eerily complimentary the audio and visual elements are; and quality headphones are imperative to fully appreciate it.
Puzzles provide the engine for advancement, and they generally demand little from the player. Often taking the form of the simple find item/combine item/use item cakewalks you've seen myriad times before, they are probably Amnesia's biggest failing. Despite its terrifying nature, it's not a particularly complicated game to overcome, with most of the frustrations rooted not in inherent difficulty, but in overlooking an item and having to retread an area to recover it, or in the early stages running out of tinderboxes and having to perform methodical room searches to gather more. The PC controls are well suited to the gentle physics elements though, and the momentum-driven mouse push/pulls to interact with moveable objects smartly add depth to the atmosphere, particularly when anxiously inching open a creaking door.
Visually, Amnesia cannot help but confess to its indie foundations. Castle Brennenberg is an oppressive but aesthetically similar environment, and whilst not completely lacking in variety, by the conclusion you'll be glad to see the back of the unrelenting bleakness. There are some impressively inventive touches, such as the way Daniel's pupils slowly adapt to darkness, or the foreboding murk upon entering the severely creepy Archives, but in all honesty, your senses will find themselves occupied with other, more primal activities than appreciating the architecture. On balance, bearing in mind just a handful of people can claim involvement in the final code, I think Frictional Games can be proud of their understatedly crafted opus.
Amnesia presented moments where I genuinely struggled to proceed, such is the intensity of the experience. The waterlogged Archives and its obstacle-laden sprint to safety almost witnessed my heart tearing its way through my ribcage onto the keyboard, while the frankly spiteful storage area-cum-torture chamber that followed had me crushing Daniel almost flat in a darkened recess, cowering and hallucinating, while the growls inched closer, and closer - the acoustics building to a petrifying crescendo of white noise, pounding drum beat, and the crawl of the imaginary insects swarming. You'd anticipate this technique becoming a blunt tool after repeated use, but the combination of Brennenberg, your revolting pursuers and your own psychology somehow manages to elevate the fear factor throughout. It's a perfect equilibrium between the transient relief of safety, the gradual creep of suspense, and the inevitable cardiac arrest moments, with the polarities often unbearably prolonged. It's quite some achievement for a game to use the same ploy right across the story arc and elicit consistent player responses, and some major developers could take much from Frictional's uncluttered approach.
I've always maintained it would take something spectacularly trouser-wetting to tempt me back into playing survival horror games. Well here it is, and my trousers are indeed saturated. Console fans of this style of game will probably want to know how it compares with the likes of Silent Hill and Resident Evil, two mainstream benchmarks for the genre over the past generation. In my opinion, the games are too incongruent to compare. It may be less polished than both overall, but Amensia is immeasurably more psychologically driven than Resident Evil, and far less overtly visceral than Silent Hill. For those who have played the latter, try to envisage a game that manages to invoke that sense of dread when static first crackled over your radio... for its entirety. The result is a spectacular victory for those who subscribe to the maxim that less is more, and that the dusty recesses of your own mind are a far more fertile breeding ground for true horror than any artist's sketchbook. It's an interesting take on a horribly abused genre; a genre which I thought had exhausted itself of the capacity to scare the living crap out of me. I'm not sure I could call Amnesia a pleasurable experience, as at times I genuinely wanted to wimp out as the tension became manifestly unpleasant; Christ, it very nearly had me reaching for my girlfriend's Disney movies for therapy. What I can call it though, is a near perfectly crafted mindf**k. Did I mention it cost me an obscene £8 on Steam?
Put your headphones on. Turn the lights out. Put a towel round your ankles.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b5uoZh_uatQ - Headphones please, or I'll be angry.
Summary: Scariest thing I've encountered since the last time I bumped into my ex.