Written by Micah Messer
I don’t play a lot of horror games, but Amnesia: The Dark Descent is, far and away, the scariest game I have ever played. It’s not hard to tell that true survival-horror games are hard to come by these days. After this year’s E3, which showed off Resident Evil 6’s explosion tsunami and some of Dead Space 3’s more action-centric gameplay, triple A survival-horror games seem to be on their way out. So what is a true survival-horror enthusiast supposed to do? Well, you can turn to a small indie developer named Frictional Games. Amnesia focuses so much on scaring the crap out of you and immersing you in its world that, for better or worse, there’s little else to the game at all.
The story here is actually pretty decent and well told. You play as Daniel, a man who wakes up on the floor of a room in the absurdly creepy Castle Brennenburg, with no memory of past events. The story revolves heavily on you recovering your memories, usually through notes written by your past-self, or conversations that come back to you after visiting certain areas. As I said, the story is pretty well told, albeit somewhat reliant on you finding and reading the majority of the notes scattered throughout the castle. But as long as you’re opening drawers and searching desks (which you’re going to want to be doing anyway) you’ll find enough of them to keep you in the loop.
Get used to this level of vision.
Amnesia’s sound design is some of the best I have ever heard in a video game. It’s ultimately a big contributor to what makes this game so scary. Although the visuals are great, the sound alone makes for a crazy immersive survival-horror experience. You constantly hear footsteps, clicking, scratching, chains rattling, debris tumbling and all types of other strange sounds just to hint at you that you’re not alone, and there might be something around the next corner or through the next door. I couldn’t play this game for more than about an hour at a time. I would typically complete an area, move onto the next and hear a terrible sound that made me decide I needed to take a break.
While most horror games rely heavily on jump scare scenes and startling tactics to scare players, Amnesia does it through immersion and the feeling of vulnerability. If you encounter an enemy, you have to run and hide. There’s absolutely no way to fight them. Enemy encounters are truly terrifying experiences. You’re going to have to get rid of any light source, barricade yourself in a room and hide in the dark, hopefully not for too long. Staying in the dark for an extended period of time will drain your sanity, making it hard to function at all. You can avoid this by finding tinderboxes scattered throughout the castle that let you light torches and candles, but you also find a lantern pretty early in the game that, provided you have oil to fuel it, acts as a mobile light source.
The pacing can be a bit wonky at times, as you won’t encounter any hostile enemies for a pretty long time when you start the game, yet there are some areas near the middle that seem to have something deadly around every other corner. It evens out by the end, but I wish they would have spread out the enemies a bit more in the first half of the game.
Amnesia nails atmosphere and focuses on immersion so much that some of its other gameplay elements can feel a bit dry at times. You spend a lot of your time solving environment-based puzzles. These range from great to somewhat lackluster. While most of them are pretty straightforward, there were a couple where I simply couldn’t figure out what to do, and the solution seemed so obscure that I probably never would have thought of it. You can find the answer to most of the puzzles by just searching the environment for items or points of interest, but this can be challenging with the constant threat of terrifying enemies and being on the verge of running out of fuel for your light source. While this feeling is probably intentional, it can still be a bit frustrating when you simply can’t find the item you’re missing to solve a puzzle.
I wonder what’s around that corner…
Although the game does have multiple endings, there’s little reason to play through it more than once. There are no collectables from what I’ve found, and things are no doubt a little less frightening on a second time through. The game length can vary from about 6 to 12 hours, depending on how quickly you move through environments and solve puzzles. One player might rush through each area, dashing for the finish line, while another might explore, search for notes and supplies and take their time. I landed somewhere in the middle of this, at about 9 hours.
Overall Score: 80
Amnesia: The Dark Descent is an incredibly memorable experience that warrants your attention. Its atmosphere and immersion are almost unmatched in gaming today. Even though its gameplay and puzzle solving aren’t super exciting, its other elements are more than strong enough to make this something truly special. Just keep in mind that this game is in no way shape or form, or in any possible sense of the word, “fun”.
Genre Score (Survival-Horror): 95
In a world where survival-horror is slowly turning into cinematic action, Amnesia: The Dark Descent stands tall as a truly terrifying experience. It absolutely excels at what it does– that is, scaring the ever-loving shit out of you. If you’re a horror fan that’s been looking for a game to play in a room by yourself with the lights off, look no further.