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Amnesia: The Dark Descent (Windows)

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Developed by
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85
MobyRank
100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
4.1
MobyScore
5 point score based on user ratings.
Written by  :  Kadath Bird (712)
Written on  :  Sep 28, 2010
Platform  :  Windows
Rating  :  4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars

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Summary

Amnesia is a title no horror fan can afford to miss.

The Good

  • Fantastic audio/visual design
  • Well designed puzzles
  • Story has plenty of neat twists and turns
  • Messes with your mind
  • Unique "sanity" element is executed well
  • Genuinely scary and heavily atmospheric
  • Flexible editor allows you to make your own story and share it online with others

    The Bad

  • Game engine is demanding
  • Slow pace might turn some gamers off
  • Physics controls take time to get used to
  • Occasionally resorts to cliche
  • Not much story resolution
  • The Bottom Line

    Talk about an impulse buy. I knew nothing about Amnesia when I bought it, I just had some spare money and when I placed a pre-order on Dead Rising 2 for Steam I decided to add in Amnesia as well as it was only 20 dollars and it claimed to be made by the developers of Penumbra and its sequel, Black Plague which I both enjoyed.

    In case you haven't heard of Penumbra, it was originally a short little tech demo for a physics based control scheme built on an engine cobbled together by about 3 guys. The tech demo was impressive and it evolved into a full game, which would be Penumbra Overture and Black Plague.

    They were flawed, "Overture" had incredibly stock enemies (Spiders, dogs, bee things) and an occasionally plodding pace and combat with the physics engine was sloppy and unintuitive. Regardless though, it had one thing on the head: Atmosphere. Even with its cliche elements, Penumbra succeeded in making you truly feel like some poor sap trapped thousands of feet below an icy tundra with no choice but to make a new home underground and survive the monsters and traps unless he wants to freeze to death topside.

    That was my only real motivation to buy Amnesia and all I can say is that I'm damn glad I made that impulse. Amnesia is, without a doubt, one of the best and most original horror games in years. It does carry similarities to Penumbra; it uses the same physics based control scheme and like Penumbra its more about atmosphere and psychological mind trickery than it is about monsters and the like.

    As the name suggests your character, David, suffers from Amnesia. The game begins with a hazy flashback where you hear yourself speaking to another, unseen man and panting as you run through a hallway from a demon known only as The Shadow. You then wake up in the atrium of a massive castle in Prussia with no memory whatsoever. You follow the clues and find that you left letters to yourself before whatever incident occurred, including a note to self reminding you of one thing: Your desire and goal of killing the Baron Alexander who is the owner of the Castle.

    The plot is confusing and filled with twists but in truth it actually helps the mood and atmosphere. Amnesia plays out like a surreal nightmare, and the story is just as confusing and nightmarish and each clue you lean on paints an increasingly eerie picture. The story does get quite interesting though and it also rings of the works of H.P. Lovecraft and his undeniably inventive manner of writing. Baron Alexander is a fascinating and disturbing character and while the motif of an old dying man trying to find immortality isn't new it's executed in a fascinatingly disturbing way. I won't spoil it, but let's just say that animal rights activists wouldn't approve of the vessel he is constructing. The biggest drawback is that the story doesn't have much resolution in the end though.

    The art design and visuals are fantastic and make great use of the DirectX10 API (Don't fret users without a DX10/11 card, it still works with DX9.) with a great implementation of the advanced SSAO effects and fantastic amounts of depth. The castle is convincing and some areas that are actually decorated are quite pretty. Naturally the game makes great use of shadows and lighting and the lighting and shading/shadows are absolutely brilliant and there are plenty of great moody effects.

    The biggest drawback in the visuals is that the game is fairly demanding, and the devs somehow screwed up video auto-detection. I have a relatively new card, but it figured that it was good enough to run the game using 210 applications of SSAO effects. Not a bad looking slideshow, but it was unplayable and I had to tinker with the settings to get it at an acceptable frame rate and I used 64 applications of SSAO instead.

    Now, let's talk about the most important aspect of any game: The gameplay. The gameplay is primarily focused on exploration. The game takes place in various "hubs," areas that have 4 or 5 rooms that you travel between in order to find clues and solve puzzles that unlock more areas within these rooms to advance the game. In truth the game is very much a point and click adventure game but with full control of your character, and of course a survival horror element. There are plenty of secrets and the puzzles are all well thought out and each room and area has a different feel to them making them all somewhat distinct.

    As mentioned before the controls are physics based. To elaborate though, your mouse isn't just a clicking device. It's a "hand" and to interact with objects you have to grab them. For example, doors. You have to grab the door and pull it with the mouse, or push it. The slower you pull it the slower it opens, the faster it'll swing open and you can also slam it using the right mouse button; and if its a prop you are holding, you can throw said prop though this is mostly for effect. Unlike Penumbra you can't use props as weapons, although they do occasionally use this for puzzles.

    The physics based controls are improved from Penumbra and the R button no longer just has you swinging it in a spastic manner around the screen but it allows you to rotate it for precision when solving physics based puzzles. Regardless it still takes time to get used to them. The game does make good use of them though for puzzles and even boss encounters.

    For an example, one of the first "boss" encounters (and one of the most intense and memorable moments of the game) is when you are in a series of flooded rooms. The water is about waist high, but trust me when you say you don't want to be in it for long because there is a seemingly invisible monster chasing you. If you stand in the water it'll tear you to shreds. At first, your only hope is to use boxes floating in the water as the monster cannot attack you if you stand on these platforms. Though its still hard to know for sure where the monster is because the only way to gauge his location is to move about a bit and risk falling off your platform, because he mimics your movements and you can see splashes in the water.

    However where this becomes intense is when you run into a portcullis. The portcullis has to be opened using a valve and there is no box to stand on to do this. First, you have to distract the monster by picking up a severed limb that is strewn around and toss it far int he water. Don't think that it'll be content with that though and immediately jump in, you HAVE to wait for it to start eating or else it'll ignore the morsel. Even then, you have to VERY quickly grab onto the valve and spin it the right direction without slipping to get the portcullis open, then dash through before it shuts and before the monster gets close to you.

    Then the topper in this section is when you no longer have platforms to stand on at all. You have no choice but to run from the monster, but even that is not enough. Here is one of the most clever uses of the physics based controls for the sake of an intense and frightening chase sequence, you have to run through doors and then shut them in order to slightly belay the monster and let you get a head start. YOu can also grab an object and throw it to block the door, but you have to do this WHILE running and the doors don't push outward, you have to pull them. Learning to run and pull, slam, and pick up an object and throw it back all while running is hard to grapple with, but it feels realistic and makes for a genuinely intense and vicious run for your life.

    One of the most important and unique elements of the gameplay though has to be the use of sanity. Although you DO have a health meter (Though it only lets you take 3 hits, so be careful) its importance is tiny compared to your sanity. If you dilly dally and stand about with your thumb up your butt, you will slowly lose sanity. This will happen at an accelerated rate if you are in the dark. You must keep moving to retain your sanity, and you must also stay in the light.

    There are two ways to light your path, one is to search for and collect tinderboxes which can be used to light sconces, torches, candles and the like which are scattered around the castle. But be careful, you'll find even if you have a large amount of tinderboxes you'll quickly learn how precious these items are and you must strategically plan what lights you light. Only light the ones you need, and keep moving at all other times.

    You also have a lantern; but the catch is, of course, that you have limited oil. You can find oil pots to refill it if you search hard enough and there are also dispensers that will refill it full, but these are often hidden though they do occasionally appear around complex puzzles so you have enough light to solve the puzzle. Once again you must conserve your oil and use the lantern strategically.

    As your sanity drains, encounters with The Shadow and its minions will become more frequent and so will hallucinations. The hallucinations already drain your sanity to begin with if you stare at them directly; but as your sanity drains, they become more frequent and more disturbing. When in the dark as your sanity drains, your vision distorts and you can literally hear yourself snapping. Seriously - there's an unnerving snapping/crackling noise as your sanity goes away.

    If you lose all sanity, control over your character will become very hard. You might fall to the floor and all but one arm will be paralyzed, forcing you to crawl. Your character might bug out and even suffer a seizure and howl in agony alerting The Shadow. The sheer amount of genuine terror that occurs when your character breaks down means that you will definitely want to work hard to prevent such an event happening to you again. Yet of course light makes you visible, and when monsters are around you have to hide in the dark or in wardrobes and the like, but you lose sanity in the dark. There's also one other catch regarding monsters: You must NEVER look at the monsters. This drains your sanity more than anything else, and your character will panic as well alerting the monster of your presence. Your eyes are your worst enemy when facing a monster, and it really pays to have headphones so you know how close, how far, or what position the monster is in since looking at it directly is not a good idea.

    You can not fight the monsters at all and your only choice is to hide or, in an extreme scenario, run. You can block doors with props as mentioned earlier, you can hide in certain areas, etc. It makes for an intense experience and the dread of a monster showing up is always there and they don't give you a fake jump scare, when you hear a monster approaching you might jump but its not because it came out to startle you but because you DON'T want the monster to find you and every experience with one is an unpleasant, intense, and frightening experience.

    The atmosphere is thick. It's a great mixture of classic spook outs with things like sobs and inhuman noises as well as psychological horror. You feel lonely and as mentioned, your sanity and the dread that permeates the game is a veritable mind f**k and you'll start to feel your own sanity breaking up. The classic spook out sounds are all executed well and will send shivers throughout your body and increase the sense of foreboding. Even when you've gone a whole 30 minutes without a monster, the game is scary and unnerving.

    It can be said though that Amnesia might be an acquired taste. As I said its more of a point and click game with full 3D controls. Since you don't combat monsters, there isn't any "action" per se and most of the intensity comes from the fear and dread as well as frantic and fantastically creative boss segments. There's also a lot of reading to do as you collect notes to reveal the story and while it may not seem like it at first, the strange and surrealistic messages scrawled on each loading screen is actually important to solving the riddle of what happened prior to the games events. It is very slow paced and so if you want a more action oriented horror game like Resident Evil 4 or Dead Space, Amnesia might not be for you.

    However if you have the patience to enjoy and soak up all the atmosphere and story, Amnesia is a title no horror fan can afford to miss. It's genuinely scary and provides a modicum of thrills and chills. It's one of the most unique and original horror games as well and one can only hope that the developers will continue to improve their style and method with each new game. For 20 bucks, Amnesia is a steal. It even comes with a fleshed out and surprisingly easy to learn editor that lets you voice, create, and share your own unique story and if you don't have the time or patience for an editor you can very easily download and import fan made stories from the website.

    Do your part and support this ingenious developer and its equally ingenious game.