Amnesia: The Dark Descent Review

By Jeff Mattas, Sep 22, 2010 5:30pm PDT Amnesia: The Dark Descent is the latest title from indie developer Frictional Games, creators of the acclaimed Penumbra series. Amnesia is a first-person, survival-horror game that puts players in the role of Daniel, a mysterious protagonist who awakens in a dimly-lit castle. Uncertain of his past, it's up to the player to piece together events from Daniel's fractured memory in order to uncover the secret of a malevolent darkness that pursues him.

Unlike most other titles waving the banner of "survival-horror," Amnesia isn't another dimly-lit shooter filled with monster closets. In fact, it's more of an adventure game with action elements. The game's narrative is told via collectible notes scattered around the castle, some written by Daniel himself, pre-memory loss. In-game, narrated cut-scenes are also fairly frequent, coating the screen with a dream-like visual filter when triggered. In both cases, Amnesia's expository measures are immersive, albeit a bit unsettling. They help keep the player firmly rooted in the protagonist's shoes.

There's not a single weapon for the player to use in Amnesia. If you encounter a monster in Amnesia, you have only a few choices: run, hide, or die. The basic FPS-like controls are supplemented with the ability to physically manipulate certain objects in the environment. One of the most simplistic (and effective) examples is opening and closing doors, which is done by grabbing the door and using the mouse to swing it open or shut. On paper, such a feature may sound mundane, at least until a demonic hellspawn is gaining on you, and you realize that doors open either inwardly or outwardly, not both ways. This type of mouse-based, motion-control is elegant and intuitive enough that you won't even think twice about how to interact with things after a couple of minutes - it just works.

Visually, Amnesia looks great, and much of its graphical flare carries real gameplay implications. The game's use of light and shadow is appropriately atmospheric, but it isn't just set dressing. While in the darkness (or when witnessing supernatural events), Daniel's sanity will drop. Spend too much time in a dark corner and Daniel will begin to hallucinate, lose his balance, and babble madly to himself. Luckily, standing near a light source or solving puzzles will restore Daniel's sanity. Daniel can collect single-use tinderboxes, which can be used to light the castle's various candles and torches. He's also got a portable oil lamp, but will need to continuously find fuel to keep it lit. The catch is, dark corners are often the best places to hide from the sanity-draining, murderous monsters.

The effect of visually acclimating to the darkness after moving from a well lit area is incredible. Stepping away from the soft glow of a torch into impenetrable blackness is disconcerting, but it's amazing when the environment begins to appear around you as Daniel's eyes adjust. The sound design is also exceptional and those with surround sound setups are in for a treat. Beams settle eerily overhead, doors creak and groan, machines grind and smoke, and the monsters... oh god, the monsters.

Don't get me wrong. Amnesia isn't a wall-to-wall monster fest like so many of its survival-horror brethren. Unlike most games in the genre, which present you with enemies whose danger and mystique fade after you blast them for the umpteenth time, I always feared Amnesia's foes. It's not just because the monsters look particularly creepy, but more due to the fact that if you ever get close enough to get a good look, you've usually only got a couple of seconds before you're ripped apart. Since looking directly at a monster will quickly drive Daniel insane, you'll likely end up stuffing yourself in the nearest cupboard to cower each time you hear a groan in the distance or catch a glimpse of a shambling, humanoid silhouette.

The puzzles in Amnesia: The Dark Descent are good and the physics-based interaction makes some feel fresher than basic item-hunts. The pacing (provided you don't get overly-stuck on a puzzle) makes for a tense ride with very little time to relax. Amnesia has three possible endings to achieve, though the intensity of the experience understandably diminishes a bit during subsequent playthroughs.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent is easily one of, if not THE scariest game I've played in years. By consistently focusing on atmosphere and meddling with player psychology, Amnesia delivers an incredibly nerve-wracking and rewarding full-length experience that breathes some much-needed life into the survival-horror genre. It's currently available for PC and Mac, priced at $20 or less, and available at Frictional's online store as well as from digital distributors like Steam, and Direct2Drive.

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