Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs review: streamlined terror

There's a certain feeling of helplessness that comes with exploring an unfamiliar area. A stomach-churning sensation begins to sink in, and at the first sign of anything strange, you're ready to leap into the air, like Scooby Doo frantically jumping into Shaggy's arms. This is the feeling that drives Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs. It's a stark reminder that developer Frictional Games understands the essence of fear, and that Dear Esther creator The Chinese Room can write a compelling story. A Machine for Pigs begins inside a strange mansion in the late 19th century, as an amnesiac named Oswald Mandus is looking for his missing children, as the specter of an infernal machine looms overhead. As the story progresses, Mandus explores different areas, finding journal entries and audio diaries that help fill in the blanks of his missing memories. Mandus' story is an interesting one, as I quickly found myself more than willing to brave the game's scares in order to fully flesh out his backstory. Mandus' journey centers around exploration, as the idea is to poke around and look for clues, with only a lantern to help light the way. The areas are intentionally darkened, so as to require the lantern, with the trade-off being that the light makes Mandus easier to spot. If you do get spotted by an enemy, there is no fighting back. Your only hope is to run, and with the entire world feeling dimly lit and claustrophobic, escaping can feel like a tense endeavor. One thing I noticed about A Machine for Pigs is that the Sanity Meter that helped define Amnesia: The Dark Descent is no longer there. Mandus can stare into the faces of horrific creatures without having to worry about going insane. On one hand, it's understandable, given the narrative. Without spoiling the finer points of the story, I can say that the premise isn't so much based on the unimaginable horrors that go bump in the night, as much as it is about seeing the unspeakable creations that have been unleashed by 19th century advancements. However, the Sanity Meter is an unfortunate loss, as it was such an immersive mechanic that made you feel like you were losing your own mind, as you helplessly observed your character's mental degeneration. With that said, the fear in A Machine for Pigs is very real, thanks to the masterful use of level and sound design. The world is built around darkness, with ambient parts of the environment helping provide some of the major scares. You can walk part of the opening mansion and become shaken by a sudden tremor or jump out of your chair as you hear a sudden scream nearby. Even the most subtle sounds, like the flowing wind and creaking floorboards help create the kind of tension that's lacking in a number of other horror games. I found myself getting the best experience by wearing my headphones and turning down the lights, as the sounds of whirring electrical machinery and screams in the distance just begs for it. Playing this game any other way would be a disservice.

Paths are straightforward, but no less frightening

Clearly, the focus of A Machine for Pigs is to provide a streamlined story experience, as many of the puzzles are easy to run through. They mostly consist of flipping switches or placing loose items into their proper slots. And though there are some dark branching paths that can be explored, the path is fairly linear. You might feel frightened, but you won't often feel lost. That partially led to me completing the game in about six hours, though the scares meant I didn't do it all in one sitting. Whether you prefer the psychological terror of Frictional's Dark Descent or the thought-provoking narrative of Dear Esther, A Machine for Pigs capably stands on its own in both departments. It's a heavy plot, wrapped in psychological terror, intricately-placed jump scares, and monstrous creations. It's worth experiencing, but make sure you turn out all the lights and grab your headphones to get the full Amnesia experience. [7]
This review is based on early downloadable PC code provided by the publisher. Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs is now available digitally for PC for $19.99. The game is unrated.