It’s wild that it’s already been five years since SOMA came out, and even longer since we saw Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs in 2013. But here we are in 2020, and Fricitonal has returned to its trademark style of psychological fear and storytelling with Amnesia: Rebirth. It’s always been a bit difficult to talk about Amnesia games without spoilers because there are so many twists and turns in a good Frictional Game that I would implore you experience rather than hear about from me. I’m happy to say Amnesia: Rebirth presents the same challenge, but I’ll do my best to guide you through why it’s probably one of my favorite horror titles of the year without giving too much away.
An Algeria expedition run awry
Amnesia: Rebirth takes us to the deserts of Algeria in 1937 where we pick up the role of Anastasie “Tasi” Trianon, a French woman and engineer on an expedition with a group of fellow travelers and staff to aid in designing improvements for a gold mine. On their way to the site, the plane carrying Tasi and crew crashes and they find themselves stranded in the desert. More specifically, Tasi wakes up to find herself alone with little memory of what took place. Her husband, Algerian national Salim Hannachi, with whom she has a child, was also among the crew. And so, Tasi sets out to discover what happened to her expedition team and why she can’t remember anything that occurred after the crash.
With so many years since the last Amnesia game, I’ll say right off the bat that you need little knowledge of the previous Amnesia games to play or understand what is happening in this one. Amnesia: Rebirth is a standalone journey. There are references to previous games that appear and will probably delight fans of the series, but knowledge of how the games connect isn’t required to be on board for this story. As one might expect of a Frictional game, the main star of the show are dangerous supernatural forces. Once these threats reveal themselves, Tasi finds herself forced to maintain her fear and sanity, stay out of the dark where applicable, and manage use of limited light sources to keep moving forward for the sake of her husband Salim and their shared child.
The mood and atmosphere in Amnesia: Rebirth is expertly crafted. There is knowledge and clues revealing bits and pieces of the mystery scattered throughout the game in pictures, letters, and notes. But more than that, Tasi’s familial bonds give an almost immediate and increasingly meaningful reason for her to fight against her fears and continue on where others would simply fall apart. It’s a bit of a slow rise to the point that the narrative really gets going, but once it does, Amnesia: Rebirth is a relentless rollercoaster of fear, emotion, and tension coupled alongside environmental investigation that is crucial to unraveling the full story.
Limited lights in the dangerous dark
The core gameplay of Amnesia: Rebirth, like pretty much all Frictional Games, is not one of combat or self-defense against monsters, but rather one of investigation, careful exploration, and, when push comes to shove, running for your life. Tasi isn’t a fighter. She doesn’t have a gun and the game gives an increasingly important reason why she has no business doing battle with the threats she encounters. Instead, much of the gameplay is spent discovering written notes and letters with context of the situation or clues to what to do next, key items for solving environmental puzzles, or hiding and running from immediate threats when they appear. Most of the interaction is controlled through simple movement controls, use of a few items, and one button to interact with most things as well.
Also much like previous Amnesia games, Tasi isn’t completely defenseless. The darkness is her greatest enemy and remaining in the dark for too long (or staring at something horrific) will shake her up little by little. Matches and light sources are her best friend. She can carry ten matches at a given time and they don’t last long at all. However, players can use them to gain brief reprieve or light candles, lamps, sconces, and other light fixtures to aid in keeping her in the light and keeping her sanity in check. She also eventually finds an oil lamp which cannot set light sources aflame, but gives its own decent light source when there otherwise is nothing to torch with matches. Balancing use of oil in the lamp and matches and discovering more in the environment is crucial to survival. It also almost always feels like Amnesia: Rebirth leaves you guessing at if there’s enough resources to get by, adding to the tension and paranoia as you navigate the game’s dangers.
There’s another way to reduce Tasi's paranoia and fear as well. At the risk of giving too much away, holding a certain button causes Tasi to stop and think about her child. Not only does it offer a little bit of expanded narrative and unique dialogue depending on where you are in the game, but it acts both as a meaningful way for Tasi to calm her nerves and for her and the player to remind themselves of what’s at stake and why they must press on. It’s not the most unique mechanic I’ve seen, but I found myself comforted in Tasi whispering words of encouragement to herself in thoughts of her family after some of the most intense moments of the game. It’s a simple thing, but adds something meaninful and appropriately thematic to Amnesia: Rebirth both mechanically and narratively.
Of course, there’s also the chance that you could fall into misfortune or get caught in a corner by the threats of the game. To this end, Amnesia: Rebirth isn’t entirely cruel. The game auto saves pretty frequently and will even let you save and exit at nearly any time to bookmark any point you want. If you do happen to get caught or killed, it’s going to be a pretty bad time, but the good news is that you simply get pushed back a bit and must traverse the area again. In some cases the game will even move you forward past the spot where you failed (though I will say you probably shouldn’t trust failure to not have consequences).
I think one of the only things that bothered me about the mechanics of Amnesia: Rebirth was that it has a few nasty bugs that need squashing. To solve some puzzles, you must pick up objects and rotate and move them around the environment in real time, like adding a winch to a wooden elevator to operate it. I found that occasionally, if I got too close to a wall, it would glitch the object I was holding out of existence. If it was a puzzle-crucial item, that meant I had to reload a save. Speaking of which, Amnesia: Rebirth doesn’t have a load save option in its pause menu - just exiting with saving and exiting without saving. You have to go back to the main menu to load a save, which is just kind of an extra unnecessary extra step. That said, there was little else that drew my ire in Amnesia: Rebirth outside of these bugs and quirks.
Family over fear
Amnesia: Rebirth is a solid return to form for Frictional. It has everything I’ve come to expect from the folks behind SOMA and Amnesia: The Dark Descent, but ups the horror game in meaningful ways appropriate to this particular entry. The tension and scarcity of resources to keep danger at bay is a constant threat, but the ongoing narrative of confusion over the player character’s state is aided masterfully by Tasi’s love and concern for her family. The drip of information both in the environment and through Tasi’s journey makes the stakes increasingly higher and the journey effectively desperate. In a year that produced intense titles like the Resident Evil 3 remake, Amnesia: Rebirth is another shining example of how Frictional Games’ approach to fear sets itself apart and shows another quality perspective of what the horror gaming genre can do.
This review is based on a digital Steam PC copy provided by the publisher. Amnesia: Rebirth is available on PlayStation 4 and PC via Steam, GOG, and Epic Games Store as of October 20, 2020.
- A riveting horror narrative throughout
- Solid puzzle-solving mechanics
- Well-balanced intense threats & exploration
- Simple, yet effective control mechanics
- Great use of a theme in narrative and gameplay
- Strong use of item scarcity to increase tension
- A touch slow to pickup
- Some odd glitches that demand loading a save
- No load game option in pause menu
TJ Denzer posted a new article, Amnesia Rebirth review: A desert dance of fear & love