The fourth Amnesia game is here, and once again the new title has a totally new setting and hook. This time the story is set in France during World War 1, and takes place entirely in an underground bunker. Part escape room, part cat and mouse chase, Amnesia: The Bunker is an experiment in shrinking the scale down to something that feels more intimate. But while the ideas can be interesting and the atmosphere dense, a heavy reliance on physics and puzzles has a detrimental impact on the horror itself.
In the trenches
Amnesia: The Bunker puts players in the role of Henri Clément, a soldier who finds himself trapped in an underground bunker during World War 1. After a brief interaction outside in a trench during a fight, Henri wakes up in the bunker, seemingly alone and unable to remember what the heck happened between then and now. It isn’t long before Henri realizes he isn’t alone per se, but instead being stalked by… something. As the player, your job is to explore, survive and escape, and solve the mystery of your surroundings along the way. Above all else, keeping the lights on is priority number one.
The theme of light being your primary source of survival is a constant in Amnesia. How you go about doing that varies depending on the game, and in The Bunker you are fighting against limited technology. On your person, you have a dynamo flashlight that has a pull cord and lasts for seconds rather than minutes. There’s also a generator room, which is connected to levers set up throughout the bunker. You need fuel for it, and the lights will stay on as long as there’s fuel. So between managing fuel and which levers are on and off, you can get bigger light coverage.
So the drawbacks there are pretty specific, which communicates a set of strict rules and limitations you have to be aware of to get around safely. And of course there’s a lot of noise involved, from powering the generator and flipping switches to pulling the cord on your flashlight. Noise is the second major factor next to light, because the monster is hyper sensitive to both. So the idea here is the tension between being safe and the risks involved in setting up and maintaining that safety. That’s where the fear is supposed to come from, more so than the monster itself.
In the meantime, actually progressing the game involves solving a lot of puzzles. There are locked doors, hidden codes, broken mechanisms and so on and so forth. And in recent entries, Amnesia has grown an interest in physics-based interactions, meaning actually grabbing and manipulating objects “manually,” as reflected by controls. So you do things like grab a lever with one button, then manipulate it with a stick. Instead of just pressing an “interact” button. There are, I think, two reasons for this.
One, is the tension from the time it takes to manipulate objects. Two is an element of freedom that can come from physics-based systems. There are multiple ways to tackle situations if the game allows you to manipulate your environment. I can see the intent but the execution doesn’t quite get there for me. There’s an issue of balance between all these systems and the goal, which is to make you feel scared! The problem, frankly, is that all of the above results in bumbling. There’s so much bumbling around with all the game elements designed to introduce tension that it ends up sabotaging that tension. The light system is a creative idea, but if I’m yanking on the flashlight every ten seconds just so I can see enough to fumble with puzzle pieces, I’m more annoyed than nervous.
Maintaining the atmosphere in a horror game is definitely a difficult task. If the game is full of fail states, you run into repetition ruining scares. If there are too many gameplay elements like puzzles or action sequences you can overwrite the terror. Amnesia: The Bunker feels so full of puzzles or puzzle-like obstructions just for the sake of having things to do in a video game sense, the atmosphere feels compromised. Navigating this game feels like a chore, instead of scary.
There are lots of ideas in Amnesia: The Bunker that are truly intriguing. I love the World War 1 setting as a backdrop for a horror story, especially the way it intersects with technology of the era. But the way gameplay elements are introduced as friction meant to induce tension simply feel overtuned. I often felt like I was fighting the game just to get around, which was frustrating in a software kind of way rather than an atmospheric enhancement. I wasn’t scared because I was too busy squinting or yanking on the flashlight’s pull cord just so I could pull on doors and latches. No amount of spooky ambiance in the background could bring me back into the experience.
This review is based on a Steam digital code provided by the publisher. Amnesia: The Bunker is set to release on June 6, 2023 for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox Series S|X and PC.
Amnesia: The Bunker
- Neat setting and narrative hooks
- Randomized puzzle elements encourage replays
- Physical systems allow for multiple solutions in many cases
- Overly cumbersome gameplay mechanics compromise scares/atmosphere
- Flashlight is more frustrating than tense - can't see anything!
Lucas White posted a new article, Amnesia: The Bunker review: Old flashlight simulator
Too bad, sounds like they missed the mark on this one