Welcome to Ghosts of Gaming Past — here we’ll be reviewing older horror games, classics and non-classics we missed when they were originally released. Have a game you’d like reviewed? Send us an email.
Written by Kevin Kennedy, @thekevmiester
In a time when the survivor horror genre seemed to be taking more of a turn towards action with games like Dead Space and Resident Evil, Amnesia: The Dark Descent was a breath of fresh air to many back in 2010, with it’s heavy emphasis on phycological terror and boasting no combat system whatsoever. The game has since garnered enough of a following to warrant an expansion, in the name of Justine, and even an “indirect sequel” which is currently being developed by The Chinese Room (Dear Esther) with the original developers Frictional Games taking on a publishing role as they work on another project. How does the game hold up after 3 years? And is it really THAT scary?
The game takes place in a mysterious castle in Prussia (former kingdom of Germany), where our protagonist Daniel, you guessed it, wakes up with Amnesia. Only remembering his home, name and the comforting fact that a shadow is hunting him, our hero finds a note from himself telling him to kill the baron of the castle, Alexander.
There is a story beyond this premise for those willing to look for it, though given the nature of the game, don’t be surprised if you don’t entirely understand it the first time though. The story is mostly told through diary pages and brief audio flashbacks, which may result in you receiving information in a strange order, making it hard to piece the information together. Though for those very much interested in finding out more, every entry is saved in the journal where the player can view it at their own pace.
While the tale is hardly groundbreaking, it is somewhat satisfying to figure it out for yourself. The sporadic and confused nature of the story does perfectly match the tone the game is going for however (what with the game being called AMNESIA) and it is this tone which is so successfully hammered home with the help of the gameplay.
The gameplay takes a while to get used to (opening and closing doors is going to be your first hurdle) but once you get a hand of it, the game controls brilliantly. Apart from the obvious lack of combat, the game barely handicaps the player as far as control goes; you can sprint, crouch, pick up and move almost anything and hold up a flashlight in an instant to light the way. Picking up items is always something of a chore but other than that things work great.
The major handicaps come in the form of Daniel’s sanity; merely looking at the Gatherers (the main enemy of the game) can cause Daniel to feel woozy and ill at ease. More than that, Daniel also seems to be afraid of the dark, as a few seconds away from a light source will literally cause his teeth to chatter.
This is no stealth game, as that would imply that you are to sneak around enemies. The name of the game here is instead to run and hide until you think it’s safe to come back out. While every single encounter is indeed terrifying, it’s hard not to feel that the game can get a little simple or even predictable at times. Just found a crucial item? Well get ready to hide then because a Gatherer is either going to bang down the door or be walking about nearby.
In many survival horror games, the monsters may be scary but they are also usually an annoyance, but in Amnesia, every single encounter without fail will make you jump in your seat, run to the nearest hiding spot and spend the next 20 seconds convinced you did something wrong. Due to the fact that you can’t look at the Gatherers, you will also spend this time with your head pointed at the ground, listening intently for the footsteps to eventually disappear.
While I can more than understand Daniel being afraid of these monsters, it is strange that even towards the end of the game he still falls over in terror despite being around them for so long, though that is a very minor (and perhaps even necessary) gripe in a game with such palpable tension.
That being said, you don’t really encounter the Gatherer’s that often throughout the game, in-fact it was just under an hour before I ran into my first one. It’s the anticipation of each encounter that makes the game so memorable. The lack of patrolling or persistent enemies may seem bizarre but on reflection it is rather a stroke of genius; having the Gatherer’s act like guards from a standard stealth game would mean you would encounter them more often, taking away the terror you feel whenever you see them. Besides, the game can be frustrating enough due to it’s puzzles.
The game is in essence a point and click adventure game, with puzzles to be solved and areas to be retread with all important keys. As is standard with older adventure games, there are times where you may just find yourself clicking on everything you can in the hope of something happening. Sometimes it is also quite clear what you are to do but simply difficult to do it, especially with puzzles that require liquid to be poured into a jar of some sort. Nothing is too difficult to solve though some are a little too vague for my liking. For the most part though it is a simple matter of collecting items and taking them to point B.
To be perfectly honest, I have no idea how well designed the monsters are. You only see them for a second before you have to run to the hills. Even if you were to look right at them your vision would get all wonky and you’d probably fall over in fear before getting mauled to death. They sound scary though! The soundtrack is mostly comprised of long held string notes that while hardly memorable, are still able to hammer home the fear. The graphics work as well as they need to; you can tell things apart from each other and items that can go into your inventory are highlighted, removing even more frustration that usually comes with puzzle games. Basic stuff really, though the graphical fidelity isn’t why you should play this game.
For those brave (or mad) enough to challenge the depths again, there is a developers commentary (similar to Valve games) which can provide plenty of insight for those interested. The creative amongst you may also enjoy the custom level creator, which allows you the ability to create levels, models and particle effects so as to create your own spooks.
There seems to be two prominent horror games in the market just now: those that provide a more tense experience and those that actually scare you. In my opinion, the major difference between these two is how you react after the game. Do you genuinely get creeped out walking about a dark flat, constantly checking over your shoulder after playing Dead Space? Perhaps not.
As much as I may enjoy a more visceral experience from time to time, Amnesia is simply a different game all together. One of the most terrifying and memorable experiences I’ve ever had. While games like Silent Hill, while still great, may have some trouble ageing as gracefully, I honestly see no reason why you couldn’t pick up Amnesia in five years time and still get the same experience you would picking it up on day one. The Lovecraftian tale may be more of a placeholder than anything else, but it’s the world itself that is the true tale here.
There is more I could talk about, including encounters with monsters in the water and a moment that made my friend literally drop the mouse in fear (play with a friend to create a bond that will never be broken) but it is best experience for yourself. Turn the lights off, for extra points get on some headphones and get read for possibly the best survival horror game in years.
The Final Word: A timeless classic. This game should age like wine. Truly terrifying. Proof that you don’t have to handicap a player’s controls to scare the pants off them.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent is available on PC (reviewed).