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Amnesia: The Dark Descent

Amnesia Review: Horror Done Right

If there is any justice in the world, the sizable contingent of gamers who incessantly bleat about the lack of new experiences in modern video games will purchase Amnesia: The Dark Descent right now. This indie project is an expertly crafted tale of horror and discovery that uses its interactive nature to enthrall players as deeply as any tale in any medium. Amnesia is barely a game in the traditional sense, leaving the nearly two decades of horror gaming tradition since Alone in the Dark by the wayside and forging its own twisted path.

Daniel's story is a tragedy from the beginning. Waking up in a decrepit Prussian castle with no memory of his past, he soon learns that his amnesia is self-inflicted. "I can't tell you why, but know this; I choose to forget," reads the note his former self left for him, dated August 1839, before intentionally blanking his own memory. His reasons for this drastic act remain vague, but the horrible reality of the castle gives reason enough to squeeze your eyes shut. A literal living nightmare relentlessly pursues Daniel through the castle as he struggles to piece together enough of his past to make sense of his former self's final directive: Find and kill Alexander of Brennenburg.

Going into further detail would spoil the mystery; Amnesia's setting is too intricate, and the pacing of reveals is too well crafted to disrespect. The backstory parallels Daniel's current quest. Amnesia follows the tradition of Lovecraft, Poe, and Shelley, weaving a tale deeply tied to the 19th century's spirit of discovery, power, and glory. The journal notes you unearth tell a story of hubris and curiosity inexorably pulling a fascinating cast of characters through their own descent into madness, which leads to the current predicament. The story drew me reluctantly onward, even when I wanted to walk away – not out of frustration or boredom, but because I was outright scared of what awaited me down the next dark hallway.

I'm not ashamed to admit my fear. Amnesia is terrifying. Slow footsteps and ragged breathing might be part of the ambient audio track – or they might mean that a nightmarish creature is behind the next door. A door flying open could be a clue to where you need to go next. It could also be a precursor to a horrible monster charging at you. I literally jumped out of my seat several times per hour. Developer Frictional Games has discovered a strange alchemy that mixes pacing, interactivity, and presentation into pure suspense.

The first-person gameplay itself is simple. The castle slowly opens up to you as you explore its many chambers, revealing the secrets that have kept it and its occupants shrouded in a cloak of occult mystery for centuries. Gathering your nerves to venture into the next darkened room is the hardest thing about Amnesia; action sequences are used sparingly to capitalize on built-up tension. The primary mechanic is your sanity level, which slowly drains as you spend time in the darkness. Standing in the light makes you an obvious target for any enemies, though, which makes the light-dark tension a constant. Cool fullscreen effects make everything more menacing as your sanity spirals downward, and Daniel's breath echoes in his ears as his mind loses its grip on reality. Advancing through the game is the only method to regain your wits, which creates a feedback loop that pulls you ever forward rather than encouraging the meticulous scavenging behavior that is a hallmark of so many games.

Inventory management is limited, as players only need concern themselves with a bare handful of resources as well as the occasional puzzle piece. Unlike Alan Wake (or nearly all horror titles, for that matter), the gameplay never takes away from the suspense or sense of immersion. This comes at the price of action, as you generally have no viable combat option in Amnesia. Then again, the ass-kicking protagonist is a concept foreign to the horror genre in every medium but games.

If Resident Evil is Aliens, Amnesia is Alien. Frictional Games has created something wholly unlike the traditional horror game. Amnesia shows us by example that gaming has entirely new realms to explore. The price of admission is only $20 through your digital retailer of choice. Do the right thing.

User Reviews:

  • 6.50
    I tried to play this, I really did. The first 20-30 minutes were great, very atmospheric. From that point on, though, the game went downhill. Background sounds began looping noticeably to the point where you were expecting them. The long stretches without any action or exposition really got on my nerves...
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  • 8.00
    This is the second game of this type for me, and no -- I don't mean horror. This is the second game I've ever purchased hardware for. I had seen a few videos, and I just had this incredible desire. I bought it before I even had a PC that could run it. Two years later, at a pitch-black 4:30 in...
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  • 9.75
    To be honest, the only reason I bought Amnesia off of Steam was because of two things. 1: I heard it was terrifying 2: It was only five dollars thanks to the 2011 Halloween Sale... After slowly progressing through the game over a one year period I can easily say it's one of the best Indies I've...
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  • 9.50
    I have never known fear as I have experienced in the 8 hour journey that is Amnesia: The Dark Descent. It's unlike any video game you have ever probably played (unless you have played Frictional Games' Penumbra series) in that it doesn't play like most other video games. There's no combat...
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  • 9.50
    This game, while I haven't gotten all the way through (yet) is amazing. I know that I am extremely late on this, but I have just gotten a gaming PC again and figured I should pick this up. Anyways back to the review. This game is scary, and I mean scary. Each time there is a noise in game I jump...
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  • 9.50
    Survival horror has taken a rather silly turn in the last couple of years. While many like Silent Hill stick to the classic formula, Resident Evil has ventured out into the ridiculous. To me, Resident Evil 4 was the last decent Resident Evil game. Spinoffs and movies plague the genre with unnecessary...
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