Frictional Games – Amnesia: The Dark Descent review

incredibly spooky first-person horror from the makers of Penumbra
Photo of Frictional Games – Amnesia: The Dark Descent

Frictional Games may be a small Swedish indie studio, but the outfit has a flair for atmosphere and production values which make its horror titles stand out as much as any heavyweight developer. We were impressed with the earlier Penumbra series of games, and found them genuinely chilling, although Amnesia: The Dark Descent takes everything up a notch again. Or down a notch, perhaps, given the descending theme. Amnesia is a first-person horror survival game with adventure style and physics puzzles, alongside stealth elements.

Unsurprisingly enough, in Amnesia you’ve forgotten who you are. Come on, admit it, we’ve all done that at 3am on a Saturday night, and woken up in a phone box in Milton Keynes on Sunday morning missing our eyebrows, wearing someone else’s jacket and a traffic cone. The situation is far more dire in this game, however, as you find yourself trapped in a mysterious eerie castle which soon turns into a living nightmare, in which the darkness is both a dreadful adversary, yet a friend at the same time.

In a nod to the Lovecraftian likes of Cthulhu, Amnesia gives the player not just a health status, but a mental sanity gauge. Your sanity starts to fray as you hear ghostly noises and see unexplained or horrifying events, and believe us, there are plenty of these. Doors opening, disembodied whispering voices, freaky flashbacks which slowly reveal the plot, windows suddenly smashing, and that’s before we even get to the lumbering things which populate the castle.

Spending time in the pitch black also wears away your sanity, as this (quite rightly) spooks your character out, so you have to keep an oil lamp lit in darker areas of the castle. Either that, or you can light candles and torches using tinderboxes you find. Light is a resource in Amnesia, and managing it thriftily is a must.

However, while the darkness may send you mad, it’s also an ally at times due to the aforementioned lumbering things. If you’re lit up, waving your lamp around when they’re about, they’ll come hurtling across the room and claw you to death in several swift blows. Unlike Penumbra, where you had some limited form of weaponry to use against the enemies, Amnesia gives you nothing; you can’t hurt these foul creatures at all, and instead have to hide in the dark and pray they don’t notice you.

This gives the game such a chilling edge, at times it literally had the hairs on our arms standing up. Hiding in a wardrobe as a zombie type beast thing shuffles past, groaning loudly, is totally creepy. Wading through a corridor knee-deep in water and seeing an invisible phantom suddenly splash-splash-splashing towards you is most unsettling. But it’s when you open a door and come face to face with a deformed fleshy horror, and it roars aloud, that it becomes time to re-evaluate the issue of whether adult nappies are really such a comical invention.

You’ll stare at the abomination for a split-second, slam the door back shut in a panic, turn and run. Then you’ll hear that door explode in a shower of splintered wood as the creature bursts through it, and then comes the sound of its ragged breathing and guttural grunting, not far behind you, as you leg it up the corridor looking for a dark room to jump in and hopefully evade it. Amnesia manages to invoke an absolutely electric horror tension, and a big part of this is due to the fact that you know you’re powerless against these monsters, you must flee, you can’t save the game – you’re never safe – and why are you sweating so much? It’s just a game, remember, just a game…

The pacing is beautifully judged, too. These more manic sections are interspersed with calmer, spookier bits, with the music often telling you – as with all good horror films – when something nasty is in the pipeline, and potentially about to occur at any moment. The immersion and spookiness is also maintained, as mentioned above, by the fact that there’s no save game option. Well, Amnesia saves the game when you quit of course, but you can’t keep hitting ‘quick save’ in order to revert to a couple of minutes ago when things go wrong.

Should you die – and you will – Amnesia restarts you from the beginning of the section you were playing. However, your oil levels or health vials don’t replenish to their previous levels, which means if you die a few times, you can easily end up with very little juice left in the lamp. And Brennenburg castle in the pitch black is not somewhere you want to be for long.

We did encounter one flaw with the saving system, where the aforementioned invisible phantom horror was moved on to the next section of the castle erroneously, because we managed to get a foot through the door to the next location as we died. This allowed us to stroll through a highly troublesome corridor unhindered after we respawned, but it was the only time such a blemish occurred.

Ghastly enemies and fear of the dark aside, the other main constituent of Amnesia’s gameplay is the puzzles. Some are simple physics based affairs – the stairs have collapsed, what could those wooden pallets be for – whereas others have more depth and require a bit of searching and thinking. They’re nicely balanced on the whole, you’re rarely stuck for long, and the game also offers plentiful hints. These can be turned off, which isn’t a bad idea actually, as they give a little bit too much away at times.

Amnesia is a marvellously balanced horror experience, and a definite improvement on Penumbra. The story may be on the compact side – it’s not a huge sprawl of levels, by any means – but it’s big enough, and from a tension point of view, the game probably wouldn’t be able to sustain this sort of drama for much longer anyway.

Company: Frictional Games

If Amnesia is one thing, the game's definitely not forgettable. It's a highly polished horror survival tale with some well balanced puzzles, a keen sense of pacing, and many genuinely chilling, even heart-racing moments. This is probably the scariest game we have ever played, and at this price, purchase is a no-brainer (much like the fetid creatures which stalk the halls of Brennenburg castle).