Developer: Frictional Games
Publisher: Frictional Games
You might have read quite a bit about this game over the past week or so. People going “It was so scary, I screamed out loud eight times while playing it!” or “I had to get out the extra long poopsock for this one!”. As usual, the penchant for hyperbole that certain scribblers suffer from causes the eyebrow to cock upwards, the brow to furrow and the mouse to be tapped aggressively. If you're screaming out loud while playing a game, there's something wrong with you.
Behind all the ludicrously overblown guff spouted by some lies a genuinely unnerving experience, as close to a chilling gaming experience as you are ever likely to get. So, while the screaming exaggerators are overplaying their hand, there is a large grain of truth in what they say. One person has told me that he literally tossed his mouse across the desk in shock, while another had to stop playing a number of times simply because he was too unnerved to continue.
With all these thoughts ringing in the head, it's easy to scoff and say “Well, it wouldn't happen to me,” but would it? Ensconced in a dark room and an empty house, the challenge was set. After a few hours of play, it's definitely fair to say that the game shits you up good and proper. Not in a screaming out loud way, but by creating an intensity of panic you'll rarely ever find in your bog-standard survival horrors.
There are a number of potential reasons for this, foremost among them the lack of any weapons whatsoever. It's survival by any means necessary, but where none of those are actively defending yourself. It's hide in the shadows, quivering with fear and mounting insanity, or die horribly. As the game progresses, you're more on edge and the corridors just seem to get darker.
The suffocating gloom is a two-edged sword. The positive effect is you don't get seen by the enemies, but the longer you spend in darkness, the lower your sanity drops until you end up a gibbering wreck. While you can be physically damaged, it's your mental health that's always your primary concern. If it's low, your vision will become impaired, your breathing gets ragged and quick and you can't move as effectively. Even just looking at the enemies drains your sanity, so you'll get incredibly tense moments when you're staring at the floor, knowing full well the monster is closing in, just hoping this thin sliver of darkness is enough to keep you safe. Perhaps you shouldn't have lit all those candles...
Set in a Germanic castle in the 19th Century (or around then, anyway), you play as Daniel, somebody who appears to have lost his memory (Amnesia, you see...) and who gets a note from himself telling him to go kill an old guy who's hiding in the bowels of a castle. The very one you're inside, helpfully. As you go along, you'll discover diary entries cunningly hidden in plain sight and solve a load of physics puzzles. Some have complained about these conundrums being too easy, but Frictional have made it clear they want their players to progress and feel immersed in the storyline, not tear their hair out over an obtuse logic puzzle.
In order to solve said riddles, you'll need to get a grip on the control system. Amnesia employs Frictional Games' tactile control method, showcased first in the equally chilling Penumbra series. To open a door, you have to click and hold, before pushing or pulling depending on which way it opens. Same goes for drawers, cupboards and manipulating objects. Click, hold and manoeuvre. It's a great system let down slightly by the fiddliness of the pointer itself, which sometimes you need to position too precisely in order to pick up a small tinderbox, for example. Kind of like what Sony and Microsoft are trying to do with Kinect and Move, just with a mouse and in a way that doesn't involve you leaping about your front room like a twonk.
Ignoring the sometimes slightly rough around the edges visuals and feel (it is an independent release, after all) Amnesia is an absolute must-play for horror game fans. It frankly pisses all over pretty much any big budget titles that claim to be scary just because they have a zombie go “Boo!” at you every so often. If there's any justice in the world, Frictional's next project will be backed by an ambitious publisher with oodles of cash. If this is what they can do with very few resources, imagine the possibilities if they had plenty.
One more word on the 'scariness' of the project. It's not screaming aloud scary, but what Amnesia does do is deliver some really intense moments, times when you are frantic, panicking and desperate to find a place to hide. It's an oppressive game, not a shock-inducing one. To say otherwise is wrong. Most of the time, dangerous moments are sign-posted, but because you're defenceless, it's the feeling of impending doom that causes the scares, not the fact a monster jumped out at you. It weighs down at you constantly, groans and screams coming at you all the time, forcing you to constantly be alert. It works brilliantly and is probably the most unnerving experience available on any system. Even if it doesn't make you scream.
- Relentless, genuinely unnerving atmosphere
- Tactile control system
- Puzzles don't impede progress too much
- Graphics sometimes let things down
- Pointer can be a bit fiddly
- Deserves a bigger publisher
The Short Version: Play this with the lights off, the shutters drawn and see how long you can last. A genuinely unsettling and unnerving experience, which puts bigger budget games to absolute shame.