Review: Amnesia: The Dark Descent
I don’t get it. I simply don’t get it. Developer Frictional Games’ new baby, Amnesia: The Dark Descent is getting positive review after positive review. Critics go wild for its haunting atmosphere and sense of terror. They talk about its rock solid game design and wonderfully executed mechanics. At the time of this writing, Amnesia has a metacritic score of 85, with a user score of 9.4 out of ten. I guess these guys have only played the first hour or so of the game, because as good as Amnesia begins the game doesn’t hold up to the promise of its start.
Daniel wakes up on the floor of a dark castle with nary a thought to call his own. He aimlessly wanders the halls, and as he does, realizes that something supernatural is happening around him: doors burst open on their own, candles blow out, and he hears phantom footsteps approaching him. Just when it appears Daniel will lose whatever sanity he has left, he happens across a note…written by himself. In the past, Daniel inflicted amnesia upon himself, and has left a task to his current self; travel to the castle’s inner sanctum, find a man named Alexander, and kill him.
Watch out, the note warns, there’s a terrible darkness chasing you.
Sure, the beginning hooked me. I was completely pumped to discover the castle’s secrets and solve the mystery of why Daniel erased his memory, but once you actually play the game, things get stale quickly.
Like any horror game you’ve played before, you wander around the castle, adding items to your inventory and using objects to solve puzzles. Oh, the mid-twistingly difficult puzzles. I’m not sure if everyone feels this way, but I don’t think I’ve ever been as offended by a game as Amnesia as it completely insults the player’s intelligence. Instead of actual brain teasers that appear in other survival horror games, Amnesia treated me to a rousing game of put the square peg in the square hole. Here are some “puzzles” from Amnesia:
- The gears in a machine are missing, there are some gears scattered across the room. Put the gears back.
- There’s a furnace that needs fuel. Don’t worry, there’s some coal five feet away!
- Three pipes are mysteriously gone from a steam system. Oh, they are in three adjacent rooms.
It’s bad enough that these puzzles, and I use that word lightly, are moronic. It’s even worse that every item of necessity has a purple glow highlighting its importance. Amnesia apparently assumes I’m suffering from a mental affliction of my own. Puzzle solving is a staple of survival horror exploration, and Amnesia fails miserably in that department.
Another staple of survival horror exploration is, well, the exploring. Once Daniel reaches the first wide open room with multiple doors and paths to take, I was tingling in anticipation for a chance to really explore every nook, every corner, and every secret passage of the castle a-la Castlevania.
I made my way to a particularly menacing door, and…locked. Fair enough, not everything should be open to Daniel right from the get go. Another door…locked, a passageway…blocked by a cave in. Despite Amnesia’s exploration trappings, the game is painfully linear, as Daniel’s freedom is constantly restricted by his environment. Worse yet, once an area is cleared of all locks and blockages (or whatever else collapsed in this castle apparently constructed of balsa wood), Daniel is quickly whisked away to a new section of the castle, never given a chance to return and explore.
Considering that the gameplay really isn’t up to snuff, Amnesia lives and dies by the potency of its atmosphere, which is all tied to the hiding and sanity meter mechanics.
As stated above, Daniel warned himself that a terrible darkness is following him. About an hour into my Amnesia experience, I came into contact with it. A creature stalks Daniel, and he has no way to combat it, he can only run away. I saw the abomination from a distance, and panicked, diving into a corner. As it slowly ambled by, I turned away, fearful that it might see me. Once it finally disappeared, I realized that I was trembling in my chair. Wow, I thought, Amnesia is terrifying.
So I bought into the hiding mechanic. Whenever the monster happened by, I’d shit my pants and scamper off. As a rough estimate, I’ll wager that I spent half the game running in terror. Despite my level of success with hiding, however, I eventually messed up. The creature hobbled towards me and wasted my cowardly ass. I reloaded seconds later, and…
You’ve got to be kidding me. I was standing roughly in the same spot I was when I died, and the monster wasn’t there any more to block my way. I came to the realization that instead of running and hiding every time the monster appeared, I’d save an incredible amount of time if I just ran right at the thing and let it kill me. That way, it’d disappear for a while, and I could continue on without fear of it interrupting me. For the entire second half of the game, I happily let my ass get killed time and time again, running like a lemming right to my doom, laughing all the while.
With no penalty for dying, and the biggest source of terror being reduced to nothing more than a speed bump, Anmesia is hardly frightening, and a horror game that isn’t scary is worthless.
The sanity system doesn’t fare much better. As Daniel loses his sanity (either by standing in the dark too long or by looking at the monster) he hallucinates. There’s a game that already did this, folks, and it was called Eternal Darkness. I have no problem with Amnesia borrowing this mechanic, but come on, at least try to, I dunno, improve on it. Amniesia’s hallucinations are painfully similar to what ED already offered: bugs crawling across the screen, screams coming from behind doors, distorted vision… we’ve seen this already from a game that came out eight years ago. Surely somewhere between 2002 and now developer Frictional Games could have thought of something more unique to add to the mix.
Even worse for the sanity system is the fact that it’s ridiculously easy to maintain high sanity. While at the beginning of the game tinderboxes and oil (used to light candles and Daniel’s lamp, respectively) were hard to come across, by game’s end I was tripping over them and my inventory was fit to burst. Any player that exercises even a modicum of resource conservation will never lose his sanity. What this boils down to is really unfortunate: the better you are at playing Amnesia, the less you will enjoy it.
To put the cherry on top of this shit-sundae, Amnesia’s narrative, which was compelling at first, quickly falls apart. Daniel leaves himself notes detailing his past, which doesn’t make sense considering he purposefully erased his memory to escape it, and this Alexander fellow’s goals are never made even remotely clear. I never truly felt motivated over the course of the game, and not one of Amnesia’s three endings provides any resolution to the story.
While Amnesia: The Dark Descent is currently enjoying a lot of critical acclaim, it will receive none from me. The gameplay is tiresome and boring, the puzzles are a complete joke, and the story falls flat on it narrative face. What Frictional Games needs to understand is that you can’t create fear by showing a lot of gore and dead bodies; I don’t care how scary the monster looks, if the player can complete the game faster by running right at it, the sense of horror it was supposed to inflict is completely lost. I wish I could forget this one.