Review: Amnesia: The Dark Descent

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There aren’t many games you can credit with defining entire genres, but Amnesia’s impact on horror is apparent even ten years later. It forged a third way for horror games, away from the tense survival of Resident Evil and the psychological explorations of Silent Hill, trapping you in a place with terrors you have no recourse but to run from. Detailed, haunting, and immersive, The Dark Descent had more than enough to inspire a flood of imitators and even a few evolutions of the style it popularized. Games of such influence don’t always stand the test of time themselves, but this is one of the rare ones that gets into the player’s head in ways that will never go out of style.

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You awaken in the dim halls of a drafty, decrepit castle, head throbbing and memory hazy. A trail of strange stains leads you to a letter from yourself, commanding you to find and kill someone hiding in the bowels of the estate. With nothing else to guide you, you set about your grim task, only to find a host of horrors standing in your way. The castle is not as abandoned as it seems, and a greater presence is pursuing you through its passages. To survive this journey you’ll need to re-learn who you are and what your relationship is to this place, and there is no question that the answers you find will not be the ones you want.

Amnesiac protagonist is such a tired cliche in the modern era, but it’s important to remember that so many games have adopted the trope because Amnesia was one of the first. It’s also arguably one of the best to take on this theme as well, because the story that unfolds as you creep through the castle nails the pacing and the emotional impacts necessary to make it work. I won’t spoil even as old a game as this, but this is one of the rare cases where the human element inspires some genuinely interesting questions for the player, and declines to offer the boilerplate “good” and “bad” endings to their tale. You can even see shades of the themes that Frictional Games explored in their next game, SOMA, in some of the story beats here.

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A solid story in an indie horror game is accomplishment enough, but it’s the gameplay where Amnesia really shines, even now. Inspiring fear in players is something that must be done in the mind, by setting certain expectations and then defying them when the player is most vulnerable. Most indie horror titles don’t get that, and bombard you with jumpscares and cliched monster appearances without bothering to set the scene for either. The Dark Descent knows exactly what it’s doing, though, allowing atmosphere and sound cues to carry much of the tension in the game. You’ll find yourself sweating as you open doors and peeking gingerly around darkened corners, only to find nothing. But I promise you, the moment you take comfort in the fact that nothing’s there, something will be there. The dark forces in this game function in surprisingly confounding ways, which effectively shuts off that familiar avenue of comfort in horror games, a reliance on mechanics to save you.

Amnesia uses a simple but effective set of player mechanics to keep you engaged and moving forward, despite the terrors that assail you. Your chief concern is sanity, a nebulous metric that drains when you see something horrific or spend too long in dark places. There are two main ways to recover your sanity, the first by solving puzzles and the second by staying in the light. That first one is how the game pushes you onward and prevents you from wasting too much time. For the second, you have a limited amount of lamp oil for your own light source, and limited tinderboxes for lighting torches and candles in the environment. Oil can be rather scarce in parts of the game, meaning you can’t dally in dark places. And as you can imagine, these mechanics make hiding from your insurmountable foes an incredibly tense experience.

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The puzzles you’ll face as you progress are all interesting and make sense in the context of the castle and your quest, though most still break down to finding important doo-dads in dark and spooky rooms. More interesting are the notes and memories you’ll uncover as you proceed, written to provide concise and revealing details about the world and your history in it. The notes aren’t really here to horrify but rather to give the story its context, and they work very well in that regard. It’s the situations you keep ending up in, cornered in dark chambers or pursued by some eldritch force, that keep the adrenaline pumping and unease at the forefront of your mind.

I was skeptical, returning to this title after years and years of intervening horror, that it would still stand up to scrutiny. But not only does it stand strong, it remains one of the most haunting and engaging horror games of the genre. The scares are paced and plotted with uncanny skill, leaving the player unsteady for so much of what comes before and after. The graphics still hold as moody and immersive, and the sound design is a master class in setting atmosphere. And it all comes in a lengthy adventure of eight to nine hours, never dragging in pace or lessening in tension. The Dark Descent has always been at the top of horror lists and it’s not hard to see why, and I’m pleased to say it’s sure to stay there for many, many years to come.

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