Review: Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs
How does one follow up the landmark release of something like Amnesia: The Dark Descent? Frictional Games, perhaps seeking to turn Amnesia into a sort of anthology, opened the doors for another developer to step in and give their take on the themes explored therein. This was The Chinese Room, well-known for their emotional adventure Dear Esther, and the pitch they had for a new Amnesia was suitably monstrous. Set in the grim Victorian workings of industrialized London, A Machine for Pigs promised a horrific, disturbing journey into a twisted world of cruelty and exploitation. While it fulfilled that promise in some respects, the journey itself proved to be a precipitous step down from the gameplay and story of the game that shares its title.
In the closing days of the 19th century, wealthy industrialist Oswald Mandus finds himself alone and dazed in his London home. His sons are missing, the house is filled with strange contraptions, the ground beneath him is quaking, and a mysterious voice on the speakers insists that it can guide him through the chaos. Descending into the tunnels beneath the city, Mandus discovers a nightmare of hissing pipes, grinding gears, and horrific creations. Somewhere down here his sons are hidden away, and his quest to rescue them will have him facing some of his worst demons and darkest moments. As his story unfolds, you’ll learn the full scope of his business and the events that surround it, and guide him to his ultimate fate.
If you’ve played The Dark Descent (and you really shouldn’t be here if you haven’t), the story follows a very similar thematic arc. This should come as no surprise for a game that borrows the Amnesia name; your character has amnesia, and as they come to understand their circumstances they’ll learn things about themselves that must be faced before their story can be brought to a close. Here the story is told through notes and audio logs on wax cylinders, and to a lesser extent through the progression of warehouses, tunnels, machines, and such that you’ll be scurrying through. The further in you tread, the more hard questions you’ll have about the man you’re controlling.
Except this time, the questions aren’t all that hard. The Dark Descent’s narrative strength came from the progression of Daniel’s character as you helped him recover it, and the decisions that spun out of the realization of who he was. In A Machine for Pigs, the character of Mandus is going to become apparent in the first twenty minutes of the game, leaving you wondering what, if any, question there could be about who he is. There’s going to be significantly less soul-searching here as you guide Mandus, as the situation steadily goes from bad to worse and veers into far darker territory than even the first one did. Put simply, the moral dilemma presented here is hardly a dilemma at all, and without that the plot can hardly stand up to the tale of the previous game.
This is a key problem with A Machine for Pigs, though certainly not the only one. Comparing it to The Dark Descent shows this title to be lacking in many areas, but the comparison can’t be ignored because of how it ties itself to the first. Nowhere is this more apparent than with the gameplay, which strips out a shocking number of systems that made The Dark Descent so immersive and gratifying. Your inventory is completely gone, with any items needed to complete puzzles carried one at a time by hand. Instead of an oil lantern which had to be refilled and managed, your light source is electric and can be left on indefinitely. Health is not really a consideration, and instead of managing your sanity, you’re simply victim to obnoxious visual effects at pre-determined moments. The end result of all this streamlining is that there’s hardly any reason to explore the game world, because all you have a chance of finding are notes. As if anticipating this, most of the drawers and cabinets that would have been interactive in the first game are merely scenery here, locked with bizarre contraptions that barely even fit the setting.
Even the presentation and atmosphere suffer in comparison. Despite the massive potential for horror that comes with the grimy Victorian setting, there’s depressingly little to threaten or unsettle you. The Dark Descent was masterful in letting your expectations work against you, keeping you tense until you were almost sure you were out of danger, and then setting some beast upon you. A Machine for Pigs seems content letting the tension bleed away after the sixth or seventh mysterious crash or squeal, leaving actual threats in only a few very brief parts of the game. The rest of the time it’ll just be you and the dark halls to explore, except without much reason to explore and with an irritatingly inky darkness that does more to distract than terrify. Seriously, something is wrong with the lighting in this game when electric ceiling lights and table lamps fail to illuminate anything more than a foot or two away.
Ultimately there’s so much that frustrates about A Machine for Pigs, it’s hard to really take much pleasure from the things it does right. The writing and voice acting are well-done and evocative, if a little overwrought. There are a few rather effective segments where the horror is shown in a new or more creative light. And while I dislike the story overall, some aspects of it like the true nature of the machine are incredibly interesting. Honestly though, that just makes me wish those concepts could be re-explored in a better game. A Machine for Pigs might be a passable horror game if you can look past the poor story and gameplay, but passable is not what the follow-up to The Dark Descent should be at all. It’s a good concept with shockingly poor execution, so much so that it ruins whatever potential this one might have had.