Sunday, December 2, 2012

Amnesia: The Dark Descent

Imagine waking on the floor of a stone hallway with no memory - not how you got there, not where you are, not even who you are. You stumble around without any real direction but to follow a trail that might be blood. Searching through cabinets and trunks yields little reward, and no information, until you ultimately stumble upon a note. It explains that you choose to forget, and then the past you tasks you with going to the inner sanctum of this castle, finding a man known as Alexander of Brennenburg, and killing him, for he is old and weak, while you are young and strong. To complicate matters further, your note also says there is a "shadow" chasing you, a living nightmare that tears apart reality - a foe against which you are unable to fight.

You might think that this shadow is your greatest threat, and indeed your note encourages you to escape it as long as you can as you make your dark descent through the castle at Brennenburg, but that is not the case. Other horrors abound in this place, some more obvious, and far less sinister, than others. The shadow is one to be feared, as well as the damage that seems to proceed him, such as sudden cave ins or strange flesh like boils that burst from the walls. There are too the servants that call Brennenburg home - twisted remnants that were perhaps once human - that dutifully seek you out, forcing you to hide in dark corners with no light, and that test the limits of your sanity. While those and a few others should be avoided at all costs, they are perhaps not the biggest villain in this story, but to find out just who that is, you'll have to play the game yourself.

For months now, this screenshot has been in my Fraps directory, and any time I advanced one picture too many, since Amnesia is alphabetically first, I was given this lovely image of a Grunt, the most common enemy, about to tear my face from the rest of my body.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a survival horror game of the highest quality. The game has you exploring the dark corridors and chambers of the castle at Brennenburg for reasons already explained - a place you'll learn you took shelter at after awakening an ancient power in the deserts of Algeria. Now, in the place you sought for protection, you must explore and puzzle your way through to the inner sanctum. You'll encounter brief flash backs or half memories, as well as journal pages that provide you with the information you need - a recipe to dissolve a substance that blocks a door you need to pass through, or where the spare parts are that are needed to run the elevator. You'll search through spare rooms, opening drawers, closets, and desks in search of the items you need, or just for items you can use. You'll peak around corners, slowly open doors with this game's physics interaction system, and, most importantly, you'll hide from the monsters that pursue you.

Perhaps your biggest threat is the lack of light in this place, for if you spend too much time in the dark, you'll start to go insane. The same is true if you witness something disturbing, such as a skull falling out of a cabinet you opened, or stare too long at one of the monsters that lurk about. While a lower sanity level is bad, leading you to move slower, the screen to blur, and other generally bad things, you can rectify the situation by solving one of this game's many puzzles - those roadblocks to your progress. Sometimes the answer is simple, as it's outlined in some notes you've acquired, and other times you'll be required to observe what a machine in one room looks like, and make sure the similar machine in the adjacent room is configured the same. At other points you'll have options, such as breaking down a loosely held together wall by first breaking off a metal bar to use as a level and dislodge a few bricks, or you could just open your inventory and use your hammer and chisel that you've been holding on to for much of the game.

Your inventory screen also gives you essential information about how you're doing, showing your health and sanity.
The basics of the game are simple: explore every nook and cranny for items you can use, making sure to open everything and pick up boxes or other random items because they may conceal either what you seek or spare lantern oil or flint boxes that can be used to generate light and fight off the insanity. As you progress you'll tasked with overcoming various puzzles, which usually involve completing actions in a certain sequence or configuring machinery in a specific way. You'll travel through various parts of the castle in your quest, from the library to the dungeons, the sewers to the inner sanctum, each with it's own creepy environment, and particular problems to overcome.

The devil, however, is always in the details. In this case, that's usually the monsters. Words, at least the clumsy way in which I wield them, don't do justice to the dark and oppressing nature of the environments you're trudging through, but it's safe to say they aren't particularly good places, such as the dungeons or the lower torture chambers, both of which are packed with sound clips and flash backs of the kinds of horrors visited on people there. These are the types of places the monsters call home, if it helps you understand them a bit better. They seem to walk about, searching for something, though not necessarily in a patrol of any sort, and they can disappear. I don't mean go invisible, but just because you saw a monster head right down a hallway doesn't mean he's actually there, since they usually vanish when they get out of range. Seemingly the mere presence of these creatures is enough to inspire a bit of fear, and insanitary, in both you and the character Daniel.

One of several puzzles to get the elevator moving.
These monsters aren't just for show, and they are a very real threat. Catch their attention, such as walking into one that happens to be going for a stroll, or not paying attention when running around a corner, or just come across a triggered event, usually after recovering a critical item, and you could find yourself in a world of hurt. Against the majority of the enemies in the game, those human like creatures called Grunts and Brutes, you're only choice is to run and hide, because the number of weapons you have in this game is absolutely zero. When you're in a dungeon, which is perhaps the scariest part of the game, and one at which I decided to stop playing for a couple of months, it's easy enough to find an empty cell or passage way to duck into, extinguish your light, and pray for the best, which means that it doesn't find you and your sanity holds. When you're in the middle of your brightly lit bedroom, you don't have the same option of looking for a dark corner, so it's time to find a closet and wait for the creepy monster encounter music, which like all the ambient parts of this game, is extremely well done, to end. Even then you'll want to be careful, slowly peaking around the corners, going past the broken down door, and so forth. Basically, always be on your guard, including looking for potential hiding spots, because you never know when an enemy is going to show up, or if the next door you open is going to contain one.

Perhaps my favorite monster, and easily one of the scariest portions of the game, involves water. You enter an area, make a sound like you have the world's worst headache, and what was a hallway packed with debris is suddenly a foot or two deep in water, with the splash-splash-splash of someone walking quickly approaching, except there's nothing there. I originally thought nothing of it, and continued in the water...until those same splashes came running towards me and proceeded to end my life. The solution to this area, for it is just a large puzzle, is to avoid the water at all costs, and try your platforming skills by jumping from object to object, or using other items to distract this creature as much as possible. It is particularly fond of body parts, which it devours with a particularly large amount of enthusiasm.

Sometimes the horror comes not from monsters, but the fear of being in a large open area with no means of hiding. It's kind of like the meadow from Bambi.
Though a time in which I attempted to flee from a Grunt is perhaps more telling. I ran into this monster when I quickly entered a large rectangular room on one of the short sides, with the passage way I needed to exit out directly opposite me, and a half wall that split most of the room down the middle, length ways. The Grunt, being on one side of the wall and I on the other, did not seem like he was stumbling towards me too quickly, and I figured it would be possible to simply out run him. All I had to do was follow that corridor, though it was quite a long ways to the door that led out of the zone, and I would be free and clear, as monsters don't zone over with you. My roommate was watching me the entire time, and asked if I thought I would make it, to which I, in a bout of cockiness, harnessed some of my skills from other games and jumped while pivoting 180 degrees in the air, to maintain momentum in the way I had been traveling while allowing me to look behind me, and then quickly turned back before I hit the ground. In the short time I was looking behind me, the monster went from being about 10 feet away to getting so close he was able to attack, dealing quite a bit of damage. The realization that he was so close startled both my roommate and I, and it was decided I shouldn't do anything else but run flat out. That method actually worked, until I was coming around the corner before the last room, which contained the door I needed to escape, and walked right into the swing of yet another grunt, and promptly died. My heart was hammering quite good by then, at which point I turned to my roommate and stated "I don't want to play this game anymore."

I tried to run from this guy too when I walked around a corner without looking later, and it ended about just as well.
That is, in many ways, the beauty of this game, the psychological pressure as you hide, as you make every step a careful one, because you don't have any way of stopping it. It is unnerving how vulnerable I feel without a weapon, thinking particularly of a firearm, present, and perhaps that's a commentary on the connection between guns and overconfidence that carries over into the real world, based on the misinformed notion set forth in Hollywood depictions of heroism, reinforced by modern day shooters that would have us believe one man is capable of taking on the entire Russian army, surviving the zombie apocalypse, or repelling an alien invasion. But then again that is a key component of the game - any weapon, any means with which to defend yourself from the horrid beasts that call the castle at Brennenburg home, would defeat the fear they inspire as you make the dark descent to find Alexander. Perhaps too it is a reminder of our mortality, and, in an age where video games as a medium are criticized for inspiring violence, a counterbalance that seeks to reveal the falseness of that bravado those other games might foster. Thusly, it seems that Amnesia has disarmed me, both within the game, and without. Or, put in far less philosophical terms, is a damn scary game where you've got no way to fight the monsters.

There are plenty of people who won't find this game frightening, but I sure as heck wasn't one of them. For the first half of the game I couldn't bring myself to play more than 15 to 30 minutes before the anxiety was a bit too much, because in general it's not fun having to be paranoid. I took a multimonth hiatus from the game right in the middle, and by the time I came back I was able to do much better, finishing the last four hours or so over two sessions. Either I had gained some more resolve during that break, or after surviving what that game had already thrown at me earlier, there just wasn't much more to be frightened off, at least in terms of the monsters that chase you, because the more I learned about those other monsters through notes and journal entries, the true monsters in this story, the more I realized that those grunts weren't necessarily the worst of it. So if you think you can handle this game, get it at $10 or more and expect 8+ hours of, well enjoyment isn't necessarily the right word, so I'll just call it a wonderful lesson in the power of video games to make you feel, even if it's just paranoia and fear - 10 out of 10.

So, the final breakdown:
Score: 10/10
Suggested Price: $10+

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