"I'd rather eat some bacon."
In this generation of consoles and gaming, horror games have taken a backseat -- hell, they're in the trunk. There aren't many offerings on each of the systems and re-releases of older games do not count. Some horror game series' like Silent Hill have declined sharply in quality and sales since the PS2 games and Resident Evil which sort of underwent a type of identity crisis after Resident Evil 4 hasn't really been able to deliver on a proper horror experience. That and with the current landscape of the gaming industry, horror games probably don't appear to be that lucrative to most big time publishers, they're kind of exclusive in nature. Some people just don't have the stomach or patience for those types of games.
We've had a pleasant surprise in the Dead Space series up until its third entry before it kind of lost its way like Resident Evil did. We've gotten very few new horror games on the consoles unless you count Dead Rising and Left 4 Dead. Luckily for those of us who game on PCs the horror genre has had a kind of resurgence thanks to the booming Indie scene on the PC and Steam.
It's not all great but the standout release that gives most people hope for this genre still yet was Amnesia The Dark Descent. It was a great horror game, easily the best that I've played this generation. It was different enough from most of the well known horror games while still keeping in the spirit of things in some ways with it's design. When I heard there was going to be an Amnesia sequel called A Machine for Pigs, I, of course, was excited. It was one of my most looked forward to games for 2013...and then I beat the game...
I am greatly disappointed.
Perhaps an examination is in order...
You start the game waking up in a dark room and you have no idea where you are or what's going on. That's how the original Amnesia starts, and actually that's how a lot of other games have started in the past. It's a videogame and general storytelling trope but this is what drove the player and the plot forward in the original game because you just start the game and know nothing at all, and The Chinese Room was banking on that same idea for this one. That's fine and there's nothing wrong with that, it's totally what I expected from the game. What I didn't expect was the complete lack of interactivity and the completely stripped down “gameplay” that this game offers.
I know some people didn't enjoy the survival aspect of The Dark Descent but to be fair I think most of those people probably never liked Survival Horror games to begin with. Inventory management can be an integral part of the overall experience. If you've never thought about it this much before, let me put it this way: When you start to run out of something, you start to worry. It's as simple as that; it can be ammunition, health items, save items, anything. This goes back to the earliest days of gaming, to running out of lives. It adds tension and investment to what you're doing. It creates stakes within the game, you don't want to die or lose.
I do realize that in The Dark Descent and even the Penumbra games that death had little impact and there wasn't much of a punishment for that other than maybe putting you a ways back from whence you came. That's not really the point; the point is that the layers of inventory management and general vulnerability of your character make the player more vulnerable to the game, it's tricks, and it's atmosphere...at least that's my opinion. You become more engrossed in what's going on because you realize you're not so readily equipped to deal with what lies ahead and if the game is written the right way you don't exactly know what lies ahead and in the back of your mind that will bother you as well. Most games, especially in the more modern sense, focus on empowering the player. Most gamers are used to these feelings of supreme confidence and control that they have in their abilities that they can use to affect the environment of the game and they almost always know what is going on because there is either little to no plot or it's basic and everything is laid out before them.
Most people, I think, don't like playing these games where you have little control over your situation in the game, and your character's abilities are diminished and that you don't have that great of an idea of what's going on. It frustrates the general gaming audience. That's why the Survival Horror genre has become more niche since the PS2/X-Box/Gamecube generation aside from the fact that game budgets have ballooned. The audience that enjoys this type of stuff has never been that significant, even the earlier days of the genre if you compare the sales of these great games like Silent Hill or Fatal Frame, they don't compare to the numbers of a lot of other games from their time. Resident Evil will always be kind of an exception to this rule though as it's a completely different flavor of the Horror genre in gaming.
It's best to compare this to film. There's a larger audience of people who enjoy Horror moves like Hostel, Friday the 13th and things of that nature (Resident Evil) rather than movies like Jacob's Ladder, or John Carpenter's The Thing (Silent Hill). With all that being said, I know I've made some generalizations. Not all games need an emphasis on survival elements or exceptionally less skilled or vulnerable characters. I was just trying to make a point about how the Survival Horror genre has generally worked since it's inception, and the appeal that these games have to their fanbase. And with THAT being said...
The point I was making with all this in relation to A Machine for Pigs and The Dark Descent is this; The Dark Descent seemingly kicked off a potential series of Horror games that, while places more emphasis on storytelling and atmosphere is still very much steeped in a traditional survival horror type of gameplay and design. With the sequel, or follow up to this game the development team probably should have put more thought into changing a lot of the gameplay elements and mechanics of a game that's called Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs and that if they were going to subtract elements synonymous with the Amnesia title they should have added things as well. This probably would've worked out better than simply making a more oppressive feeling, distant Dear Esther sequel.
Where were we? I forget...
Bringing this back into focus on the gameplay, things have been lost in this sequel. It's the main complaint with this game that people have and I share the sentiment. One of the things that I don't see get mentioned a whole lot is the lack of exploration compared to The Dark Descent. Before I get into this, I'm not one of those people that hates linearity, I find that I'm actually more of a fan of the structure that linearity offers rather than complete, open world freedom because I tend to feel more aimless when playing games designed that way. However A Machine for Pigs is one of the most linear games that I've ever played, and it's to that degree that irritates me.
Don't get me wrong, The Dark Descent is a pretty linear game as well, but the difference here is that it disguises it well. The game would work more like how Super Mario 64 would. You would enter a new hub area and you had to make your way through the several sub areas in order to progress the game, the story, and get to the next hub area. It didn't really matter in which order you explored these areas either, in the end you'd find what you needed to progress.
A Machine for Pigs forgoes that idea and instead has you progress on one of the straightest of lines that I can remember in recent history. No illusion, no choice, just keep moving forward. The funny thing is that in the game's story they basically try to write in an excuse for this as if to cover their bases so that this design decision actually makes perfect sense with an airtight alibi. It's actually pretty silly, and when you think about it a real missed opportunity with the game.
More than half of the doors, desks and dressers that you find strewn about through the game are locked and have these big metal plated lock mechanisms on them. You never gain the means to open any of these, nor are you asked to do it at least once. This kind of calls back to an annoyance that some people have with earlier games where your environment is really limited, like you see dozens of doors and the locks are all broken or rusted shut except for one. At least this time they gave you a visible sign that the doors are inaccessible I suppose.
There are some puzzles in this game, if you want to call them that. I wouldn't. They're pretty much all like this; I need a thing, oh, it's in the next room, now it's fixed. Of course this is what everybody has to do to keep puzzles in their game because this was created for a more general audience if you consider the differences between this game and the last one. Like I said before, general audiences probably won't even like this game or hear about it. So dumbing down the puzzles to a point to where there aren't any was just an exercise in futility.
Another thing that wasn't really executed that great were the monsters. It was revealed before the game even came out what these things basically were, they were some kind of pig monster, so I'll just leave it at that and not get into the physical description. I do think their physical appearance isn't as disturbing as the enemies in The Dark Descent, the Suitors from the Justine add-on, or even the things from Penumbra: The Black Plague. Part of the problem is that they're not as frightening due to a lack of the sanity mechanic. You can look at these things dead in the face and nothing bad will happen other than you might get hit.
It added something to The Dark Descent's enemies when you knew that just looking at them would effect your character negatively. A Machine for Pigs even has a part in the game where you're allowed to observe the monsters without any kind of consequence, and as you observe them they're not really all that scary. These pig monsters are also not as intelligent as the monsters in The Dark Descent nor do they wander around and try to find you. They can't break down doors or bust up objects either while searching for you, so a lot of the tension that was built from hiding is gone as well. One other thing that's messed up with the pig monsters is that they have an incredibly obvious tell for when they're about to appear.
Whenever it's time for them to show up you hear a very loud pig squeal and they'll be there, without fail. There aren't really any surprises with them, your lantern will even flicker if they're close giving you an obvious hint of their location if you can't see them. It's made too easy and a lot of the tension the monsters generated in the previous game is lost. The worst part about these monsters if that you don't even encounter them for half the game. You're pretty much left on your own until the halfway point, that's a pretty odd design choice that makes the game fairly dry in the early going.
The one other issue that would fall into gameplay is the overall lack of choice and alternate endings. In The Dark Descent you had a handful of endings you could experience and a choice you could make that could ultimately affect the overall ending. In A Machine for Pigs you don't have any agency in that regard, it's especially irritating because there's a certain point a little over halfway through the game where it feels like having at least one branching path based on your decision would make a lot of sense and offer up a little more replay value for the game. There are even other opportunities for this later but the Chinese Room didn't see it that way I guess.
Lovecraftian shlock? If only it were...
This is what I really felt like I had to get out when writing this review. When I see other reviews of this game, most people just wave away any kind of real detriments the game has with the praise of the story. Everybody says the story is well written, interesting and that this puts the game well above all the others in the genre and somehow that seems to make up for everything that is lost. Unfortunately I can't get into the details of the story due to spoilers. Instead I'll try to just do broad strokes here and discuss a few moments that aren't really spoiler material.
The plot of the game goes like so; you wake up in a dark room, and you don't know what's going on, suddenly you hear children. This propels the character Oswald Mandus forward and the player. These are Mandus' children apparently and he really wants to find them. Not a bad motivation to move the plot and player forward even if it has been done before (Silent Hill) but it works. From that point you're led on by somebody who seems to know what's going on, the sounds of the children move you further along as well.
As you go, you start to learn more about what's going on here and of a metaphor that the game CONTINUALLY drives into your head without mercy even up until the game's end. It's somewhat clever the first time it's revealed to you, somewhat. But, after you've heard the allusion for roughly 6 hours straight you're already beyond freaking tired of hearing about it and it's like the writer or writers were so proud of themselves that they came up with this idea that they tried shove this metaphor into the game's narrative as much as was humanly possible. So by the halfway point of the game the metaphor in question's novelty has already worn off, you're tired of hearing about it because you've figured out what they're talking about in hour one, this isn't hard. I'm not really asking for it to be hard either, but I just felt like the game's writing tipped it's hand very early on.
If you haven't figured it out by the halfway point you will once you encounter the game's enemies. As you get further in the game there are also some moments that have no explanation to their purpose or meaning. Of course not everything needs to be spelled out but this isn't Silent Hill we're talking about here, nothing is open to interpretation and there's no room for your mind to wander and draw your own conclusions. In Amnesia everything is generally explained for you over time. That's the whole idea of it, for you to progress and gradually figure out exactly what's going on.
These events though in particular are just out of place and are seemingly made up just to offer a shallow scare moment. One involves you finding a desk drawer full of broken glasses and sets of teeth. There is absolutely no explanation for why they're there, they just are. The placement of these objects is completely random and nonsensical when you consider all the environments you visit, people have argued when you read the notes it makes sense but I don't believe that at all. I played the whole game and found every note and none of them explain this. It's just there to mess with you.
Another involves you following a trail of toys in a pile of boxes. Suddenly the layout of the box tunnel has changed and now you're following more toys, then you find what is a possibly a couple of human hearts (I couldn't tell, I only saw them for a bit and the graphics weren't that detailed) and your vision blacks out. When your character comes to, your surroundings are back to normal and you have the item you need to continue. This kind of thing happens again near then end when you're going down a hallway and you see something, again you black out for a second and your surroundings have completely changed once again. Eventually you see this thing again and everything's back to normal and you're back to where you were when the episode began. No point in the scene at all, it's just there to confuse and mess with the player.
It just all seems silly in the face of so much praise heaped onto it's overly wordy writing and storytelling. They have a contrived explanation for the silliness of 80% of the doors and drawers being locked but didn't bother explain these events that can only be described as scares? Some people will probably say this is just nitpicking but for a game that's 6 hours tops with few events that do actually happen I don't really think that's the case.
Anyways, the writing also has a lot of problems with pacing. As I said the game's metaphor and one of its plot devices is tipped very early and it kind of ruins the whole concept like an annoying kid not simply letting something go. The real problem with the pacing is this, you reach a point to where the game could really end, and just like when this happens in a movie it puts a damper on the whole experience. The absolute worst part about this is that once you reach this point you know everything about the plot and you still have about an hour and a half or so of game to finish.
What happens in this moment all the tension in the game evaporates for multiple reasons, but primarily because this game's story wasn't paced correctly. There nothing really left unturned, you know most of the details. Since you know this, fear of the unknown is just completely out the window. I can't even discuss the ending, it's also a mess and completely devoid of choice, it also kind of makes the entire game feel somewhat pointless.
I'll end this segment of the review with this. In The Dark Descent, you were basically given a breadcrumb trail to follow in order to figure out what was happening. It was paced great, with every note and journal entry you found a little bit more of the plot would be revealed and a little more would make sense. I was genuinely surprised when I found the “twist” out. With this game, I predicted nearly the whole plot within hour one. Another thing was that any of the scares or events were explained. Even little touches like when your sanity went low, sometimes you could hear Daniel's (the first game's character) voice saying things. Sometimes it's unintelligible but sometimes you can hear it clear as day. These moments are basically some of his memories floating to the surface, sometimes they can be bewildering to hear but as you progress further in the game they make more sense. Neat little touches like this that are well thought out were part of what made The Dark Descent so great.
I'll get into the things I did like about this game now. Almost as much as I like bacon anyway. For one, the atmosphere was good up until the game's plot killed it. It's pretty oppressive and reminiscent of The Dark Descent and Silent Hill 2 to a very short extent (I almost feel dirty for even comparing this game to Silent Hill 2). The graphics are pretty good overall. I especially liked the earlier environments like the mansion and factory, I was disappointed that the game didn't let you stay in the mansion longer as I easily thought it was the best environment. The overall design of the areas is good but not as interesting or creepy as Brennenburg Castle.
Eventually a lot of the walls and color palettes become very samey, there's less clutter, and eventually it just boils down to unpainted concrete walls. Some of the lighting effects aren't that good. In some rooms you find these electric lamps that you can turn on, when they're on they don't offer a whole lot of light and if they're off it doesn't make a whole lot of difference with the room's lighting. Since there's no sanity and no survival mechanics, it kind of makes you wonder what the point was. Some mild comfort if you're scared, like a nightlight when you're a kid?
The thing I'll have the easiest time praising this game for is by far the sound. The music and sound effects are excellent. Whoever was responsible for the sound design for this game should get a promotion of some sort at The Chinese Room because this person was the only one who I really felt like was on his/her A game for this project. They used music in the game as an inventive way to build tension, and I'll remember that moment about this game fondly at least. All of the random sound effects in the background that consist of thuds and odd noises you'd hear at night, industrial sounds, guttural squeals it all fit together in a great way to build more tension. This is a part of the game that I don't mind comparing to any of the first three Silent Hill games.
In the end, is this game no better than a pig?
At first I was feeling pretty conflicted about this game, but after I finished it I had a deep feeling of disappointment. This game has probably disappointed me the most since Mass Effect 3. It doesn't really beat that level of disappointment but it's enough that I have to bring ME3 up. There were some things I liked about it, but just liking a majority of the graphics and sound doesn't make for a good game. On top of that, this game sets itself up to be more of a story driven type of game and results are mixed at best for what it set out to accomplish in my opinion.
The worst of all this is that it's the same price as The Dark Descent, it's half as long and is less than half of a game compared to it. You'll not want to go back and play it because there's no gameplay to get you invested in the world you inhabit in any sense of the word and the story is an inconsistent, laughable mess. A Machine for Pigs simply has little to no value as a game, even if it were on sale. You'd probably be better off buying the original game, the first two Penumbra games, or if you have The Dark Descent already, go find some good custom stories. I'm sure they're out there. In the end, this game is just a pale imitation of a sequel.
+ Pretty good graphics and level design.
+ Creepy and oppressive atmosphere...to a point.
+ Excellent sound design.
- For a sequel or follow up to a popular game, a lot was removed in the gameplay and nothing is added to make up for this. It just feels like a loss.
- The story has a lot of holes, pacing issues and just general silliness when it comes to justifying some of these changes.
- For a game designed to be primarily story driven, the story is a let down and there is little gameplay to speak of.
- Level design kind of peters out towards the end.
- The game feels like it pulls punches on scare moments, even with the ones that make little sense.
- The pig monsters are poorly designed in a lot of aspects, they too suffer from gameplay subtractions.
- There is no replay value in this game. With a weak story, and little to no gameplay to speak of it's just some pretty if sometimes bland environments with creepy sounds.
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