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Amnesia: The Dark Descent (PC) artwork

Amnesia: The Dark Descent (PC) review


"Be very afraid of the dark"


Amnesia: The Dark Descent (PC) image

A casual onlooker may dismiss Amnesia: The Dark Descent as one of many tiresome haunted house simulators offered on Steam. They would see the promise of yet another experience where a man enters a dusty, old building, rummages for items and slinks into the darkness to avoid the killing grasp of a sinister entity. I can't say I blame them, honestly. Horror sub-genres sometimes receive judgments based on their endless stacks of lesser works, and more effective examples of that category become associated with those titles. Though "Jaws" is a classic, it's sometimes shuffled in with the likes of more laughable creature features like "Slugs." Such is Amnesia's lot, though (like "Jaws") it doesn't deserve it...

In Amnesia's case, developer Frictional fleshed out an entire, tremendous location and breathed ghastly life into it. It's an immersive title that does more than force you through old corridors, pelt you with jump scares or barrage you with poorly translated messages. It terrorizes more than horrifies, building mood more often than shocking you.

In Amnesia, every step you take taunts you. Our hero, Daniel, awakens in a Prussian castle with no recollection of how he got there. He creeps through pitch black hallways and dark chambers, trying to remain hidden from the beady eyes of monsters that stalk the fortress. While Daniel stays in the darkness, he loses increments of his precious sanity. His senses eventually fail him, and disembodied whispers cry out from the void. Daniel's anxiety intensifies, and the world around him seems to shift. As the last of his sanity drips away, his brisk walk slows to a gentle plod while the screen drunkenly wobbles and stretches. He stumbles, makes noise, crashes and sometimes attracts unwanted attention...

Amnesia: The Dark Descent (PC) image

Daniel fortunately has a way to rest his mind, thanks to tinderboxes he finds throughout the castle. These allow him to light torches and lanterns that not only stave off insanity, but repair his damaged psyche. Sometimes, though, you can't find a torch to light, and need to rely on your portable oil lamp. You just have to remember to ration your oil, because it's not an unlimited resource.

As with anything in a well-concocted horror piece, that which is rewarding can also be damning. Sometimes your lamp acts as a beacon. You tiptoe down a walkway and think that you're safe, until you spin around and bump into a deformed Gatherer. At that point, you have an important decision to make: hold still and hope your death is quick or run like hell and scream....

Gatherers may seem clever, but they're not immune to classic trickery. If you run far enough away and duck behind barrels or lock yourself in a room, one might give up and go away. Might... Sometimes they get wise to your schemes and find you. Other times, they charge relentlessly at you, forcing you to sprint until you reach the entrance of the next wing of the castle. Conveniently, you bump into most of the game's closed doors during these chases, which require you to click and hold the 'left mouse button' and essentially "drag" the door open.... all while a slobbering beast is right on your tail. Some doors only open outward, and can't go through your body. So you need to let go of the knob and take a step back before pulling them open. Just pray that your assailant doesn't catch up to you in the meantime...

Amnesia: The Dark Descent (PC) image

You can imagine, then, the kind of tension these mechanics build during a scene when you've got a hungry, invisible monster splashing through knee-deep water mere feet behind you. I don't think my heart ever pounded so hard in any other horror game as it did while I struggled to open a door in this flooded sector of the castle and the sound of heavy splashes drew ever closer and closer...

The grotesque partnership between the Gatherers and insanity is part of what makes Amnesia so terrifying. At times you'll wonder if the groan you just heard is a Gatherer brute that has sniffed you out or a terrible trick played by your mind. Gatherers are not everywhere, after all, and their intermittent presence can sometimes instill in you a sense of false security. For instance, I recall one occasion in my playthrough in which I figured I had a clear shot to my next destination, so I ran about the neighboring rooms and made as much noise as I pleased, and I only stopped because I ran headlong into a Gatherer who heard my mischief. Other times, I traipsed carefully in the darkness because I swore that I heard something open a door in the distance. Chances are good I was just being a weenie.

If Amnesia only consisted of pressing 'W' and 'left shift', then it would have been more appropriately named Slender. Thankfully, the developers at Frictional brought along their puzzle-designing savvy when programming this adventure. Many of the game's puzzles are as clever as you'd expect from Frictional, like one that involves repairing a downed elevator. This task sends you into a machine room to deal with steam pressure, igniting furnaces and resetting misplaced cogs. Unfortunately, most of the game's areas consist of maybe one or two major puzzles, with the surrounding rooms and hallways offering event items to aid in overcoming that challenge. In other words, each portion of the castle is there to hold an item hostage, creating a the impression that these sections are merely filler.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent (PC) image

That might be the case were Amnesia not a horror game. Of course, a ridiculous number of corridors and avenues crop up to put you in a constant state of alert. Moreover, if you've played your share of frightening titles, then you know that interacting with certain items and advancing the campaign usually triggers an event. Here, you nab a necessary goodie from a desk and hear sharp raps upon a door, as if something is trying to break it down. That's when you hear a snarl in an adjacent room and footsteps approaching your location. Again, you need to decide: hide in the closet and hope the killer doesn't open the doors or try to push past the oncoming beast...

After my first substantial session with Amnesia: The Dark Descent, I didn't want to walk through my dark house to go to bed. I wanted to stay where the light shined, down in my family room. Then I remembered that light attracts Gatherers, which made me want to walk through the darkness... but I was too terrified to do so, and therefore wanted to stay in the light... which is where the Gatherers would find me, so.... You can see what the kind of madness a game like this can spin. Conventionally speaking, Amnesia is your standard haunted house simulator that sometimes offers the occasional puzzle. However, it stands out among the droves of "me-toos" it inspired, partly because it constantly gives you a choice between two problematic options and forces you to utilize them to survive. Mostly, though, it's an immersive and deeply horrifying experience that fans of the first-person horror genre definitely should check out.

4.5/5

JoeTheDestroyer's avatar
Staff review by Joseph Shaffer (November 12, 2018)

Rumor has it that Joe is not actually a man, but a machine that likes video games, horror movies, and long walks on the beach. His/Its first contribution to HonestGamers was a review of Breath of Fire III.

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