Amnesia: The Dark Descent Review

Perhaps what makes some games so compelling is their refusal to conform to what is typical of video games as we have come to know them. Frictional Games demonstrated this with the Penumbra series, and has done so once again with Amnesia: The Dark Descent, a slow-paced, deeply immersive, and maybe most importantly, highly disempowering horror title for the PC.

Using the second iteration of Frictional’s HPL Engine, Amnesia succeeds at fully absorbing the player in the experience. The game’s 19th-century environments and narrative are dense with nightmarish qualities that leave players lost, oppressed, and vulnerable, which in turn leads to a level of alertness that binds one’s presence inside the virtual world. Forced by the game engine to physically interact with that world, pushing and pulling doors, drawers, boulders, boards, barrels, and many other objects, players are further connected to their surroundings. The same can be said for the protagonist’s reliance on light in a place characterized by what sometimes feels like perpetual darkness… and torture.


The game’s narrative, which is somewhat murky and therefore gripping in its mystery, not only uses the well established connection between character amnesia and player ignorance to heighten the game’s suspense, but also endeavors to capture a more real horror than one would find in any tale of ghosts or zombies. The story revolves, in part, around its antagonist’s personal mission to extract the vitae (vitality, life force, essence) from victims of torture, using sustained terror and suffering — following kidnapping and imprisonment — as a means of catalysis for the demented procedures. Combined with this deeply self-serving and sociopathic exercise of power, the horror and danger of 19th-century scientific ignorance and “medical” experimentation comes alive in Amnesia. Elements of this fiction are not entirely beyond the realm of possibility.

The game’s other focus is on the embodied character, Daniel. Although he is not a silent protagonist, it is easy to project oneself over him during play. Not only does the player find himself behind Daniel’s eyes and manipulating his hands, but the character’s amnesia and subsequent discoveries of his own diary entries also manage to stitch the player into his mind, unifying the two and presenting the character as “self” to the player. Over the course of what is essentially a real-time first-person adventure, the player will reveal the truth behind the mystery of “himself” as well as his situation in Castle Brennenberg and why he awakens to a self-written note instructing him to kill the lord of the estate.

It is easy, then, to care for the well-being of this character, who walks a thin line between life and death just by wandering the castle. Like Frictional’s past efforts, Amnesia features no combat, but does include hideous beasts that roam some of the halls and can kill Daniel with a swipe of their grotesque, clawed hands or implanted machete blades. Prior to play, the game even warns the player to avoid confrontation, and this sense of powerlessness instills a persistent sense of fear throughout. Upon encountering an enemy, that steady fear spikes, eliciting a real flight response that will have players hiding in cabinets, crouching behind desks, and peeking around corners to see if the monster has vacated the area. It feels like a nightmare at these moments; fear is integral to the experience. In fact, much of the game has passed before the player ever even gets a good look at the things he’s terrified of. Just looking at the creatures fogs Daniel’s mind and drains his sanity, causing the screen to blur and in-game motions to be delayed. Likewise, witnessing unnatural events or horrifying images, or remaining shrouded in darkness for too long, will do the same. A lantern that quickly runs dry of oil, and the many tinderboxes Daniel collects in order to illuminate light sources along his path, become his primary defenses against losing his mind and against the player’s loss of full control and acute perception.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent

Recovering Daniel’s sanity is cleverly integrated into the natural flow of the game. In addition to remaining bathed in warm torch- and candlelight, simply making progress restores the character’s mental health. Thankfully, what gamers might call “puzzles” here are not the nonsensical, trial-and-error slogs that point-and-click adventure games are known for, but follow reasonable rules of logic and can be worked out just by thinking. This is not to say that they are overly simple, because the trickier sequences of item combination and implementation are indeed quite satisfying once worked out. This sensation, along with the mental rehabilitation associated with progress makes advancing through Amnesia rewarding on two separate levels.

If anything is wrong with Amnesia, it is the way the experience concludes. Even after watching three different endings, I never felt there was a clear resolution to the story and was left wanting more explanation and substance in each case. Taken as a whole, though, the unfolding narrative was entertaining and engaging. The only other issues also arise late in the game. A bit of questionable voice acting and the minor demystification of the game’s monsters both shallow the horror slightly.

I can’t say for sure whether Frictional Games has matched the achievement that was the company’s second game, Penumbra: Black Plague, but Amnesia: The Dark Descent most certainly reminds us how interactivity, perspective, and player disempowerment can be highly engaging, and that a slow creep of fear with abrupt spikes of terror is ultimately the essence of the horror experience.


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Author: Eddie Inzauto View all posts by
Eddie has been writing about games on the interwebz for over ten years. You can find him Editor-in-Chiefing around these parts, or talking nonsense on Twitter @eddieinzauto.

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