Alright, so full confession, the opening hours of this game took me three days to complete.
This is not one of those scenarios where another game journalist got stuck in the Cuphead tutorial or another Kotaku journalist complaining about difficulty in gaming. It did not have anything to do with difficulty at all, just a huge personal problem I had to overcome very quickly.
I first became aware of this game three days before it’s release because Jacob Geller (one of my favorite game journalist right now) liked a tweet from Frictional Games about the upcoming release of the title, with a shortened version of the trailer attached that did not make me think this game heavily focused on caves.
I had just finished playing Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs (play that game, it is beautiful) and it is the spookiest of seasons, so I thought, “that looks like a great time!” So, without doing any other research for the game, intent on going in pretty blind, I email my boss Matt and ask him if we have a review code for it, he quickly responds with the code from Frictional, the game takes 39 minutes to download and I am off on my journey.
Less than an hour later, my character goes into a cave and I can feel my heart rate skyrocket. I could only really stomach this first attempt for a few minutes before I had to switch over to Warzone for a while to clear my head and try and get my cool (only to get jump scared by a crate, love that for me).
Nearly three days and probably millions of choice adult words, later and I finished the opening cave segments. Of course, this game has much more intense and pulse-pounding moments, but these first few hours were particularly rough on my mental state and only had me more on edge for the rest of the experience, making everything in this game nightmare-inducing.
However, my childish fear of literally everything in this game did not stop this from being a great game, using great visuals, unsettling sound design, and high-intensity gameplay to tell an important and well-told story.
Important note: I will not be touching on the story in this review. Go into this game as blind as possible to the story, because learning the story is a large part of the experience. Just know that the story overall really great, if not a little cliche (a ton of great modern horror movies have a very similar theme) and slightly predictable (a few huge keys early, one of which made me groan in frustration with myself for overlooking the biggest clue).
Horror games are notorious for their great use of music and sounds, especially the titles in the Amnesia series. Amnesia: The Dark Descent used a very simple score that was still effective, if not a little disappointing. However, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs (again, play that game) had maybe the best score in gaming history thanks to the legendary Jessica Curry (the best composer in gaming, go play Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture).
However, Jessica Curry did not return for this title, and instead, Mikko Tarmia returns after being responsible for the score to the original Amnesia title and SOMA (the game that Frictional worked on between the first Amnesia title and this one). His minimalist style has progressed miles in the ten years since the initial Amnesia title, now focusing less on making noise to avoid silence, and focusing more on making sounds to highlight silence.
The drones and orchestral blasts are still there during specifically high-intensity moments, and he does have a few emotional pieces sprinkled throughout, but it is the sound, not the music, that make this game what it is.
Every noise feels meaningful and huge, from the bump and cracks of falling rocks to the whistle of blowing wind, to the unsettling oozy sound of lord knows what moving around you. These sounds become even more impactful in the silent moments when nothing is supposed to be moving and you’re supposed to be safe.
Fun story, once during one of these moments of silence, I took a moment to catch my breath and steady myself because I am a big baby. In this time, my dog suddenly barked at nothing (you know, dog things) which legitimately caused me to scream and nearly fall out of my chair.
When finding out about Jessica Curry not being brought on for this title, I was actually a little worried about this title, but I have never been more glad to be wrong.
The visuals are a much less storied situation, returning to the visual style that the Amnesia series has been using since 2010.
The environments in this game are unsettling and great, utilizing darkness and light in creative yet disturbing ways. The hallways and corridors often feel darker than black, while the light feels warm and safe but is often just a tool to create angry and scary shadows. Sunlight (or other forms of other non-player created light) are used to draw the player’s attention to a specific area or item, although admittedly this is inconsistent.
Every structure has obviously been researched in abundance and designed by someone with a love for architecture and art, while every interior is filled with objects that have been intricately designed and recreated. Almost every item in the game can be picked up, spun around, and examined closely. meaning every item also had to made with extreme attention to detail.
However, the visual quality drops significantly when we start looking at the core of the game and its main draw for casual audiences, the monsters.
Do not get me wrong, the monsters are creepy, and when they are moving in the shadows and visible only as silhouettes they gave me a few legitimate scares. Specifically the first monster you experience, who spends about two hours (this maybe a thirty minute ordeal, but I am a scared child who moved super slow, hid in rooms unnecessarily long, and then had no clue what to do) moving less then silently in the shadows, using the lights you illuminated in creative ways to scare you.
However, that does not make the monsters’ designs any less cliche, outdated, and unsatisfying. These are monsters you have seen in hundreds of different horror experiences, even if they go by different names. Creepy crawlers that use all fours to scurry along the ground and wall putting them in unexpected locations, zombie-esque humanoids that limp and moan after you through tight corridors, creatures somewhere between psychotic human and calculated monster. It is all a little played out before you even get close to the monsters.
Up close, the monsters are not scary, they are not well designed, and are just ugly, but not in an intended way. Sure, the fine details of the monsters probably are not something that most players are going to see, because normally when monsters show up, they’ll know to run and hide, not scream in terror and struggle to pick up some bags blocking the path before forgetting which door to go through. However, it does make deaths less scary and less impactful, especially when the fear and consequences of death have been significantly nerfed from earlier titles in the franchise.
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Frictional Games, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Horror
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