Each year in October, a ton of horror games pour out. Just like how AAA titles head for the Christmas holidays, the horror ones are trying to get to Halloween, which is a true gold mine for the genre. But very few of the projects released can be considered as genuine gems from recognized developers. Fortunately, 2020 is an exception as it features the return of Thomas Grip and his studio Frictional Games with the continuation of the Amnesia series.
It’s crazy to think that the original Amnesia: The Dark Descent turned 10 this year. Just when you thought that it came out very recently. I still remember how I was waiting for its release, since I’m a big fan of the Penumbra series – much more clumsy and cheap but incredibly atmospheric and spooky variations on a theme of Howard Philips Lovecraft novels – while Amnesia looked like a whole other level of quality. But at this point, no one could have imagined that it would be a core game of its era and would produce a tremendous number of imitators and had a significant impact on already familiar domains of streaming and let’s-plays.
If anyone doesn’t remember, the original story revolves around Daniel, a young man suffering from amnesia. He shows up at the Brennenburg Castle somewhere around Kenigsberg. He soon uncovers a letter that he wrote for himself. Daniel learns from the letter that he drank some potion to wipe all his terrible burdens away and now his objective is to kill Alexander of Brennenburg. However, in order to get to him, Daniel needs to come down into the very core of the castle, recalling past events in parallel. From here comes the title The Dark Descent.
Also, let’s not forget about Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs, a spin-off which partially recalled the events of the original game. This project by The Chinese Room was too focused on allegories and metaphors and therefore it was hard to perceive this game as part of the Amnesia universe.
The Story – Lovecraftian horror
This walk through the timeline was crucial since Amnesia: Rebirth is a sequel to the first game. Well, almost like a sequel. It’s 1937 and a group of Europeans go to Algeria, but their plane has crashed right in the middle of Sahara. The opening of the game is very reminiscent of BioShock. There, they meet something indescribable and hidden in the shadows. Concurrently, they discover the ruins of an ancient civilization, which was flourishing roughly in Pre-Roman Age. Those are the same ruins which Daniel and his mentor Professor Herbert studied in 1839.
You are put in the shoes of Anastasie Trianon, or simply Tasie. She is an architect who visits Africa along with her husband Salim during a work trip. The main heroine wakes up at the crash site and of course cannot remember where the other crew members have gone. As the story unfolds, we learn that her trip to Africa was an attempt to forget about a personal tragedy, which she tries to leave behind back in Paris. And all of this is closely entwined with psychopathological horrors of lovecraftian magnitude. Frictional Games once again managed to deliver a captivating narrative with truly scary and frustrating episodes.
The atmosphere of sticky horror in the context of desert heat, when your clothes cling to your body is simply amazing. It’s interesting that Lovecraft frequently referenced ancient sites and excavations nearby North Africa, but the developers for many years shied away from this unusual setting in favour of European Gothic of 19th century or old America prior to World War II.
And what’s really interesting is, if you look at the original game you can see that the developers actively pressed on Daniel’s childhood trauma, and in SOMA everything was about the idea to wake up in the distant future, failing to live out your life. Then in Amnesia: Rebirth, there is some discourse surrounding maternity. And for a number of reasons, usually games sidestep this issue; still, this is a sensitive matter with a certain amount of physiology. However, some scenes could look much more impressive if you are not familiar with Outlast II. But even so, Tasie’s story is striking a chord.
The Gameplay – Light is the Key
Of course, in terms of game design the game hasn’t come very far from SOMA. We still have to explore locations, read notes or diaries and sometimes hide from the monsters in the dark. For the record, the AI of the enemies didn’t really evolve since the original game, they are still clumsy and your winning strategy could be simply to run from them. If you want some smart monsters, better play Alien: Isolation.
But just like in the previous games, you have a fear of darkness that drives you crazy. Only now you can really restart from the last checkpoint with a little bit less sanity. If you recall the original Amnesia then you remember that the maximum level of fear wasn’t particularly effective, that was more of a psychological attack from the developers’ part. Roughly about the same level of the probability of saving a deletion in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.
The only substantial gameplay mechanic is related to the lighting system. As in the original game, you have a lantern, which could be refilled with oil and matches, with which you can light candles and torches. But now you can use your matches at any time to illuminate your path in the pitch-darkness. However they burn really fast, especially if you are running. With a little bit of luck with one match you can light 2 or 3 torches, oil lamps or candles. This is really helpful when it comes to puzzles, which are of course mainly located in dark caves, basements and hallways. It is worth noting that there’s not a lot of them, yet each one is different and is not devoid of elegance. I was really stuck only once or twice, when I was asked to attach wheels to a cannon and then push it down to smash through a rotted floor. The game failed to clearly communicate that goal and I spent dozens of minutes exploring a completely different location.
Graphics and Audio – Ocean of Sand
I was expecting some visuals innovations, but unfortunately there are no next-gen features such as ray-tracing. But however the graphics are still done well and the performance is solid.
Just like in the original game, its audio and sound design is overall outstanding. They manage to immerse you in a terrifying experience put into video game form and that’s probably the best that can be expected from a horror genre title. However, the character animations and design could have been done better.
Amnesia: Rebirth was reviewed on PC with a key provided by Evolve PR.