Genre: Action Publisher: Frictional Games Developer: Frictional Games Players: ?

By Lachlan (19th Oct 2010)

Frictional Game's latest offering throws you headlong into an occasionally terrifying world of fraying sanity and some of the niftiest puzzles this side of Monkey Island.

As a reviewer, there's always the idea bouncing around in the back of your head that your writing might reveal more about yourself than what it is you're actually writing about. What one person finds engaging, another finds completely uninteresting. What scares somebody induces a fit of the giggles in somebody else.

With that said, Amnesia: The Dark Descent has given me several of the most terrifying moments I've experienced playing any game since the original Doom. Sure, I've been startled and even shocked by the way games have unfolded in the past, but genuine terror? A game that induces the same feelings you get when your girlfriend gets behind the wheel is something new.

Frictional Games are probably best known as the developers of the Penumbra series. These titles placed you in a gloomy, sparsely populated world and tasked you with solving a series of physics-based puzzles. Although the limitations of the engine sometimes detracted from the atmosphere of dread, the Penumbra trilogy earned an audience thanks to some creative level design and a difficulty level that actually made you feel pretty smart once you figured something out. Although the action unfolded from a first-person perspective, opportunities for combat were almost non-existent - the best way to deal with the infrequent enemies that would appear was to run or hide.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent serves as a spiritual successor to Frictional’s earlier series. Inspired in part by the H.P. Lovecraft short story the Outsider, the game begins with the player character waking up on the stone floor of a castle, suffering from a bout of - you guessed it - amnesia. Piecing things together by way of diary entries, notes scrawled on scraps of paper and occasional flashback sequences, you soon learn that something very sinister is going on – something which you are to play a big part in.

Your interactions with the game world are reasonably limited. Some items can be picked up and thrown, others added to your inventory for later usage. Levers can be pulled, wheels turned, doors and desks opened as in real life. Running and hiding plays a big part in things too - the mere sight of one of the castle's well-realised shambling horrors will send you off for a spell in the nearest cupboard.

Enemies effect both your health and sanity. In the context of Amnesia's game world, the sanity mechanics are quite interesting. Spend too much time looking at enemies or scrabbling around in the dark, and your vision becomes increasingly blurred. Your character becomes more difficult to control, until finally little black bugs start to crawl across the screen. Candles and torches can be lit with tinderboxes located throughout each level, but these are a finite resource and must be used strategically. Lighting up an entire room could mean you have nowhere to hide when something evil shuffles your way.

The episodic nature of the Penumbra titles meant that pacing was a real issue. Just when it became clear where things were headed, things would come to a halt. While Amnesia is only marginally longer than any one of the earlier titles, it feels a lot more complete. The story grows darker and more disturbing as you venture deeper into the castle, and the puzzles grow more complex. Early levels have you conserving light sources, while later ones pit you against growing numbers of the inexorable enemy.

Amnesia is single-player only. The experience doesn't outstay it's welcome, although replayability may be an issue once you've solved all of the puzzles. There are several different endings on offer, but you'll probably want to shelve the game for a few months before going through it again just to see a different outcome.

Giving this game a score out of 10 feels slightly redundant. The designers haven't set out to compete with any traditional FPS games, so there's little to compare it to save Frictional's earlier efforts and maybe Portal. The graphics still have a certain indie sensibility to them, but they're streets ahead of even some mainstream titles. All in all, Amnesia seems like the game Frictional have been trying to create for years, and it would be a real pity for it to be ignored.

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Amnesia: The Dark Descent

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Amnesia: The Dark Descent (PC)
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