Amnesia: the Dark Descent

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Pursue a madman into the depths of a monster-infested castle.
 
Release: September 8, 2010

By Ian Coppock

Too many are the horror games that coddle us. Much as I love the Dead Space series, most of the scares are muted by the reassurance of overpowered weapons. The Resident Evil series has long stopped pretending to be a horror franchise, and Silent Hill? The buck stopped years ago at its second installment. Games that pit a well-armed intruder against monsters aren’t scary so much as startling. Amnesia: The Dark Descent knows this, and avoids this, and in doing so is a horror masterpiece. It is my fifth favorite game of all time. Not only is it actually scary; it’s the most terrifying game I’ve ever played.
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Like everything else about it, Amnesia‘s narrative is disorienting, scary and mysterious. The game is set in 1839. You are Daniel, a young British man who wakes up in a remote castle. All he can remember is his name.
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After several minutes of exploring creaking hallways and abandoned rooms, Daniel finds a note written to himself. It explains that his former self drank an amnesia-inducing potion, though it doesn’t specify why. The note also urges Daniel to kill Alexander of Brennenberg, the German noble who owns the castle.
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Daniel finds the note to himself shortly after waking up. My mind immediately began brewing with questions. Why did Daniel erase his own memory? Why kill the German baron? Why is he in this goddamn creepy castle in the first place?
In addition to this chilling directive, the note adds that Daniel is being pursued by some kind of terrible creature. It can’t be physically perceived or mortally wounded, and thus far, the only solution former Daniel found for dealing with it was to run, run, run his ass away. The Shadow, as former Daniel called it, is an invisible, seemingly omnipresent being that is pursuing Daniel for reasons unknown.
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The Shadow is a terrifying foe. It cannot be fought or even seen, but it leaves behind a meaty, bloody residue wherever it goes. Throughout the game, it startles Daniel by roaring at him and will sometimes impede his progress.
With the Shadow blocking all exits, Daniel has little choice but to hunt for Alexander and hope that a solution presents itself. He begins exploring the castle, visiting lavishly furnished rooms and wings in search of a way down.
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As Daniel solves puzzles and explores the castle, you get the sensation that the Shadow isn’t the only thing after him. Distant growls, creaking floorboards and sudden crashes gave the impression that I had more to worry about than just an invisible, all-present spirit-thingy. I started catching glimpses of strange people limping in the halls.
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Woah, what is that? Should I say hi?
As the game progresses and you get deeper into the castle, these creatures are revealed to be horrifically mutilated monsters. And they’re searching for you.
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OH MY GOD!!! WHAT THE HELL IS THAT THING!?!?!?! GAH RUNRUNRUNRUNRUNRUN RUUUUN!!!!!
Though the monsters are certainly scary enough on their own, what makes Amnesia truly terrifying is the limitations it puts on your character. Daniel has no means of self-defense. No plasma cutters, no machine guns, not even a kitchen knife. Your only means of surviving the monsters are to run and hide, and hope they don’t find you. Daniel can hide behind objects and inside cupboards. Of course, you can also run like hell and hope for the best.
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Ohgodohgodohgod… please don’t look inside… please don’t find me… (sobs)
Unfortunately, staying alive isn’t as simple as hiding. In addition to Daniel’s health, players must also manage his sanity. Daniel has a crippling fear of the darkness and loses sanity if he stays in shadows for too long. He also loses sanity from looking at the mutilated creatures pursuing him, or from witnessing disturbing events and sights, like a pile of dead bodies or a pool of blood. As Daniel loses sanity, the visuals on your screen begin to look hazy and blurry. Daniel also suffers terrifying hallucinations, like hanging corpses, swarms of cockroaches and deformed artworks.
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When Daniel’s sanity is high, this painting looks normal. On low sanity? Not so much.
Daniel has a lantern and tinderboxes for lighting candles, but tinderboxes are rare and your lantern runs down oil quickly. Of course, being lit up like a cheery bonfire makes it really easy for monsters to spot you, creating a constant battle between keeping your sanity and keeping your body parts.
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Daniel regains sanity by progressing through the game. In addition to avoiding monsters, players must solve puzzles, some of them quite complex, in order to make progress. Throughout the game, Daniel must mix chemicals, fix machinery and read books, among other things, to get closer and closer to his target.
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The puzzles in this game are challenging and fun. Sometimes the pressure ramps up when you have to solve them while avoiding a monster. Don’t worry; the game gives out English subtitles when you scroll over a Latin nameplate.
As Daniel fixes, eludes and lights his way to Alexander, he finds pages from his diary and begins piecing together the events that brought him to Castle Brennenberg. It is revealed that Daniel is a junior archaeologist from London, who took an expedition to an ancient African tomb in the months before Amnesia. Within, Daniel found a strange, glowing orb.
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After finding the orb, everyone Daniel came into contact with got brutally murdered, as if flayed to pieces by a psychopath. Desperate, Daniel steals his mentor’s address book and writes letters all over Europe asking for help. He can’t help but feel the orb has something to do with the deaths. He gets an immediate reply from Alexander of Brennenberg, a German noble who promises protection.
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Amnesia isn’t just a mindless scare-fest. It has a rich and detailed story worthy of Stephen King.

Daniel also starts to unravel the truth about Alexander, and learns that it’s tied up with the reason he drank the amnesia potion. Alexander poses as a charming noble, but it becomes clear that there’s something more, something monstrous, behind the facade. The orb is part of a greater mission that the baron wishes to undertake.

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It’s hinted that Daniel was present, even implicit, in this mission, and now his past self wants Daniel to kill Alexander. Daniel can only find the entire truth by descending deeper into the castle, caught between the pursuit of the Shadow and the minions of Alexander.

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The Artwork
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Amnesia was developed by an independent studio with limited resources, so the graphics aren’t great. They’re certainly good enough, but certain areas had noticeable lacks of detail. I was usually too busy running away from monsters to notice, though.
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Amnesia is nothing if not creative with the macabre.
Most of the environments in this game, though, are wonderfully detailed. You explore archives laden with books, maps and other colorful materials, as well as laboratories, wine cellars and lavishly-furnished living spaces. Though some of these areas are inhabited by monsters, that didn’t reduce their visual value for me.
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That’s quite a lovely parlor- hello random rockslide, happy you could join us.
Of course, just as some areas are rich with 19th-century furnishings and decorations, everything reinforces the feeling of fear, subtly or not.
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Oh well that’s just upsetting.
The real gem of Amnesia‘s artwork is its sound design. The team at Frictional Games deserves medals for creating rich, incredibly detailed sounds. Doors creak so creakily that I wondered if they were the creakiest doors of all. Everything from the sound of Daniel taking out his lantern to sorting through books was so crisp and… just… I don’t know how to describe them, they were rich sounds.
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Let me think… you know how on certain games, the guns just sound good? The shots and the reloads are satisfying in the same way as a beat in your favorite song? That feeling of satisfaction is what I got from Amnesia‘s sounds. The voice acting was excellent, the dialogue was well-written, and the sound effects ambient and otherwise were quite effective at drawing me in. The game’s score is similarly well-done.
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The music in this game is fitting for every situation. When Frictional was conducting the monster music, I’m pretty sure they tasered the entire violin section.
The game’s levels are also designed quite nicely. The layouts are relatively simple, but Frictional jumbled them up with lots of object arrangements, sights, sounds and the occasional monster. The game isn’t totally polished, but perhaps that adds to a horror game.
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To sum up, Amnesia is definitely the best horror game of the past few years. True horror comes from being alone and against incredible odds. That feeling of suspense is accented by a strong narrative, a strong reason to care, as well as the visuals, sights and sounds that freeze blood and commence the cries for mother. I seek horror experiences for that primal sensation of adrenaline, the challenge that comes from going up against the terrifying in a battle of wits and dry pants.
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If that line of logic doesn’t sound quite logical, just nod and smile.
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Should I get it?
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As much as I wish everyone could enjoy Amnesia, I know that a lot of people aren’t into crapping their pants and jumping out of their seats (weirdos). I can only recommend Amnesia for hardcore horror enthusiasts. Regardless of who you are and how many horror games you’ve played, you will get scared. You will jump. You will shout. You will cringe. But if you are a thrill seeker who loves the rush that comes from something scary, you will love Amnesia. If you’re interested in the story but not so much the gameplay, I’d recommend checking out the Amnesia wiki or some Let’s Players on Youtube. Amnesia: The Dark Descent is available on Steam for $20. You might also try your luck with a physical copy on Amazon.
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3 comments

    1. I didn’t have the proper hardware for a long time. Luckily, Amnesia games have lower requirements then polished triple-A games, though. Thanks for reading 😀

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