Pass a series of psych tests in a bid for your freedom.
PC Release: April 12, 2011
By Ian Coppock
Last night I had a dream that I was once again living in my old college dorm, a structure that will fall apart the day a butterfly glances at it the wrong way. Few horror settings are more fitting than a freshman dorm, and in my dream, my roommates contracted a strain of influenza that turned them into pus-riddled freaks. By day, they were fine, but by night, I had to lay in bed listening to their scratches on my door. I woke up with a smile on my face and immediately began writing a review for this game.
What’s that? I’m desensitized? YOU’RE desensitized! I don’t have a problem, I can quit horror whenever I want!
Justine is not some spontaneous third installment in the Amnesia series. It’s actually a DLC for the original Amnesia: The Dark Descent, set in the same universe but with a new story and setting. It was somewhat cathartic to return to the game world of the first Amnesia after the agonizing love/hate relationship I developed for Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs.
Justine is set in 1858, in a kinky murder dungeon/insane asylum beneath the streets of Paris. You, a young French woman, are awoken by a cheerful gramophone recording made by another woman named Justine. She tells you that you’re a little off your rocker, and that if you can pass the psych exams set before you, you’ll be allowed to leave. Sounds simple enough, right?
The Dark Descent was not as simple as descending into darkness and A Machine for Pigs was not as simple as dicing up bacon, so I immediately suspected there to be more to these psych tests than simply passing them.
My suspicions were confirmed when a naked, eyeless man shuffled in front of my cell door and asked “is that you, my love?”
It was with no small trepidation that I guided the world’s most unfortunate woman out of her cell and into the tests. Each of Justine‘s three areas comprises a human captive, a puzzle, and a locked door. You have a few options for passing the test; the high road is to take the time and effort to solve the puzzle, while avoiding the monsters, and get through the exit that way.
Justine offers a more chilling alternative, though: you can simply kill the hostage in each area, and the door will open, sparing you the time needed to solve the puzzle and the risk of getting your face raked off by Monsieurs le Terrifyique.
That was Frenchist, I apologize.
Amnesia‘s hallmark atmosphere of oppression comes to new life in this DLC. Everything the game throws at you is a whisper urging you to simply kill the hostage and minimize risk to yourself. The puzzles in each of the three areas are hard; certainly more so than the simplistic challenges in Machine for Pigs and even the more elaborate ones in The Dark Descent. I appreciated them for rewarding conventional thinking, as in one case where you simply stack stuff to reach a ladder. More difficult challenges include reconstructing a slideshow and taking first place in the world’s screamiest obstacle course.
The one time this game encourages you to be compassionate is with the captives themselves. Each has been imprisoned by Justine for unspecified reasons, and it’s heavily implied that the three monsters you encounter were once her lovers or admirers. The hostages will plead for their lives even as the monsters draw near, creating a heartrending dilemma.
Core to Amnesia‘s tension and difficulty is the gameplay, the removal of which was my biggest gripe about Machine for Pigs. Justine features no lantern, health, or tinderboxes, stripping your stealth and progression capabilities down several notches. You can’t defend yourself, of course; your only means of self-preservation is to run and hide. Unlike in The Dark Descent, you don’t lose sanity by hiding in the dark, but you’ll begin to lose your marbles if you stare at the monsters or witness disturbing events, like the slow deaths of the hostages.
The environment of Justine is balanced to accommodate the lack of resources, but even this couldn’t compare to the most damning of all this DLC’s challenges: permanent death. Yep. If you die, you have to start Justine all over again. The terror of this knowledge adds much to the game’s horror, but it becomes a problem in the third and last puzzle, which is difficult and requires much trial and error. Indeed, that challenging puzzle combined with permanent death is the reason I haven’t even finished this DLC, much less reviewed it, until the last few weeks. And I’ve had Amnesia in my Steam library for a long time.
Though permanent death is an intimidating feature, don’t let it sway you away from Justine. This DLC is hard, but not impossible. Reading into the clues you find and using the environment around you will guide you to victory, as will hiding from the monsters, of course.
I’ve gone over pretty much all there is to the story of Amnesia: Justine. The DLC is even vaguer in its narrative than The Dark Descent. You’ll find clues in letters and documents scattered about the place, but don’t expect a complete treatise on every last detail. All you have to work with are implications; it’s heavily implied that the three human hostages and the three… less human… monsters are tied heavily to Justine. And who is Justine? Who is this femme fatale of a psychologist speaking from gramophones? What is her interest in your character? Why is she not watching your progress in this asylum dungeon? Or is she?
On top of all that, there’s your situation to figure out. You’re an anonymous woman, trapped in this dungeon with psychopaths and hostages. How did you get here, and, quite classically of the Amnesia series, why can’t you remember anything about yourself? There are clues to this conundrum as well, scattered throughout the cells. The oppressive atmosphere urging you to kill the hostages, combined with these scatterings, gave Justine a horror climate all its own while feeling truly Amnesia, something that I quite missed in Machine for Pigs.
The graphics and artwork of Justine are, unsurprisingly, little changed from The Dark Descent‘s base game. The DLC reuses most of the game’s assets, though a few new models and objects are added, including slideshow projectors, torture tools and the monsters themselves.
Justine‘s voice acting is excellent, in many ways exceeding that of the original game. What might surprise you is that the monsters in this game, being severely mutilated humans rather than undead freaks, talk. Each of the three has their own personality, voice, and dialogue. I hated the damn things and ran as far away from them as possible, and was yet compelled to remain behind and listen to their ramblings. Similarly to Half-Life, listening to this dialogue adds more to the vague central plot.
A few new musical items were added to the mix as well. The monsters have a new theme resembling an accordion getting tortured (quite appropriate for the French setting), and the tracks continue the mournful, depressing, delicious traditions of the first Amnesia. The level design is, of course, on par with the original game.
Amensia: Justine is included for free with a copy of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, a game that anyone who knows me even half-well will know I recommend zealously. It’s one of those neat little free novelties, an experimental chocolate alongside the Christmas candy mix. If you loved The Dark Descent, Justine very naturally picks up where that game left off in terms of design, and tries out some new things. It’s worth a shot for any horror fan.
You can buy Amnesia: The Dark Descent here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.