Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a survival horror game developed by Frictional Games who are also known for their work with the Penumbra series. You play a character named Daniel who awakens in the mysterious and foreboding halls of Brennenburg Castle with only a vague recollection of his past and how he got there. You are, however, left with the feeling that something is chasing you, and you’re propelled into the depths of the castle, guided by notes written to yourself that reveal pieces of information about how you came to this castle, the nature of the unfortunate circumstances which have been thrust upon you, along with a general sense of what you must do to escape this evil.
As you begin to unravel the dark secrets of the castle, the setting itself becomes contaminated with fleshy and acidic growth, as well as a variety of horribly misshapen monsters that walk along the halls and rooms of the castle. The most terrifying aspect of the game is that you are defenseless against the monsters that roam the castle, as much as I’ve tried to convince myself that throwing random crates and bottles will somehow hurt them. This kind of gameplay is effective at immersing you into the chilling atmosphere because of this overwhelming sense of vulnerability. In a one-on-one against any deformed inhabitant of the castle there is certain death, and instead of fighting you must rely on running around desperately, cowering behind various objects or enclosing yourself in a room with the hope that the monster will have give up on its pursuit.
This game was profoundly successful at scaring me simply because of the threat of the uncertainties ahead and anticipation of what could be behind every crevice and corner in the castle’s dark halls and disconcerting rooms. I dreaded every encounter I would have with a monster, and I continued forth through the game sheepishly and slowly even in areas where there were no monsters at all. Amnesia has the ability to make me ridiculously scared with the atmosphere alone, including the chilling voices and growls and escalating music that plays when you are spotted or being chased by a monster.
In addition to all of this, the game mechanics are physics-based, allowing you to interact with pulling and pushing doors and work with different objects to get past certain puzzles. This adds to a whole new layer of vulnerability that you feel since you control the stealth of your character based on how quickly and the extent to which you pull open a door, which can attract the attention of monsters if you open it brashly. Even yet, your ability to push and pull doors swiftly can be what determines whether you survive a perilous run from a monster. In general, I quite enjoy the touch of the game mechanics; there is more burden on you to be careful and aware of your surroundings, as well as being mindful of the effect you have on the surroundings. You aren’t simply experiencing the setting, you are interacting with it. Of course, there have been times where I’ve become frustrated with trying to push open a door that is meant to be pulled when danger is looming behind me, but it most certainly made the fear I felt more real and uncomfortable.
While you play and attempt to avoid encounters with monsters, you are also responsible for maintaining your sanity. Spending too much time in the darkness, or observing unsettling events such as staring at dead bodies or looking at monsters straight-on will drain your sanity. As your sanity reaches low levels, you begin to experience auditory and visual hallucinations that have the chance to capture the attention of monsters. Light is what allows you to restore your sanity. You carry around a lantern and find several tinderboxes and bottles of oil that keep your sanity intact. Throughout the game, you must face the conflict of whether to stay in the light and maintain your sanity at the cost of potentially being seen by monsters, or residing in the safety of the dark but at the cost of losing your sanity. It quickly becomes a matter of strategy to appropriately light certain corners and areas so that you can maintain your sanity while staying out of harm’s way.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent is incredibly crafty and inventive with its story, gameplay and setting. What presented itself as a simple concept of exploring a mysterious castle turns into so much more, inviting you to uncover dark secrets surrounding the castle’s inhabitants and the evil that is relentlessly pursuing you. This isn’t a game where you charge through the halls, using brute force to ensure your survival. This game is thoughtful and puts you in a more humble position, one where it is emphasized how vulnerable and human you are, where all your flaws and fears hinder you but in a way, make the story more engaging and, I suppose, real.
I mean sure, I could nitpick over certain details such as how dying in the game from a monster attack will place you a safe distance away from the monster so that you are not really ever punished for dying in the game. The puzzles aren’t particularly hard either and set distinctly apart from the areas where you have a chance to interact with monsters which inevitably made these parts less scary, which I don’t have any particular qualms about but others might. The story itself is intriguing but you collect many lengthy letters that are optional to read which sometimes can become a bit tedious if you are anything like me and find it imperative to read and absorb every part of the narrative I possibly can.
If you are looking for a good scare, a pretty impressive creepy atmosphere and interesting narrative, I recommend you turn off the lights, put on some headphones with maximum volume on and enjoy the frightening survival horror game experience that is Amnesia: The Dark Descent.