Amnesia: The Dark Descent review: In the mouth of madness

As children, our parents tell us not to be afraid of the dark. They say this not to provide us with a valuable life lesson, but to keep us quiet, so that they can sleep. What our parents neglect to say is that fear of the dark is, in fact, perfectly reasonable, because there are things in the dark. Things that want to kill and eat us. Granted, you won't find many such creatures in suburbia but, from a purely evolutionary standpoint, a healthy fear of the dark has helped humanity survive.

Most of us have forgotten what it's like to tremble in the dark, praying for the obscene, hungry beast to go away before your mind breaks. Amnesia: The Dark Descent is our reminder.
"Survival horror" has gotten a bit cloudy over the years. What began as an attempt to mix horror with video game tropes has generally strayed toward one or the other. Silent Hill tends to lean further toward horror, minimizing combat for the sake of atmosphere and suspense. Resident Evil, on the other hand, has firmly pushed in the opposite direction, arming its protagonists so heavily that the only thing to fear is an ill-timed reload. Amnesia: The Dark Descent, a project crafted primarily by a small team of five people, presents us with something altogether different and wholly terrifying.

Amnesia puts players in the role of Daniel, an Englishman who has traveled to Brennenburg Castle in 19th century Prussia. As the title suggests, Daniel has a case of amnesia. Awakening in the castle, the only clue to his affairs is a note from himself. The note makes a few things clear: Daniel's amnesia was purposefully self-inflicted, he is being followed by a shadow -- "a living nightmare - breaking down reality" -- and, finally, he must find Alexander of Brennenburg in the castle's Inner Sanctum and murder him. And so the tale begins, with Daniel spiraling ever downward in search of both Alexander and the truth of his involvement with him.

Presented in first person, Amnesia sends players into the deeps of castle Brennenburg, gathering notes of Daniel's past, solving puzzles and avoiding the things that lurk in the dark. All of the actions in Amnesia are set up to mimic real life. For example, to open a door, hold the left mouse button -- grab the handle, essentially -- and then pull or push the mouse, depending on which way the door swings. The same mechanic works for drawers and cabinets: Click, hold, pull. There are a few more ponderous actions, like turning cranks and wheels, which requires players to depress the left button and then move the mouse in a circular motion, as if actually turning the object.

It's an interesting concept, and one that usually helped immerse me in Amnesia's atmosphere. That said, there were a few times that the controls felt like they got in the way, namely when running from a monster and frantically trying to slam doors behind me to block its path. Immersion occasionally went out the window when I cursed my mouse for not spinning Daniel around fast enough. I can see the controls frustrating some players, though most of the time I felt it added another layer of realism to Daniel's actions as he fumbled around in the dark.


And it is dark. The interplay of light and dark play a heavy role in Amnesia, with Daniel's only sources of light confined to an oil lantern or tinder boxes that can light torches and candles. Of course, lanterns need oil to burn, and tinder boxes are in limited supply, so the choice of what light to use, and when to use it, becomes very important.

Light is about more than simply seeing where Daniel is going, too. You see, Brennenburg is an ... ominous place, to put it lightly, and it takes its toll on our hero. When surrounded by darkness, Daniel's sanity will slowly drain. In the depths of insanity, things begin to happen. Daniel's breathing becomes labored and frightened. His vision begins to shake and lose focus. The most disturbing effect of insanity, perhaps, is the chewing sound, like something literally gnawing at Daniel's mind (and mine).

I was lucky enough to experience most of this before I saw my first monster. There aren't many beasties in Amnesia, but one simple rule makes them all terrifying: They cannot be hurt. When faced with the lurching horrors of Brennenburg, there are three choices: Run, hide, or die. These conflicts are made all the more harrowing by the fact that light makes Daniel easier to spot, effectively turning his only refuge into the worst possible place to be. That, of course, means the only alternative is to hide in the darkest corner and wait for the shambling abomination to go away, sanity ebbing all the while. Furthermore, just looking at these creatures makes Daniel's sanity fall further, so it's best not to stare when verifying that the bogieman is actually gone.

When faced with the lurching horrors of Brennenburg, there are three choices: Run, hide, or die.

As he hides from monsters and hunts for light, Daniel must journey to the lowest depths of the castle. Unfortunately, there weren't many express elevators in 1839 so finding a way down is a challenge in itself. There are all sorts of blocked passages, broken machines and poisonous hazards between Daniel and his goal. Puzzles tend to break down to simple categories like "find the missing parts," "use a key" or, my personal favorite, "throw something heavy at it." I didn't run across any great challenges, though it is possible to overlook important items (it's really dark, remember).

But mental taxation isn't really the reason for the puzzles anyway. Their real purpose is to force players to delve deeper into the environment. Often, my search for the next key sent me to the back room of a basement, the triumph of finding said key instantly muted by the realization that I've run out of oil and I still have to work my way back up the stairs. That's what Amnesia is all about, a pervasive and very real sense of fear; a story of madness bolstered by an excellent atmosphere, dreadful sound design and top-notch voice acting. Honestly, if the front door had been open at the outset of Daniel's quest, I would have gladly walked out and left Brennenburg behind for good (the front door is locked, by the way; I know because I tried it).

Amnesia's macabre sensibilities and slow pacing may not be for everyone, but horror fans looking for a truly frightening experience should turn off the lights, plug in some headphones and settle in. Personally, I play with the lights on because, despite what my parents told me about the dark, I know better.

This review is based on a retail copy of Amnesia: The Dark Descent purchased by the reviewer. Amnesia: The Dark Descent is available for $19.99 on PC, Mac and Linux via Steam or the Frictional Games Store. Steam has Amnesia on sale for $13.39 until November 1, 2010

This article was originally published on Joystiq.