We like to throw the word horror around, usually as a synonym for extreme fear, but I think the true meaning is more nuanced than that. To find real horror, you have look to the limits of what man is capable of – destroying life, perverting nature, creating monsters. Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs hits the mark on all counts, weaving a story of grief, insidious madness and vile machinery.
Set in London in 1899, A Machine for Pigs centers on industrialist Oswald Mandus. As Mandus, you awaken in a four-poster bed – with iron bars where the curtains should be. It was the sound of your children that roused you, and now you must find them. It's immediately clear that there's something wrong about your surroundings, and the warning signs are everywhere. There are bars on the beds and windows, elaborate locks on the drawers. There are hidden passages behind the walls, designed for secretly observing the occupants of the mansion. More unsettling still, the entire mansion is occasionally rocked by mechanical rumblings from below. The simple conceit of Mandus finding his children sets up the entire adventure, leading him to explore the mansion, the abutting processing plant and, most importantly, the massive, mysterious machine below it all.
As in Amnesia: The Dark Descent, a good deal of the story is told through documents scattered about Mandus' property. Discovered out of order, these journal writings slowly reveal Mandus' relationship with his children, the function of the machine and the madness that inspired its creation. The story can be a little convoluted at times, and some of the documents too poetic for their own good, but suffice it to say that by the end, you will witness real horror, the kind that only man could dream up.
As horrific as the story is, though, it's not without problems. Many players will likely predict some of A Machine for Pigs
' revelations long before they occur. It's still nice to be rewarded with the grisly details of a plot point whenever you uncover a specific document or reach a certain area, but the full impact is dulled when you know what's coming. Furthermore, while Mandus' children serve as the primary motivation to move forward, I never felt any emotional attachment to them. I didn't get to know them at all, and I was never really given a reason to care about them. They were just two faceless, soulless character models I occasionally saw for a fleeting moment. Horror and children can be a powerful mix, but A Machine for Pigs
fails to fully capitalize on that potential.
Mechanically, A Machine for Pigs
deviates significantly from The Dark Descent
, and this is where it's most disappointing. The Dark Descent
employed several mechanics that ratcheted up the fear and tension, most notably the insanity system. Whenever The Dark Descent
's protagonist, Daniel, was in the dark or near monsters, his sanity eroded. Loss of sanity would cause you to hear unpleasant noises, and your vision would blur and movement would become unsteady. On top of this was the sound of Daniel's own ragged breathing, and the overall effect was deeply disturbing.
The only way to maintain Daniel's sanity (and your own) was to light candles and torches with limited tinderboxes, or use your trusty lantern, which had a limited supply of oil. Furthermore, solving puzzles and completing objectives restored Daniel's sanity, providing players with the perfect reason to keep pushing through a frightening ordeal.
A Machine for Pigs does
away with all
of that. The sanity system is gone. Tinderboxes and oil have been obviated by an electric lantern that never runs out of power, and consequently I rarely felt frightened, never having to worry about being trapped in the dark as my mind went south for the winter. The lantern will occasionally flicker or go out entirely, but this is usually just a signal that a monster is nearby, which, again, sucks the air out of a good scare.
There are, however, a few monster encounters that are genuinely trying. As in the Dark Descent
, you're unable to defend yourself at all, so the best scenarios – by which I mean the most unnerving – are the ones that force you to either move directly toward a beastie or actively run like hell
from it. Without the sanity system though, some of the edge has been taken off.
That's not to say that A Machine for Pigs
doesn't have a few mentally taxing tricks of its own. The architecture of the environment, for example, may suddenly shift when you aren't looking. You may discover that a doorway you just
walked through has disappeared. You may find a wall where thirty seconds ago there was a hallway – and a new
hallway where there was a wall. It's a subtle device, and the first time I experienced it, I wasn't sure whether it had happened at all. It's creepy and perfect for a game about madness.
But a little creepiness is nothing compared to the fear of quavering in the dark with only one tinderbox and a few drops of oil left in your lamp, and that's likely to be a sticking point for many Amnesia fans. Without these elements, A Machine for Pigs
leans entirely on its environment and story, which are essentially the same thing: the machine and its twisted workings. Mandus' journey into its clockwork belly is certainly a grisly one, punctuated by moments of disquieting and hideous awe. This is when the game is at its best, when it pulls back and simply allows you to witness the horror of its world, the darkest threshold of a man's heart.
That's enough to make Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs
worth playing, so long as you can accept that it won't make you squeal.
This review is based on a Steam download Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, provided by Frictional Games.
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