The Swine Has Risen
Watching Amnesia: The Dark Descent move from a game championed by horror game enthusiasts to a YouTube phenomenon was strange. Horror has been a consistently popular genre across all mediums for centuries because being scared is exciting. Amnesia: The Dark Descent proved that unsurprisingly, watching people burst into panic attacks is pretty entertaining. Amnesia gained a huge following from it's popularity on YouTube and the fans demanded more and in response we have the second entry in the franchise, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs.
The year is 1899 and you have woken up in the boots of a wealthy English industrialist, Oswald Mandus. He has just returned from a failed expedition to Mexico and has returned home filled with guilt and regret. His house shudders by the power of an infernal machine deep underground and the one thing he is sure of is that his two sons are missing he must save them.
Frictional Games describes the story in A Machine for Pigs as "The darkest, most horrific tale ever told in a videogame.", I really do not see it that way. A Machine for Pigs certainly has some unpleasant scenes, but it is far from the "most horrific tale ever told in a videogame". If I explained the story of A Machine for Pigs in a few sentences it wouldn't be 100% clear if it was a horror game or not, this story could fit into a first-person shooter. Like its predecessor, what makes A Machine for Pigs scary is the encounters and atmosphere it creates, not the story.
I found A Machine for Pigs to deliver a much more compelling story than a Dark Descent albeit with a few issues. My main issue with the story in this game is the pacing, its structure reminds me a lot of Metro: Last Light. The first half of the game plods along and then the plot takes a punch to the stomach and just sits there winded for an hour or so before picking up to an overwhelming speed towards the finish. The final third of the game just keeps going faster and faster and in comparison to the rest of the game I found it hard to absorb the minor details of the world because the game just kept throwing one after another crazy event at me until I reached the end of my 5 hour experience. It asks some interesting questions about how far one should go to fix the flaws of this world, and whether or not there is a ethical solution. It was a better-than-average video game story but, the last third felt like it needed more time to communicate its points to the player.
The story is told through a combination of real-time journal entries written by Mandus as you play through the game, old journal entries written by Mandus and other characters in the past and telephone calls from a mysterious voice who guides you through the game. The voice acting and writing in all is well-made and feels like it is from that era.
The most disappointing aspect of A Machine for Pigs is how it emulates its predecessor scenarios to a fault, which is surprising considering that the game was developed by a different studio. A large amount of the game involves you solving environmental puzzles by collecting items, flipping switches, turning valves and finding secret passages. As you make your way through the game the enemy encounters become more and more predictable. Have to flip 5 different switches in a large room? You can bet that an enemy or two (that can kill you very easily) will be around to make your life harder. This was a common situation in The Dark Descent and it wasn't something that needed to be emulated in the sequel as it really sucks the surprise and panic out of these encounters.
One noticeable improvement to the game is the removal of lamp oil, you now have a gas-powered lamp that runs infinitely and will flicker when your close to evil spirits. The puzzles for the most part are well-made, I found myself stumped on more than one occasion while playing the game. As a lot of the objects have simulated physics solving puzzles can be clunky at times, but not to the extent to when it becomes frustrating to deal with.
The other encounters with the hostile creatures of this game are much better done (for the most part), with enemies snarling as you are exploring a new area; leading me to turn around and hide behind a small box, hoping that the abomination won't sniff me out and rip me to shreds. As your character cannot inflict damage on any enemy whatsoever, I felt absolutely terrified as one hulking beast after another galloped after me through the dark corridors of A Machine for Pigs. It is a simple trick that continues to push me into panic attacks every time until the conclusion of this game. One area that should have been quite tense to traverse through was ruined by an unfortunate showcase of the lousy enemy AI, I watched as they bumped into each other and got caught on the corners of the boxes in the room. I ended up just running past both of them with the camera clipping through one of the enemies as I fled the scene. It should have been a stressful moment but it was ruined by the poor AI of both of the enemies in the room.
The soundtrack by Jessica Curry for A Machine for Pigs is fantastic, the off-tune, loose twangs fit in perfectly with the game and really help establish the mood of each area. As you delve deeper into the game the soundtrack moves from quirky strings into depressing orchestral pieces and eventually deeply sinister tracks with deep organ notes and opera vocals. The sound design of the enemies and environment is good too, with a large array howling screams, deep growls and squelching body parts.
A Machine For Pigs is a better looking game than The Dark Descent but, it is still quite a large step away from your average PC game. The game is filled with grimy, low-res textures like the first game and the occasional stilted enemy animation. On the pre-release version of the game I also experienced as brief stutter as I entered a new room or looked into a large open area, we will investigate this issue post-release to see if it present in the consumer version of the game. What makes up for the grimy textures and minor technical issues of the game is the lighting and art direction. The lighting in A Machine for Pigs is fantastic, at times I found myself standing still, admiring the way the light was illuminating a room. The game also has a really strong art direction with the industrial machinery being a personal standout for me. Operating the machines of the 19th century is satisfying, each lever, button, valve and switch feels like it has a real weight behind it with the sounds of the tools locking into place and the gush of steam erupting every spout.