Just to preface everything; I’m a huge scaredy cat. I haven’t played Penumbra and I didn't finish Dead Space. Scary things just aren’t up my alley, until September 8 came rolling around and steam unlocked my copy of Amnesia. I had been looking forward to this game just based on the thrill I got out of watching the trailer. Even the trailer I feel holds its foreboding warning message really faithfully. I was, admittedly, sold from the day one. Even further so when the demo hit steam I was genuinely excited, and albeit a little apprehensive. Being, for the most part, new to the survival horror scene I’m not familiar with its traits and clichés, or its ability to put me on such an edge. This happened literally to the point where I simply could not play any longer. However, I don’t want to get ahead of myself. Let’s rewind this and explain what, if you don’t know, Amnesia is.
Amnesia is a survival horror game built around the idea that both immersion and ambiance are the keys to accessing that pure fright in the player. From the moment you start the demo the developers say that this is an experience intended to be had with the full effort from the player to immerse themselves into it. This means headphones on, lights off and alone in the room. Admittedly you’re setting yourself up to be frightened, but isn’t that precisely the point? I fail to see why you would want to detract anything from the experience by just not simply giving the game its rightful chance to scare the eff out of you; an aspect in which Amnesia completely delivers on.
You start the game as the dazed and struggling to remain conscious Daniel. Wobbling around Daniel is struggling to tell himself everything he can think of. His name, where he lives and what he needs to do spill out as he struggles to walk; swaying side to side whilst drifting through the castle. Until the final scene where Daniel is laying on the ground moving his head about, vision blurred, and falling unconscious. This whole scene seems to last just the right amount of time,a perfect amount intrigue is presented to the player. Who is Daniel? Why is he in this castle? What’s Shadow is he talking about? It all really sets the tone for the experience.
During the entirety of the beginning sequence you have control of Daniel. He is slow, lumbering, and moves in the exact way one does when they are on the verge of passing out. You tell your body to do something, and a second later it does it, blurred and sloppily. This is how the game handles Daniel’s ability to stay sane, or rather, his lack of that ability. The game measures sanity as a state in which your vision is blurred, movements delayed and commands exaggerated. You sway about the room as you run if you’re at the lowest point of sanity, which is appropriately labeled, morbidly comedic even. This sanity meter shows up in the interface under your health and has obviously different levels of sanity. The sanity meter ranges from “Crystal clear.” to “…”, respectively. However, for the majority of the game you don’t need to look at that meter because sanity doesn’t play that large of a role (or a noticeable role) until you’re at the lowest possible state of sanity. This is where it directly affects gameplay the most. That being said, you won’t need to constantly be hitting tab (your inventory) to check your sanity. This is all really important due to the idea that it controls just the same as Penumbra, Frictional games’ previous title. If you don’t know what this entails, it means that most things in the environment can be picked up, and have physics. Doors can be cracked open to specific widths, drawers can be pulled out to reveal objects inside, and anything else you want to touch you most likely can. The game genuinely feels good and controls as it should being a first person survival horror game. Everything is more exciting when you have to open the door and shut it behind you to slow a monster down as he's barreling behind you.
If Amnesia does anything correctly (which it does a lot of things) it is the uncanny ability to make the player feel extremely uncomfortable all the time. Creeks in the floorboards, moans in the castle, the ever drafting wind gusting about the rooms all create an environment where even the most hardened criminal would fret to no end. However, given Daniel’s questionable sanity, these sounds could either be in his head or real. In reality it’s the anticipation that scares you the most as you play Amnesia. That and the scaaaaarrrryyy monsters! In all seriousness the actual things that are in Amnesia (yes monster-esque things exist) are really messed up and present this foreboding feeling that you’re going to die. The last thing you want is for them to get any closer to you in the slightest. This fright of them going hand-in-hand with the idea that you are completely defenseless. It’s the simple possibility that anything could happen at any point. This feeling of discomfort really lends each individual player to their own experience. Allowing for players to be scared by different things, notice different nooks and crannies and run from something different. During my play through I happened across many paintings, but never once saw anything significant in them. So it turns out that in one of the rooms the painting is a skull before you do something within that room, and then changes to the natural picture after.
Amnesia has a path that you follow, as well as a story, built around a series of hub worlds. You start with the first ‘hub’-esque area after the general introduction of what your task is inside the Castle Brennenberg. You can go to pretty much every room in which ever order you decide you want to go. Picking up puzzle pieces and solving puzzles as you creep about the castle. You also find well produced voice acted diary entrees and memos along the way that tell the story. Amnesia presents these blatantly due to the fact that the diary pages and breaks in the gameplay for “flashback” type sequences are really the only way the game has to tell the story. You are a single vessel in a large castle filled to the brim with spooky things. Not a single NPC exists to tell you what's up. Along with the core story, there are even more things to pick up and read throughout the castle that really help set the feel for the environment. Backstory and written pieces from people who have also been in the castle are laying about for you to read. Granted these were opted to not be voice acted, they are still pretty well written (minus a few translation errors).
During my play through of Amnesia I found myself genuinely disturbed more than once at the delightfully awful soundscape and noises that the game presents. These range from people being murdered audibly to the calming music of piano during a sequence where the game tries to give you a feeling of eerie calm, only to break down the doors on you (literally). Being the scaredy cat that I am I admittedly hit a point where I was too worked up and scared in my session to play any longer. I had to stop and calm down. It was simply too much. I’ve heard from many people that this has also happened to them during the same section of the game. I simply cannot believe that a game can cause me to literally be too worked up to play any longer during that session. This happened for me during the Prison/Dungeon area of the castle. No, that’s not a spoiler; big surprise there’s a prison in an eerie castle!
However, sound isn’t the only thing that makes you feel this uncomfortable jeer. This game is messed up. When I mean messed up, I mean this game is genuinely fucked. Torture chambers and explanations on the optimal ways to torture someone are all part the integral Amnesia experience. You hear these things happen, and you come up close and personal with all of the devices. However, in fear of revealing too much of the game, I’ll leave the visuals on a note: They look awful in the best way.
I feel like I could write endlessly about Amnesia, but I'll wrap this up.
Amnesia really puts a new tier on survival horror titles. It has given me an experience I can tell people about, and recommend to anyone. I feel in the realm of horror, there isn’t a niche; there’s really only people who want to be scared. This is where my only sad point of Amnesia comes. It would really benefit from the port to consoles. I would love to see this game hit the mainstream and show people what games can do to scare you shitless.