Friday, March 2, 2012

Forget SILENT HILL: SHATTERED MEMORIES. *This* is TRULY where it's at. ;)

Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Frictional Games
Windows, Mac, Linux

When you first turn it on, the program informs you that it wants you to not be concerned with "winning", but rather instead to simply get engrossed within its story and atmosphere. Next, it strongly advises you to play in a darkened room with headphones on for maximum effect. Then the following appears just before it finally begins:

The world of Amnesia is a dangerous place and you are extremely vulnerable.

Do not try to fight the enemies you encounter. Instead, use your wits. Hide, or even run if necessary.

Thus begins Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Foreboding enough for you? Well, let me put it to you this way: even all of the above before-game advising does absolutely nothing to convey just how powerful the title really is. This is a game that does absolutely everything within its power to get you so terrified, so worked up, so sweaty, so pulse-pounding and so thoroughly and completely freaked out beyond all recognition, and it succeeds all too well.

I remember back around 1997 the first time I ever played Zork Nemesis, and I could barely move the first time I played it: the game's powerful atmosphere had me so spooked I wasn't even thinking about the puzzles -- I was literally terrified that something was going to sneak up on me from behind the shadows. That never happened, of course, but the illusion of dread had been the most complete I had ever experienced. A couple of years or so later, along came Thief: The Dark Project, a game I was destined to instantly fall in love with to the point of always being first in line one way or another to pick up every title following in its series. It was Zork Nemesis gone far, far superior; the world's first ever "First Person Sneaker", the Thief games were sheer genius. I've mastered each and every single Thief title that has ever come out as of this writing inside and out over the past 14 or so years of the franchise's existance.

And believe me, it was a good thing I did: all those ages of Thief training and expertise proved to be both invaluable and perfect in preparing me for the day when a title like Amnesia should come along. Thief could get absolutely terrifying at times, but its terror is a carnival compared with Amnesia, which plays as Thief's Older Bullying Cousin. The kind of previously unmet cousin you've always been warned to stay far away from and to avoid sudden movements around. Turn out the lights at night, turn on the headphones, and let it assault you.

It would be grossly unfair for me to give away any more of the plot than the introduction dictates, so I promise I'll only give the exact basics the game's own description gives you before jumping in: you are Daniel, suddenly conscious and alone within a huge, gorgeously designed gothic castle. You have absolutely no memory of who you are or anything else, only that you have written a note to yourself explaining that you have deliberately blotted out your own memory and that you are to kill someone in particular. That is all. The rest is an absolutely chilling route into the very depths of gameplay terror that is every bit as tense and nervewracking as promised.

Unfortunately, there is one serious flaw here. A big one. When you finally do reach your goal and the individual you are supposed to kill, the actual scene itself is so limp and stupid, so basic and unimaginative that it singlehandedly destroys the entire rest of the game that came before it. That flaw ends up displaying all the skill that went into designing Amnesia: the game is so spectacular that it shows us how it could have been even better. We get all ready for that final moment, the entire game is preparing you for it, you feel the game bracing itself to make that giant leap of fear... and it balks. We don't get it. We get a surprisingly mundane ending that seems like it's straight out of an old Star Trek or Lost in Space episode, not the masterpiece this title wants and works so hard to be.

But up to that point, it is still effective, almost to the point of being unbearably so. You pick up objects and solve puzzles in an atmosphere that will have you constantly "glancing nervously around" with the controls in sheer fear of something coming after you (a prison is particularly effective). And you have to balance your gameplay carefully: Daniel is deathly afraid of the dark, and being in it too long will cause him to lose his sanity. Lose it too much and the game apparently ends, although I can't personally verify that since I haven't died in that matter personally while playing it. So you have a lantern to help you, only the trouble is that it also attracts the attention of any enemies that see it, so you have to perform a careful balancing act between how much light you use, including any candles and torches you light along the way, with your remaining in the dark. It's an ingenious method, and it keeps you constantly on the edge of your seat, especially since you have absolutely no way of defending yourself.

Weak stomachs, beware: this game is not for the squeamish. It is graphic and horrifying, as it was meant to be. Forget stuff like Silent Hill: this game is the true nightmare, that truly horrifying experience so many gamers have desperately wanted to experience in game form. It's an impressive achievement, which makes it such a shame that all that buildup and atmosphere comes to naught in the end. It puts on far too good a show to suddenly turn conventional at the last minute, especially when all of the possible multiple endings are thoroughly uninteresting and unsatisfying. Even so, Amnesia: The Dark Descent is nevertheless still a remarkable and recommended experience for those wanting to be terrified even in its current flawed form.