Frictional Games did something quite revolutionary in 2010 when they made Amnesia: The Dark Descent. It set a new standard in how survival horror games could be played. Since Resident Evil, horror games have tried to give you fighting chance, over time the notion of defending yourself was overtaken by the action genre and suddenly you weren’t defending yourself, you were on the offensive. Even Resident Evil lost its way, becoming more like a meathead action franchise than a genuine gruelling endurance test in terror.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent changed that, it took video game horror back to its roots, to the Alone in the Dark days. Now, the terror came from powerlessness and a sustained atmosphere of dread. It was a game where being lost in the dark was so scary, you could lose your mind. In its wake, horror games began to embrace the idea of powerlessness again. Outlast, Limbo, Alien: Isolation. These games were influenced by Amnesia’s unique and enduring brand of terror.
Some 10 years later, Frictional Games are back with their first genuine sequel to Amnesia (2013’s A Machine For Pigs was an unconnected follow-up by a separate developer) and with this long wait comes a lot of expectation. Could Frictional find the same success with Amnesia: Rebirth?
Giving away too many of the reveals or mechanics will spoil the experience and Amnesia: Rebirth truly benefits from an unaware (but willing) mind to have maximum impact, so I will only touch on the opening of the game and then discuss things in vague, broad terms. Things start with incredible intensity as we open on a plane heading to Algeria. It’s 1937 and you are playing Tasi Trianon, a French woman who is travelling to a mining expedition with her husband. Turbulence hits the plane and soon it is careening to the ground. But what ground? You keep seeing flashes of another realm, some terrifying and implausible realm cast in green flame, visions of bizarrely shaped cities snd towering monoliths intercut the sight of the Algerian desert fast approaching from below.
Soon you must make your way out of the wreckage and find the other survivors, your memory is foggy (of course, it’s in the name) and you eventually find your way into a cave system to escape the punishing sun. This is the first of several locations you will be exploring in a bid to work out what happened to everyone while also trying to get out of this nightmare alive. Amnesia: Rebirth pulls back a little after that intense opening. It is a slow burn with moments of white-hot ferocity bursting out when you least expect it, these awful shocks to the system only work as well as they do because the moments of horrifying quiet work so effectively.
The darkness is near omnipresent, this is one of those horror games where you really need to tweak the contrast settings so you cannot see through the blacks. The disquieting obscurity is the point. You will find yourself walking down a dark tunnel, your match dies, you hear debris shifts in the distance, is it just normal cave sounds or did something make that sound? You don’t know.
The game is very similar to Dark Descent in its mechanics, the longer spent in darkness, the more traumatising the things you uncover, the more your sanity begins to suffer. In the original game this mostly manifested in optical filters messing with your vision, Frictional have far more sophisticated tech at their disposal now and can be both far more creative and far blunter in their approach. Flashes of repressed memories, whispers in your ear (especially effective with headphones on), shocking but obscured visions of monstrous shapes, full-blown hallucinations consuming your entire world. There are many tricks Frictional use to convey the rapidly slipping grip on your sanity. The Lovecraftian imagery is among the most effective I have seen in a video game without being derivative, most horror games are content to just mimic the Cthulhu mythos for easy recognition but Amnesia has a mythos all its own and it is terrifying in its own right.
What you cannot see is as scary as what you can, your perceived fears plague you as much as the genuine dangers that will terrorise you. There is no real respite from the horror, there is no real grasp of what is real and what is not. Amnesia: Rebirth wields horror like an oppressive nightmare that you cannot escape, it even makes you question whether you have the resolve to push forward. If you’re low on matches, maybe you wait by the torchlight a little longer, maybe you spend too long waiting and spend too much time obsessing over the idea of what’s waiting for you so much it haunts you more than the horrors the game throws at you. Amnesia: Rebirth is a horror game that gets in your head so a pitch-black corridor can be enough to break you.
There are some minor gripes, however. There are some technical issues that will likely be fixed soon and the movement can be a little clunky (especially jumping) but overall it is a far more refined experience than its predecessor. Its only major failing is that it owes all of its successes to Dark Descent and does not do anything especially new with the formula. However, I must emphasise that it is a superior game, it just isn’t as essential.
Before the game even loads up you receive a message that the aim of Amnesia: Rebirth is not to beat it, but to immerse yourself in its world and story. This is important, it is not a game you simply power through or try to outsmart. Part of horrors power is gained from suspending your disbelief, letting it in a little, giving yourself over to the trick. When you go into a horror movie daring it to scare you, you have already lost, nothing will frighten an unreceptive mind and the result is you not enjoying your time. Amnesia: Rebirth is a game that asks you to open up your mind a little, just enough so it can creep through the spaces and tamper with the fabric of your sanity. If you let it in, you are guaranteed to have a great, scary time. The only thing you have to worry about is once it’s in there, will it want to leave?
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