My eyes struggled to focus in the gloom, shadows dancing with macabre intent across my vision. Hideous laughter seemed to bellow from the walls, which were stained with the rusty remnants of week-old blood, and I pleaded for it to stop, my sanity seeping until everything blurred and then gradually – mercifully - dimmed.
That was my last visit to Wolverhampton, but is also a typical moment ripped straight out of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, a first person horror adventure from Frictional Games, who also developed the Penumbra series. Amnesia: The Dark Descent takes many great ideas from Penumbra and tweaks them into a fresh adventure which is as entertaining as it is mess-your-pants terrifying.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent begins with an adventure game staple, in that your character, Daniel, wakes in a dingy place with no memory of who he is or how he got there. The clue was in the title, right? And while the lost memory cliché has been used so often it’s practically no longer a cliché but the norm, Frictional Games has done a sterling job of revealing Daniel’s back story in drips and drabs, just enough to keep you interested.
Daniel is trapped in a dreary stone castle (what other kind is there?) and the object of Amnesia: The Dark Descent is to escape - or at least, so you think. Through various letters written rather worryingly to yourself, as well as old diaries and books, you gradually learn how Daniel came to be there, and how he lost his memory. It’s an intriguing story, expertly crafted and well worth embracing, although large chunks can be skipped over by impatient types thanks to the helpful ‘memento’ menu which tells you what you’re supposed to be doing at all times.
Amnesia: Dark Descent has a number of puzzles to complete between the exploration bits, and these are similar to Penumbra’s in that they rely on object manipulation with realistic physics. Thankfully the controls are simple yet effective, with just one button for interacting with objects. Press the button to take hold of something - a book, or a door knob - and then move the mouse to lift/turn/open the item.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent has got plenty of bog standard ‘find this item, bring it here’ quests, but the game also throws some clever and realistic posers your way at regular intervals. For instance, you could become trapped in a room after the stairwell collapses. A ‘zany’ adventure would have you filling a rubber glove with helium from a handily deposited cannister, then floating gracefully up to the exit. In Amnesia: The Dark Descent, you have to make use of the rubble to construct a makeshift platform, then carefully scramble up it to safety. Few of the puzzles will have you stumped for long, but they’re no less satisfying for it.
But this is a survival horror, so the main meat of the game is the menacing atmosphere and ‘boo, ha, scared you’ moments. Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a massive success in this area too. The environments are suitably gloomy and sinister, while inexplicable groans, creaks and screams assault your ears at the unlikeliest of times.
There are enemies in Amnesia: The Dark Descent, but this isn’t Doom or even Realms of the Haunting - the monsters you encounter are few in number. This doesn’t make the game any less terrifying. In fact, it’s even more unbearable at times, as you can convince yourself something is in the same room as you when in fact you’re completely alone. Even worse, you have no guns or knives to protect yourself from unseen threats. The best you can do is pick up a book and throw it, like some petrified nancy boy.
It also appears that Daniel is a little traumatised by his experiences, and doesn’t react too well to seeing hideous apparitions floating around, or other strange phenomena. Whenever something disturbing happens in Amnesia: The Dark Descent, he starts to lose ‘sanity’, which results in laboured breathing and gibbering, fuzzy vision, and even hallucinations. Nothing half as strange as Eternal Darkness threw at you, but it’s disconcerting to say the least.
The sanity gimmick makes monster encounters in Amnesia: The Dark Descent all the more tense, as simply looking at a spirit causes your sanity meter to plummet. Your only way of avoiding detection by the spirits is to crouch in the dark and look away, but even the dark gives Daniel the creeps, so you can’t stay there too long. B.J. Blazkowich this guy ain’t; you get the feeling he’d break down and cower at the sight of a pink rabbit that sprinkled confetti as it danced and whistled a merry tune.
Decent horror adventures are few and far between, so it’s always good to play one that’s as well thought-out and lovingly designed as Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Fans of the Penumbra series and horror games in general should definitely pick up a copy. System requirements are thankfully light, and you can play Amnesia: The Dark Descent on a Pentium PC with 2GB of memory and a basic graphics card.