Frictional Games are unlikely ever to be accused of lacking the dedication to their art. They are well known for their eagerness to innovate and engross within finely constructed horror scenarios. With Amnesia: The Dark Descent - much like the Penumbra series that preceded it - the Swedish developer has once more built upon their knowledge of the darker side of game development and produced something that is likely to turn all but the most frightened heads. Amnesia can be seen as an evolution of their existing repertoire. Just as Black Plague gave the Penumbra format legs, this new game has it sprouting torn wings and snapping its jaws around anyone who dares approach it.
The Lovecraftian vibe will likely strike you from your very first step within the twisted hallways of this period nightmare. Its bleakness is enforced by the absence of light, by the ghoulish netherworld creatures that stalk the floors and the protagonist's ever-loosening grip on reality. Such traditional gothic groundwork invades almost every aspect of the visual and aural design and goes hand in hand with an intriguing and frequently brutal plot.
Daniel, your unfortunate virtual counterpart, has something in common with pretty much every player character in every video game ever made: he has little memory of who or where he is, or why, in the name of God, he now stands swaying in the hallway of some dismal medieval castle. It's a ploy that can often feel uninspired, the memory loss thing, but Amnesia somehow brushes the cliche aside the first time you hear the disembodied wailing of the game's inhabitants. When you first swear aloud and whisper to yourself: ‘what in the hell was that?' (and you definitely will) it is hard not to become distinctly aware that Daniel will be thinking precisely the same thing for precisely the same reasons. The emotional connection is made. The adventure begins.
As you progress through the game you'll pick up clues that provide information on the motivations of your former self and the reasons for your journey deep into the heart of Brennenburg Castle. Your quest varies in pace. At times you'll tackle the well-conceived physics puzzles that Frictional have become known for: mechanical, practical, nothing too flashy. Most of the rest of the time you will be creaking open doors and drawers or dashing between rooms in the hope of avoiding whatever horror happens to be tracing your steps at any given moment.
Interestingly, although the game controls like an FPS, it has many of the traits of a traditional point-and-clicker. Puzzles will be solved by hunting the scenery for clues, adding items to your inventory or creating contraptions by combining objects. Most notably you are never armed, ever. You must survive purely on your wits and the liberal use of cupboards and crate stacks to maintain a much needed barrier between you and whatever unimaginable nightmare seeks to gut your corpse.
And, like all the best horror movies, Amnesia will do its damnedest not to let you see what it is you truly fear. The monsters in this game are phantom-like, they can barely be seen to exist. If you hear a noise, you will run. If you catch movement in the distance you'll likely do whatever you can not to look in that direction for much longer. If at any point you have the unfortunate luck to actually clamp eyes on some evil fiend, the game will kindly lend a hand in enhancing your fear. Your vision will distort and shake, the control you have over the character will become exaggerated, erratic. And, if you stare too long, your mind will turn to mush. Amnesia is the first game in a long while that has so successfully emulated such an important mechanic of the horror genre.
The game is not without its problems though. The voice-acting is frequently suspect, objectives are not always obvious and although the pacing of the action is generally good and reinforced wonderfully with a meandering ambient score, things can at times become overwhelming due to the very nature of its deep horror themes. Honestly, I don't think I ever completed a play session by calmly exiting the menu screen. I did so always, always, to escape the kind of anxiety that the game continually forces upon you. This might not be a problem for everyone, but for some it may put them off the experience entirely. Amnesia is best tackled in stages when you feel able and confident enough to allow the game to put your sanity through the washer one more time.
If this sort of thing is your cup of tea, however, then Amnesia is very much for the drinking. Much like its cast of stalking horrors, this game will seek to leave its unmentionable tendrils deep inside your skull long after you finish playing. It sets out to influence the player in a way that other games rarely dare to do. Instead of using the platform as a form of frivolous escapism it pushes the player to convince themselves that they really shouldn't be there, existing within that world; that it's just a game. It's just a game. It's just a... OH SWEET MOTHER OF MERCY GET AWAY FROM ME.
Which leads me to the most important question: should you play the game in the dark? Yes. Absolutely. If you want the full experience of Amnesia, take my advice: Turn out the lights, usher the kids/spouse/parents/cats to bed and hunker down, headphone cans clamped about your ears and curtains drawn. Play it this way and I can happily guarantee you one of the finest horror experiences available to gamers on any platform. Just make sure to check with a registered doctor beforehand that the old ticker is still keeping pace.