Although it may sound ironic, there’s nothing forgettable about Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
Although the horror genre tends to be quite broad, most of the games that fall under that category lack the one quality that should define them: they aren’t terrifying. Amnesia: The Dark Descent is the exception to that rule, since this game tells an unsettling story that will linger in your memory long after you’ve seen the credits roll.
In the year 1839, a young man named Daniel wakes up in the dark corridors of castle Brenneburg in Prussia. As the name of the game suggests, Daniel has little to no memory about himself or his past. The adventure starts as he regains consciousness in the halls of the massive castle and soon enough, it becomes evident that the only way to remember details about Daniel’s past is by exploring the haunting place. As you investigate, these details are revealed through letters, journal entries and random notes that are scattered around the castle and also, through flashbacks that trigger automatically when you enter specific rooms.
Oddly enough, most of Amnesia’s horror elements aren’t rooted in reality, but that doesn’t make the game less effective. On the contrary, one of the main reasons why this game works so well is because you have no idea when the monsters that are hunting you will come out of the shadows and strike.
But where Amnesia really shines is in its combat (or should I say the lack thereof?) Combat in video games has been used to empower players. After all, there aren’t many things as satisfying as jumping over Goombas, shooting martians or slicing slimes with a legendary sword. But when it comes to horror, less is definitely more. By totally eschewing a combat system, Amnesia makes you feel weak and unprepared for confronting the horrifying creatures that lurk in the darkness and that’s what makes this survival horror game so effective.
Since you’re so vulnerable, running, hiding and remaining motionless in confined environments until the creature that’s chasing you takes a different path quickly becomes a common practice. But while you can’t engage in combat, you can interact with your surroundings in several ways: you can pick up objects, turn levers, open doors, use a tinderbox to light torches or candles and so on and so forth.
Most of the times though, interacting with the environments means solving physics-based puzzles: pull the three books that stand out in the library to open a secret door, collect chemicals and mix them to create potion, fix machinery by collecting different parts and so on. Needless to say, puzzles become increasingly difficult as you make progress and even though they never become impossible to solve, some of them can be quite challenging.
But without a doubt, one of the most compelling mechanics is sanity. Standing in the dark, staring at enemies for too long or witnessing paranormal events will deplete your sanity. To fill the meter, you need to turn on the lights or make progress. When the main character starts losing his sanity, he starts breathing heavily, his vision becomes blurry, his heart starts pounding, his hands start shaking and the camera jitters. Overall, the sanity meter mechanic works well, since it contributes to the feeling of unease and helplessness so characteristic of the genre.
But for all its strengths, Amnesia: The Dark Descent isn’t without some issues. Exploring some labyrinthine levels can be frustrating because there’s no map and it’s easy to get lost. Although the fact that an enemy might be nearby makes exploration thrilling, traversing the levels without knowing when you’re going can be frustrating. Moreover, some levels encourage you to backtrack, so once you’ve located the item you needed, you have to go to back to a place you’ve already visited to make progress. Again, the only reason why this process never becomes excruciating is because there’s always the feeling that an enemy might be nearby.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent combines some of the best elements of the survival horror genre in an impeccable manner. The lack of combat, sense of helplessness, intriguing plot, attractive horror elements and unnerving atmosphere makes the game an effective and thrilling horror experience unlike any other. Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a haunting experience that will leave lasting mark on you.