Amnesia takes huge inspiration from H.P. Lovecraft’s eldritch horror stylings, you know the kind of thing: unspeakable beasts that would drive you to insanity should you so much as catch a glimpse of them, Man’s descent into some kind of allegory for Hell, that old chestnut. Few horror games manage to actually achieve Lovecraftian horror however, as the temptation to rationalize the root cause of the evil proves too grand. Amnesia, as a series, understands the power of the unknown and the unfathomable far better than many of the games that have come since developer Frictional Games unleashed their madness of the unseen and unknown onto PC five years ago. Now PS4 players can sample one of the most important horror titles of the modern era (and A Machine For Pigs) with Amnesia: Collection, a compendium of The Dark Descent, Justine, and the aforementioned apparatus for bacon.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent first then, which begins with your protagonist knowing nothing beyond the fact you are called Daniel, where you’re from (Mayfair), and that something is stalking you. Daniel awakens in Brennenburg Castle not really understanding why, and more than a little fearful of the darkness that heavily permeates the castle. He starts to discover his being here is by his own design, and he must descend into the very depths of the castle to uncover the truth about his visit, and of course, he is not alone, and there is something quite dreadful going on.
What that is should remain a mystery for the uninitiated, as not knowing plays oh so well into the Lovecraftian thematics, but what does need talking about is how the game introduces fear as game design.
Daniel is frankly afraid the dark, and this is one gloomy castle. The good news is that you can find tinderboxes to light candles, and early on you find a lantern that you can maintain with oil you find scattered around here and there in little pots. The extremely bad news is these are incredibly limited, often making you gamble when and where to use these tools. Also there’s the fact that the dark effects Daniel’s sanity, causing hallucinations, controls to become laggy, and the camera to sway uncontrollably. Then you throw in the fact that seeing unnerving sights, and staring too long at the monsters you’ll eventually encounter, also causes the same problems. Dilemmas become more and more frequent as you juggle the tasks of remaining in the light long enough to not go insane, but not long enough that you attract the terrors that roam Brennenburg.
As Daniel ventures deeper and discovers more about his reasons for being here, it starts to change from a game of careful avoidance into one of sheer unrelenting escape as things start to hunt you, and terrifyingly, you hear them far more than you see them. The audio is superb in this department (voicework is duff, but tolerable) using the environment and Daniel’s psyche to throw the player off course and ensure they can never be certain of where anything is, disorientating by design.
Visually, Amnesia: The Dark Descent has aged poorly, so it’s a testament to the design of the game that it remains a largely effective horror experience. There are newer, better-looking horror titles out there that still can’t hold a candle to the often masterful tension The Dark Descent offers, it’s that good at it. Even so, for players coming to it now for the first time, when so many other horror titles have diluted the core of Amnesia’s appeal, there’s a real sense of familiarity to much of The Dark Descent. It feels old hat in a lot of ways when played after more recent approximations of it, and that’s unfortunate, as its slowburn pacing isn’t going to be a particularly inviting premise. Perseverance will reveal a superior horror game though.
The same could be said of the second part of the collection, an expansion to The Dark Descent called ‘Justine’, but this does at least bring something different to the series to keep it feeling a little fresher than the game that spawned it. Justine is a fine, albeit very brief, accompaniment to the main game that tells a connected story, but at a different time and place. To say much more than it has a somewhat intentional whiff of Portal’s ‘person in strange tests’ setup would be too much, and is all the better for it . Just make sure you don’t play it if you haven’t finished The Dark Descent, as it does give away plenty about that game.
Lastly, and in some ways least, we have Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs, a sort-of-sequel developed by Dear Esther/Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture team The Chinese Room instead of original developer Frictional Games. It’s a widely-derided entry into the series, accused of ditching a lot of what made the original game work. Yet the industrial edge The Chinese Room gives their Victorian era-set successor does help it escape direct comparison to some degree. There’s no denying that A Machine For Pigs doesn’t quite hit the highs of The Dark Descent’s more majestic use of eldritch horror, but it does carry tension fairly well for spells. If there had been no Amnesia name attached then perhaps A Machine For Pigs would have got off a little more lightly with the series’ fans, but alas, it lives in the creeping shadow set by its precursor.
The setting is certainly interesting enough on its own, creating a steampunk-like nightmare that amusingly almost feels like a forbearer to Frictional’s more technological SOMA, but it does trade off that fear of the unknown somewhat to achieve it. Still, this is not a bad game per se, it’s certainly better than most of the horror games around it, just not a particularly satisfying continuation that many fans wanted it to be. An acquired taste at best.
One game and its expansion that helped define modern horror games, and its quirky offspring, in one package for the first time on consoles? A must for die-hard horror fans who have yet to experience any of it, but for anyone else, it depends entirely on how you feel about the genre and what knowledge you have of this series.In this case, the unknown is a welcome thing.