Foreboding atmosphere, terrific music, and custom features are the only strengths present in this horror adventure.
I have played pretty much all of the developer's games, including the testing build of Penumbra, and their top-down (laughably typo-ridden) adventure whose name I cannot recall at this time. I thoroughly enjoyed the first two marketed games in the series, especially Overture, but the third didn't impress me in the slightest. In a sense, that same game, Requiem, could be taken as a sign that Frictional may be losing some ideas for games that ARE gripping in their presentation.
Right at the get-go, there's a lot of similarities to Penumbra. While the setting is obviously quite different from that of said series (an ever-changing series of chambers and caverns underneath Greenland), there's still a lot of similarities present. The castle is well-designed and convincing, considering that it was a small team responsible, and lighting effects are better than ever, thanks to the SSAO features. Hell, the physics interaction system returns, albeit with a minor facelift. This time around, there's a lot more by way of visual cues to represent the mental state of Daniel, the player character. You see, in this title, Daniel is afraid of the dark (he might not be able to handle the 90's show of the same name, what a pity), and the longer he finds himself engulfed by the darkness, the more his sanity goes down the toilet.
Mikko Tarmia, the music producer of the Penumbra series, did a good job once again. It's much more ominous in some ways than what was heard in Penumbra, especially the menu music, and it doesn't let up at any point in the game. This definitely helps make for a creepy mood throughout the experience. There are also some very creepy sounds to be heard here and there, but they are scripted and do not occur independent of programmer-set triggers. The sounds of the enemies are appropriately unsettling, at least the first few times you hear them.
In the voice acting department, it's much more fleshed out this time around, but that doesn't mean it isn't without it's shortcomings. In fact, I'd argue that it is rather average in quality. While there is no attempt at some form of humor to be heard, or ridiculous voice themes, what does bring this part of the game down is how utterly devoid of character that the voices contain. At least the disembodied ruses of Red, from Penumbra: Overture, were convincing; here they just act as one of the only means of injecting story into the game. And when there are voices that are apparently being spoken in real-time, they sound ridiculously far away and surreal, at the very worst.
As with the actual gameplay, it's pretty much the same thing as you've come to expect from Frictional. You move your character, sometimes interact with the physics-based game world, run away from all (short-term) threats due to the annoying fact that Daniel seems to have an allergy to defending himself, read diaries & mementos (often brought to life by the voice acting), and solve various puzzles. The only new feature to the physics interaction aspect of gameplay is that you have a full range of rotation on all fully grasped objects. It doesn't really serve a purpose, though, which was disappointing to me because I felt it could be used for finding clues, only to find out that this is never the case.
The enemies are a quick treat. While they are present, they do have a presence that you want to stay away from. However, they are so heavily scripted, and thus predictable, that there's really no threat to be found in them. And the game is not subtle at all about their nearby presence; often-times the game points your view in a particular direction, threatening music begins to play, and sometimes Daniel starts huffing in fear. It's a formulaic problem that keeps the game from being as scary as it could have been. This also makes the healing items you find to be mostly useless during or after any encounter; I've had to heal more from environmental damage than anything else. Oh, and as stated earlier in this review, the darkness is not a paradise from the horrors of the game world like in virtually every other game of this genre. It takes a toll on your character, a fact that would definitely accrue ridicule from just about anybody this character's age. It sounded neat on paper, but it annoys in execution, another forced aspect of the horror the developers want you to feel.
You are quite dependent on light sources, as a result of that new and irritating feature. This adds an often dreaded "item hunting" angle that is more out of desperation rather than optional adventure. As one reviewer noted, this takes away the PLAYER aspect, and brings in the DEVELOPER aspect; in other words, you don't have the freedom to choose to gather such items simply to light your way in your exploration, the developers are forcing you to find them. It can be a little tense at times due to that, but in spite of that saving grace, it works against immersion.
Graphically, it is decent. There are (non-recurrent) graphical goofs that happen in spots, especially due to the SSAO features, and some visuals are downright crappy, for lack of a better word, but it all gets the job done. And though there's a hint of repetition that kicks in as you go further and further into the castle, there are the odd pleasant surprises to be seen here and there. Towards the end, actually, some disturbing sights and rooms can be traveled, amplifying the "sick" factor of the game's storyline. The enemies are genuinely grotesque in design, so that definitely helps. However, there is practically no variety, and the most shocking enemy in the game ironically has no visual design whatsoever; it is completely invisible. And after doing certain tasks in the game world, the environment gets consumed by some otherworldly flesh of sorts (is this the 'darkness' I read about which followed Daniel for so long? Not very threatening if you ask me).
Frictional did offer some customization features into the game, like custom stories (haven't bothered trying), and the easily-tweaked game settings that can affect gameplay as well as graphics. Frictional themselves took advantage of this included feature and made "Justine", an expansion story that is unrelated to the base game, and in some aspects (despite its significantly diminished playtime) it is better than Amnesia itself.
And the story, the last item up for discussion, isn't the best one concocted in video-game history. Daniel suffers from amnesia, if you didn't already figure that out, and he (sort of) has to recollect his memories to figure out what to do. However, it's not necessary for you to dig deeper into it, and they come only in notes, flashbacks, and disembodied dialogue playbacks. On the not uncommon game interrupting "flashback" sequences, which are nothing more than audio tracks complimented by drastic changes in lighting and the environment around you, are another aspect of the developers forcing their hand a little too much. Anyway, Daniel has got to go to the heart of the castle (of course) because he has no way of getting out otherwise. There's a revenge-story aspect that drives the piloted character's motivation to move on, but it's so half-arsed and devoid of interest to me that I couldn't have cared less. In fact, any horror medium works better when one cares for the character(s) being played; it's impossible to feel sorry for this character, and yes, it is because of his flaws.Things do get a little interesting towards the end, but only in the form of a character you encounter. It's obviously Lovecraft-inspired, provided you are somewhat up to speed on his works, but there's just about nothing else to write home about. It's not memorable, but it isn't forgettable either; it's a one-time experience that is only effective your first time around.
Amnesia is a scary game, no doubt about it; in fact, it is genuinely one of the scarier games in the genre. I was kept on my toes throughout a portion of the game, when it was all surprising and unknown to me. But Frictional seemed to lose some interest in delivering totally new & exciting experiences partway into the game. And then I realized that what made this game so scary was not the obvious, but the subtle. In spite of the predictable nature of the game, there was definitely a hefty bit of ambition behind this production. As it stands, the foreboding atmosphere, terrific music, and custom features are the only strengths present in this horror adventure. Well, perhaps the bargain bin price does it some good, too.
Better luck next time, Frictional.