Undoubtedly The Best Survival Horror Game Since Silent Hill 3

User Rating: 10 | Amnesia: The Dark Descent PC
The modernization of survival Horror has turned it into a tarnished shell of it's former self. Take Silent Hill: Homecoming or Resident Evil 5 for example, these modernized "survival horror" games are oversimplifications of their predecessors that offer little more than cheap "boo scares" and an emphasis on action to appeal to the wider audience. True survival horror games shouldn't have rocket launchers or miniguns because in making the protagonist a fully armored bad ass who can mow down anything that stands in his or her way, the term "survival" becomes irrelevant, as there is no need to try to avoid encounters with enemies when blowing their brains out is much more effective. Unless were talking about the creatures you fight, who's chance of surviving an encounter with Chris Redfield or Alex Shepherd are slim to none. This is the direction just about every new and rebooted horror franchise strives for, since most casual gamers don't have the patience to play a game that is deliberately paced and action deprived, because that would be boring and wouldn't generate a profit. One of the few developers that stray from this path are Frictional Games, the creators of the Penumbra series which was a flawed, but generally excellent series of horror games. With Penumbra, Frictional games managed to make a captivating and unique take on horror without any regard for the past decade or so of the genre, seeing how it wasn't inspired by any of the Silent Hill's or Resident Evil's, instead, it takes more influence from graphic adventure games like Dark Fall, Zork: Nemesis or Myst, but, like I said before, it was a bit rough around the edges. With a few more years of experience, a brand new engine, and slightly better funding comes Amnesia The Dark Descent, the games doesn't deviate too far from the standards set in Penumbra, instead it focuses on improving all of it's flaws.

In Amnesia, you play as a man named Daniel, who wakes up in a dilapidated Prussian castle with very little of his memory intact, all he can remember is his name, hometown and that a shadow is following him. As he struggles to make sense of things, he notices a trail of pinkish blots on the floor that lead him to a letter from Daniel to himself, in the letter, he tells himself that the amnesia he's experiencing was self inflicted and orders you to kill Alexander of Brenenberg.
Frictional aims to keep you immersed in the game at all times, so there are no cut scenes and very little interaction between characters, instead, the story is told through letters, documents and flashbacks. And from these you'll learn about the castle's history, Daniel's twisted past and exactly why he wants Alexander dead. The "main character with Amnesia" set up, is a very cheap, generic and overused story telling device that you've seen in countless other games and movies like LOST: Via Domus or the Alone In The Dark reboot. But the story was so perfectly paced and expertly told, that for the first time, I honestly did not mind the generic plot set up, since the story wouldn't have worked any other way. It is a very morbid and tragic Lovecraft inspired tale that explores peoples' selfishness and depravity, and it kept me invested all the way through to the end, which brings me to my first complaint, the final scene. I won't spoil anything, but it was very anticlimactic, and fell short of the rather high standards that were set by everything that preceded it.
In an attempt to add to the game's replay ability, there are 3 different endings, they consist of the usual Good, Bad, and Neutral outcomes. The decisions you'll make during the last few moments determine which ending you'll get, but regardless of what you choose, all of the endings are basically the same with only a few varying bits of dialogue.

While the game's graphics could be considered "dated" to some, I think they're phenomenal, especially when considering the fact that this is an independent game made with a very low budget. Even with the substandard textures and animations, this is probably the best looking indie game I've seen so far. That being said, the minimum requirements are relatively low, so you won't need a high end computer to be able to run Amnesia. I played it on a regular, HP laptop from 2009 and it ran perfectly on medium settings with slight lag on the highest settings.
With the exception of two or three of the flashbacks, the game takes place primarily in the Brenenberg castle, that's fine with me because the castle's overall design is brilliant. There's a good variation in environments, like dungeons, living quarters, and torture rooms.
My only gripe in this respect is the lack of colour variation, just about everything is either; a dull brown or dark blue with a small amount of greys and reds scattered around.

The overall sound design is amazing, especially the music. Composed by Mikko Tarmia, Amnesia's soundtrack augments the already amazing atmosphere with a perfect combination of unnerving and emotionally draining ambient soundscapes and tense screeching accompanied by a hectic burst of drumbeats during the scarier portions of the game. Never in any game that I've played before has the soundtrack had such a profound impact on my experience as it did here.
All of the sound effects are just as noteworthy as the music, because of the low budget, Frictional did most of the effects with vocal chords and household items, and the results are astounding. I could never imagine that one of the most terrifying creatures in videogame history was in reality just an old watering can being filled up. I can not stress enough just how amazing the sound effects are.

Amnesia has a really impressive physics system that allows you to pick up and move around any object within reasonable size and weight. You can throw a book or a chair, for example, but Daniel is too weak to pick up things like tables. This is useful for blocking a door with a barrel, throwing objects at incoming monsters, turning valves and opening doors. To turn valves, you need to click on it, hold, then turn the mouse in a circular motion, and to open doors, simply click and pull the mouse back.
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Penumbra Overture allowed players to use this feature to make tools like pickaxes be used as weapons, though that was not their intended use. As great as that may sound, it didn't work as well as it should've. The combat was clunky and unresponsive, and the best way to kill an enemy was to stand on a crate where it cant reach you, then hit it every time it hopelessly attempts to jump high enough to hurt you. This, of course, was exploited by most people who discovered it, including myself. As a result, the intended sense of dread an encounter with an enemy originally had was completely destroyed. Frictional addressed the problem in the sequel, Black Plague by doing away with combat and instead focusing on puzzle solving with occasional stealth.
Amnesia further improves upon this by providing a perfect balance between puzzle solving, exploration, and stealth. And like Black Plague, the player is completely deprived of weapons or any methods of self defence. Well, except fear. Fear is the most effective method of giving an individual the necessary incentive and will power to struggle for survival. Whenever I heard even the slightest rustling or faint groan in the background, paranoia began to set in unlike anything I've ever experienced in a game before. I would immediately pause the game and run to the kitchen or the restroom, constantly telling myself that I was just overreacting, there was nothing there and that I'll be back on as soon as I grab something to eat. Often times, I never ran into anything, perhaps because the monster never noticed me or maybe I was imagining things and it wasn't even there at all. On a few occasions, just as I was beginning to regain confidence, a monster would appear directly in front of me as I opened a door or turned a corner. During moments like these, all rational thought goes completely out the window. Sometimes I'd try to outrun the monster with my eyes sealed shut, other times I'd throw rocks at it, in a hopeless attempt to slow it down in time for my basic thought processes to return. More often I'd pause the game for upwards to 30 minutes, and in some cases, I just it turned off and didn't return for a few days.
To make these encounters as terrifying as they are, Frictional added a unique twist to the game's stealth mechanics and a sanity meter very similar to Bethesda's Call Of Cthulu game. When you come across an enemy, your only hope for survival is to either outrun it, or hide in a dark corner until it leaves, because they have a harder time finding you when you're obscured by the darkness. The problem is, darkness has an aversive effect on Daniel, whether this is caused by the shadow following him or he's afraid of the dark, I'm not entirely sure, but keeping him there for more than a few seconds, or even looking at the monster will case his sanity to drop. When this happens, Daniel's vision begins to blur and he will breath heavily. If nothing is done to halt the process, he will begin to hallucinate, drag himself across the floor, and eventually faint, that's if the monster didn't already hear your heavy breathing and kill you first. The thing is, there isn't much you can do to halt the process except turning on your lantern for a while or silently moving to another, better lit area. But again, doing so will probably get you unwanted attention.
Furthermore, your light sources are very limited and Daniel's health does not regenerate, so scavenging around the castle for lantern oil, tinderboxes and health potions is imperative to your survival. Even if you do comb every inch of the castle like I did, you'll often find yourself completely out of lantern oil, running from candle to candle, lighting them as you go in hope finding just enough oil to continue the game normally.

Despite being extremely stressful, death will never become frustrating, thanks to the excellent save system. When you die, you respawn close to where you were killed, and all of your progress and items you collected before dying will remain the same, and the monster moves to a completely different area. Not only does this do away with tedious backtracking, but it also increases the tension, since you will no longer know where to expect the monster to be.
Like Penumbra, Amnesia is a point and click adventure game through and through. Though, not in the traditional sense, because the established, static point and click interface is archaic and the slow pace of such games is unfavorable to most gamers these days. Amnesia definitely has deliberate pacing, but it has more modern gameplay mechanics that are in turn very accessible for anyone, of any genre preference to just pick up and play. For example, instead of clicking in the direction you want to go to move the character, movement is done with the WASD keys, like a first person shooter. And typical actions such as item gathering and puzzle solving are done with the previously mentioned physics system.
Unfortunately, the accessibility takes it's toll on the puzzle solving. I knew from the start that I shouldn't expect the same kind of ridiculously difficult logic based puzzles found in Myst or Voyage, but I was disappointed by their simplicity regardless. For starters, I like how none of the puzzles ever stray from realism, that means; no redirecting laser beams or putting pictures together to start an elevator. In Amnesia, starting an elevator requires you to fill the engine with coal, adjust the gears, and flip the switches. It never gets any more challenging than that, in fact, the hardest part of the puzzles is not solving them, but finding all of the right components you need to solve them. I really would've liked something a bit more mentally straining in this aspect, or at least a separate puzzle difficulty setting option would have been nice. Even so, the puzzles were a good change of pace and occasionally really enjoyable.
In the main menu, there's an option called "Custom Story", here players can load community developed stories and mods made with Frictional's HPL2 engine, which was released to the public shortly after the game's release. I haven't played much of these mods, and I haven't dabbled with tools either. However, the few custom stories I found noteworthy enough to play have been really good. As of this writing, there aren't very many mods to choose from, but I see a lot of great potential for those that have the know how for these kinds of things to make some amazing experiences in the future.

VERDICT
For the last few years, I considered Siren to be the scariest game ever made, but Amnesia undoubtedly takes the crown. Not only for it's brilliant take on horror, but also for it's mature, unsettling, and engrossing story. This is TRUE survival horror, unparalleled by anything I've played since Silent Hill 3.