Survival-horror games that allow me to fight back against whatever is trying to kill me are my jam. I like to exert a certain amount of control over my environment when trapped in frightful situations--it's how I cope. I don't dislike horror games where the main threat is an unkillable monster you just have to run away from. I'm just usually paralyzed with indecision and fear and wish I were literally anywhere else when trying to play them.
It made checking out Amnesia: The Bunker at GDC particularly difficult. But I persevered. For you.
In The Bunker, you play as a French soldier during World War I who, after becoming trapped in a German bunker, discovers its hallways are being stalked by an unkillable snake-meets-gorilla monster. Whatever the creature is, it loves the dark, so keeping the generator in the bunker running is your best bet. The lights won't fully stop the monster, though. They only slow the creature enough that you can more easily land a shot on it to temporarily scare it off. In a surprising showcase of compassion, the game has you use only one of the two bullets you start off with, affording you a whole single bullet to defend yourself from the jump. Wow. So generous.
The game abandons Amnesia's traditional linearity for a semi-open world with immersive-sim inspirations. Your goal is to find the necessary explosives and a detonator to blow open the entrance to the bunker and escape, but how you complete your goal is up to you. A note left by an officer who escaped the bunker may hint that your best bet is to reach a radio in the soldier's quarters, for example, or perhaps a journal entry left behind by another survivor suggests you go to the armory instead. This isn't a guided tour through a haunted house where the path out has been predetermined and you just need to follow the game's instructions--you have to contend with scares while using your ingenuity to figure out where to go next and how you're going to get there.
The game randomizes the location of certain items as well, meaning passkeys, notes, journal entries, firearm ammo, smoke and tear-gas grenades, and optional key items (like the gas mask or lighter) change from playthrough to playthrough, encouraging you to pour over every corner of each room to figure out where you need to go next. All the while, the lights eat through the fuel you've poured into the generator, steadily bringing you ever closer to complete darkness with every passing moment. If the generator goes, you do have access to an old-school, wind-up flashlight that is exceptionally noisy to turn on and provides you with a dim glow for a few seconds before you have to wind it up again. As you might imagine, it's a small comfort.
The immersive-sim elements come into play during the exploration part of the game--a padlock that requires a key can be broken with a well-placed shot from your revolver, for instance, and gasoline can be poured on the ground and ignited to create a wall of fire. Objects in the world respond to your actions as you'd expect them to in real life, giving greater importance to seemingly unimportant items you can pick up (like a box), roll (like a barrel), or throw (like a book). My favorite realization was learning the creature initially tracks you by following the scent of your blood, meaning that purposely injuring yourself can allow you to lure the monster wherever you want (technically, you could also use the blood drops from your injury to mark your path on the ground too). Most problems in The Bunker seem like they can be solved in several different ways, rewarding players who experiment and adapt within the framework of the world's rules.
The creature itself pursues you with a singular focus, adapting to your attempts to stop it. Even the hub-like areas--complete with chests for you to store items, lamps you can use to save, and wall maps you can glimpse at to get a better sense of your surroundings--aren't entirely safe. The doors into these spaces have locks, but if you forget to take a few seconds to close the latch, the monster will burst into the room without a problem. I learned that the hard way--it forced me to use my only bullet to stop the thing from eating my face off. Thankfully, I was told my time with the game was over a few minutes after that because I don't think I had it in me to go back into the spooky bunker without a bullet. I was fully ready to just sit in the safe room and read journal entries for the rest of my time.
The experience of playing The Bunker is horrifying more so in a stressful way than in a scary way. The growing sense of dread primarily comes from the many systems--all of which have been naturally integrated into the world--preventing you from being able to quickly glean information while contending with everything else. To give you a better idea: The only maps you can refer to are the ones plastered to the wall in certain rooms, you have to pull out your in-game watch to see how much time you have left before the generator runs out of fuel, checking your ammo requires you to pull out your revolver and flip open the chamber cylinder to see the actual rounds, and putting your items away to see how bloody your arm has become is the only way to monitor your health. And those are just the basic systems--there are codes to remember, traps to look out for, objectives to juggle, and secret pathways to keep track of.
Thankfully, the game marks which journal entries you've found that have codes in them and a basic description of each objective, but the rest is up to you. This is the type of game where having a real-life notebook by your side may prove handy, especially if you want to piece together what happened within the bunker to spawn such a creature. From what I've seen of the story and lore for The Bunker, developer Frictional Games has an intriguing narrative on its hands. I'm probably not the person best suited to discovering it, but I look forward to my braver friends playing through The Bunker and talking about it with me.
From what I played, The Bunker feels like a giant escape room. You know the way out right from the start--the challenge comes from piecing together the few clues you have to figure out what to do next. You have to determine both the solutions to the puzzles but also how they might intersect and inform one another, culminating in the key that gets you through the game's final lock. As I tentatively explored the space and searched for pathways forward in The Bunker, the experience reminded me of navigating and trying to get out of the Baker Residence in Resident Evil Village or frantically attempting to get out of a level in Escape Academy.
In embracing this more choice-driven form of progression, the experience of playing The Bunker oftentimes feels a bit more frantic than Amnesia: The Dark Descent or Amnesia: Rebirth--at least in those games, you always knew you were on the right track if you kept moving forward. In The Bunker, you can accidentally waste time pursuing a line of inquiry that doesn't pan out to anything. And when that happens, you don't just lose time--you lose fuel in the generator keeping the lights on. It's like if you did an escape room where if time ran out, it wouldn't mean you failed, it would mean you have to keep going, only now it's in the dark. And there's someone in the dark actively trying to sneak up on you at all times to stab you in the ribs if you decide to just hide in the corner and wait for the lights to come back on. All in all, it's a nerve-wracking experience, and I admit it was a bit too much for me. But longtime Amnesia fans hoping for a more drastic shift from what's come before in the series will find something fresh in The Bunker.
Amnesia: The Bunker is scheduled to launch for Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PS4, and PC on May 16.