True survival horror games are rare these days. Games like Dead Space and the most recent Resident Evil titles can be scary but tend to be just as focused on action as they are on atmosphere. In Frictional Games’ Amnesia: The Dark Descent, you get no gun. When a gruesome shambling creature rounds a corner on wobbly knees and its yawning rictus comes into focus, you can only succumb to its onslaught or flee in terror, hoping the shadows will provide safe haven. It plays more like a first-person adventure game than anything else, and borrows many of the environmental manipulation mechanics of Frictional’s previous Penumbra series. It’s a fairly short game, but one that’s near impossible to forget.
If you’ve ever read an H.P. Lovecraft story before you’ll find a lot that’s familiar here. Much of the horror and structure of the plot is inspired by the 20th century author, as sanity is eroded the closer you draw to the sinister heart of the tale. You play as Daniel, who awakens clueless on the floor of the huge and hauntingly empty Castle Brennenburg. Soon after coming to, you discover a note written by your past self, instructing you to find and kill Alexander, the master of house. Unraveling the history of the place is part of what lures you forward, discovering how exactly you got to this point, what Alexander did to deserve an early death, and who is responsible for the grisly acts committed in the castle’s depths.
What follows is a tale told mostly in flashback as you’ re beset by ghostly visions and uncover journal entries on dimly lit desks that tell of scientific expeditions that lead to the discovery of ancient terrors. By itself the story is strong enough, and told effectively assuming you take the time to explore and pick up a majority of the notes. Yet what really adds a quality of unsettling authenticity to the tale is the unshakeable feeling of pursuit and inevitability of some kind of horrific climax.
The sensation is created by a combination of implied and observable events. On the soundtrack, scratches, clicking and footsteps from unseen spaces imply an expanse of unknown rippling just beyond the limits of your perception. Visual cues are also crucial to reinforcing the sense of terror, as Daniel’s vision is affected by ghastly sights and revelations of gruesome acts to which his previous life was connected. Sanity degrades while in the dark, causing the scene to shift like the webs of light across sands under shallow water as sounds intensify, controls are muddied, and eventually insects crawl across your field of vision. It contributes to an feeling of isolation and helplessness that adds to the sense of terror.
Staying in the light is the preferred course for those who prefer to maintain mental focus. A lantern is always available to light up corridors, provided you’ve enough fuel to keep it lit. Tinderboxes are also scattered around amidst ancient books and in dusty cabinets and used to spark torches to illuminate passageways and candles within kitchens and torture chambers to make it less psychologically taxing as you explore. You can still see in the darkness if you’ve run out of both oil and tinderboxes since Daniel’s eyes will eventually adjust to the deep-blue murk of darkness, but there’s a moment of adjustment, mimicking the dilation of his pupils to altered intensity of light. Sometimes the transition is harmless, but during the momentary blindness that besets Daniel as he stumbles into blackness it’s entirely possible a shambling monster could round a corner and slash him down. It’s not something that happens often, but the lingering threat is enough to make you tread carefully even if the way forward seems clear. It also sets up a gameplay dynamic between dark and light — do you stay in the shadows to hide from enemies but risk your sanity, or light up everything you can to keep your wits?
Puzzle solving is the heart of the gameplay, and like in Frictional’s Penumbra games, manipulation of objects is handled in a way that gives you a greater sense of connection to the character. To open a door, you must click and hold the object with the left mouse button, then draw the mouse back or push it forward depending on which way the door swings. To open a drawer it’s the same mechanic, requiring you to pull back on the mouse once the handle is grabbed to open it. Occasionally you’ll need to toss items around rooms to break down fragile walls and shatter chains, but for the most part this kind of manipulation is used to keep you more firmly rooted within the game world and add a touch of realism, strengthening the horror aspect.
Actually solving the puzzles shouldn’t be too difficult for anyone who’s played adventure games before. Despite the bizarre and often disturbing states of the sewers, morgues, and downright revolting torture chambers later on, the solutions often require you to collect a few objects and combine and apply them in simple ways. The game makes this easily manageable by confining solutions to set areas, meaning you don’t need to worry about backtracking all the way to the start of the game if near the end you worry that a particular puzzle might require an overlooked item. Frictional’s done a good job of pacing the game as well, gradually expanding the area and complexity of the puzzles and mixing in jaw-clenching pursuit sequences as you plunge deeper into the mystery. All the while you watch as bare stone walls are overtaken with pulsating masses of organic material and as hints of malevolence are made manifest and stumble after you through the dark and mists, establishing an inescapable mood that sticks with you long after the adventure is complete.
This is one of the scariest games in recent memory. The loading screen recommends you turn the lights off and play with headphones, something I’ll strongly echo. Amnesia: The Dark Descent’s puzzles aren’t especially impressive and the voice acting can range from convincing to goofy, but the atmosphere Frictional has infused into the experience is as powerful as they come. It’s a tale of terror that’s menacing and disturbing from the very first moments, and only amplifies the further you progress. Any fan of horror, every Lovecraft fan, and any with even a hint of curiosity should give Amnesia a shot. Few games are able to conjure up an atmosphere this genuinely frightening.