Posted by: Kai_LeRai | February 11, 2011

Game Review: Amnesia

In this day and age if you want to compete on the videogame market you need two things: money and a sufficiently big staff. Indie games qualify for neither requirement, so it’s pretty rare to see a fully fledged title that can take it on with the video game mainstream. Frictional Games, a small studio, that also created the Penumbra games, mended adventure and first person horror into a unique experience. Amnesia is their most recent project. It tries to stay true to the gameplay style that Penumbra offered, but transfers it into a survival horror environment.

Set in 1839, the player who we later learn is called Daniel, wakes up in a seemingly abandoned German castle. All you know is that you have to kill someone you don’t know and you try to fill in the blanks from this point on. What starts as a promising game concept quickly turns into a repetitive dungeon crawler, the likes I can’t remember ever having played.

Graphics

Amnesia uses an improved version of the Penumbra engine. The difference in graphical quality between both titles equals a quantum leap…at least according to my memories of Penumbra. The textures are low res though, but thankfully their resolution is not as low that it hurts. They just lack quite an amount of detail. It still goes well with the overall design. Not everything has to look like Mass Effect 2, even though that would have been nice. Water effects are okay, even though the caustics are clearly pre-animated. No realtime rendering like in Cryostasis.

Gameplay

While going through the castle you will be forced into the ever same procedure:

1. Enter a new area that serves as a hub to a few other sections of the castle
2. Find what you need to solve a puzzle first before you can progress.
3. Explore the sections to find all necessary items for your progress.

This looks repetitive, doesn’t it? Well, it is, but not as repetitive as it sounds. Sure you will always go through all rooms, pick up all necessary items which usually lie out in the open, but the surroundings change from section to section, so exploring the levels is quite interesting. Apart from the few items that you need to solve puzzles you can also find oil for your lantern and tinderboxes to light torches and candles. Health can be increased with laudanum which is rather scarce, but the game heals you between level loads. Boring is the fact that you will always find objects in rooms and chambers. There’s no need to search hallways, stairs and other connecting level architecture. It’s just there to keep you busy which makes the whole gameplay rather limited once you figure this out.

On a positive note, all needed equipment can be found nearby which reduces backtracking to a mere minimum. The puzzles themselves are, a few exceptions aside, logical and easy. Even the more abstract ones can be solved rather easy. Some reviewers moaned about this, but in my opinion this keeps the player in the flow. No one wants to waste hours on hard to crack puzzles if there are so many haunted locations to visit. This isn’t Myst and I’m thankful for it.

One major gameplay feature is the player’s sanity that deteriorates by looking at frightening and unsettling things. This mode was first introduced by Call of Cthulhu – Dark Corners of the Earth in 2005 and Amnesia adopted it pretty well. While in DCotE the sanity was only a minor part of the game, Amnesia makes constant use of it. Daniel’s vision gets more blurry the less sane he becomes. Only by looking at and placing himself in the light he can regain his mind. If his sanity is “depleted” he falls to the ground and can still crawl to light sources or lay there and wait until he recovers. The punishment for insanity is less harsh than in DCotE, because in that game it would kill you instantly. Amnesia merely makes you vulnerable to monster attacks while Daniel lies on the ground recovering.

Sound

As a veteran Thief player my demands in the audio department of games have changed drastically since 1998. This goes especially for survival horror games that incorporate shadows and sneaking around. Unfortunately, this is where Amnesia is a big disappointment. For one, sound doesn’t always come from the direction it should be coming, meaning that sound positioning sometimes has a shift of 90 degrees. When looking at a talking NPC, it sounds like the voice is coming from the side. While this is clearly a bug, it’s quite irritating and hurts the immersion quite a bit. This is especially annoying when listening to individuals. You have to look away to hear them clearly, or turn up your speakers. Also, sound volume levels drop massively when turning around, supposedly to simulate the changed perception when turning your head. Too bad that human hearing doesn’t work that way, unless your half deaf with no ears may be.

But these complaints are just peanuts compared to the ambient sounds. You’ll hear footsteps on wooden planks from all directions, chain rattling, a screaming woman and a crying baby…and that in a never changing loop. The samples are great on their own, but they are played back to the point where you just want to delete them from the game. That doesn’t just destroy the mood, but you can clearly identify these sounds as meaningless background noise. If you hear chain rattling, or footsteps in Thief then you know that there’s something coming your way, but in Amnesia those are all just more or less appealing props. Since the level design is rather bland and not much is happening between the rooms, the ambience is even more important to create atmosphere and help the player to immerse himself in the game. Of course it’s not all bad. There are some locations that offer excellent ambient sounds, but the negative impressions usually destroy more than the good ones can make up for – at least that’s the thing for me in this game.

What’s also pretty bad is that monsters are almost always introduced by a massive sound effect. You can’t just run into them and get scared shitless. No, you’re warned by the game each and every time. That brings us to the most important aspect of the game:

Horror experience

Amnesia wants to scare the player, but its predictable nature prevents just that. While Penumbra used a clever concept to create tension and anticipation, Amnesia feels like a game for first time Nintendo gamers. It holds your hand every step of the way. While I do expect games to teach me their mechanics as I play along so that I don’t have to read the manual, I don’t want them to tell the cattle that it’s black. Thanks to that I expected the game to warn me before I’d run into the first enemy and that’s exactly what it did. So the first third of the game I explored the area without feeling scared.

After the monsters were introduced, I quickly realized that they would vanish once I was out of sight for some time. To make it even more predictable the game only spawned monsters once the player made some significant progress, so it was obvious to prepare for some enemy contact once I found an important item. Even for gamers that don’t realize the scripted pattern, enemy presence would have been obvious thanks to the accompanying monster spawning sound. Once the monsters disappeared you could roam the level without being disturbed, but this didn’t prove to be of much importance anyway, because the monsters usually were only spawned once you had collected everything to leave it.

So what’s left to scare you? Well, after reading some forum threads I expected some unsettling imagery. Without wanting to spoil the game I have to say that this was also pretty disappointing. While those few locations were a welcome change compared to the rest of the levels, they couldn’t really instill fear in any way.

Fear as a psychological concept

Many people praised Amnesia for using psychologically sophisticated scares, but they can hardly have played the same game. Fear is the result of our heritage as prey. It’s our instinct to keep us from harm and even death by developing tension within us to enable us to resolve dangerous situations either by avoiding them or by eradicating the source of danger. Amnesia solely concentrates on the avoidance part, but that one consists more of just hiding away until the danger has passed. In fact, in our world there are only very few dangerous situations where this behavior is successful.

I remember watching a documentary about the genocide by the Serbs during the Serb-Bosnian war in the 90s. Men were rounded up, transported with trucks to remote locations and gunned down. One guy actually took his chance and tried to escape just moments before being shot. He survived to tell the story. Imagine what must have gone through his head, knowing that his end was nearing. Imagine how he must have felt actually breaking out of the overwhelming submission and making a break from aggressive and armed soldiers that were ready to shoot. The fear must have been unbearable. And why? Because he was afraid to lose his life. He was afraid to screw up. He had to risk something.

This is what is missing from the game. You don’t take any risks, but even worse: you don’t have a chance if you do. The monsters are invincible. You can not kill them. You can hurl rocks at them and they will show signs of pain, but it’s not enough to take them out. Once they have spotted you, it’s almost impossible to get away from them. They will catch up with you and kill you. Doors don’t stop them, not even if you block them. So once they spot you, you might as well stand there and wait to be killed. Don’t worry…the game will respawn you at the location where you died. Most of the times the monster will be gone from the scene. If it’s still there and kills you again THEN it will be gone. So you don’t risk anything. How can someone be afraid if there are no consequences? Like I said, the game holds your hand every step of the way and I wasn’t kidding. Except for a few monsters that don’t vanish after a certain amount of time the enemies pose no problem or threat at all, thanks to the almighty autosave and respawn function.

The game had so much potential to be really scary. In the first level you can see objects move around as if they were moved by ghosts…a concept they should have used a lot more to give the player a feeling of being followed and watched. I remember a room with lots of bottles on the floor. I immediately felt that it would have been so much cooler if the bottles had moved on their own to form a symbol, or an arrow to point the player to a trap, or an important item…anything to give me the feeling that I wasn’t alone in an empty environment – a feeling I had throughout the game.

There should have been a way to kill or detain the monsters. The game boasts that you have to use your wit to deal with them. A blatant exaggeration. Apart from saving myself by jumping up a ladder, hiding away in a closet and by avoiding some water with a monster in it I had to cower in a corner while not looking at the monster each and every time…if that passes as “witty way to deal with monsters” then I’m not surprised about the other flaws I already mentioned. This is as generic as it can get. I expected more intelligent solutions like being able to lock up monsters by blocking doors, or killing them by using odd contraptions.

The game would have been a real nail biter if the monsters weren’t just sporadically spawned, but if they had been present in the levels from start to finish so that the player would have had to avoid them already while gathering all necessary items and not just once he had everything. Would it have been fun this way? I don’t know, but it sure would have caused some heart pounding. It would have also helped if I had an actual chance to escape the monstrosities once I was spotted to actually give me a reason to run away.

Don’t play to win

That’s the statement you’ll read after starting the game for the first time. It’s also what I heard people use in defense of all the game’s shortcomings. Usually the statement means that you should enjoy the ride instead of fixating on the ending. Amnesia tells you to immerse yourself in the game. Good advice for many games, but not for this one.

First of all, immersion requires a few things: believable graphics, an enticing storyline and an overwhelming atmosphere. The graphics are sufficient, but the atmosphere relies massively on the ambient sounds and their flaws really make it hard to enjoy it. There are even threads in the official forum dealing with removing annoying sounds: Once Daniel faces danger he starts to grind his teeth. You’ll hear that sound most of the time. It was getting so much on people’s nerves that some decided to remove it.

The storyline itself is interesting enough, but it doesn’t draw you into it. Usually it should create characters about which the player should be able to make up his own mind, but how can you do that if the sole concept is someone who can’t remember anything and thus doesn’t have any information about anyone. This makes it practically impossible to bond with Daniel. The whole time the story development felt like listening to an audio book (all conversations take place telepathically without actual persons). It was interesting to listen to, but I couldn’t relate to the protagonist and his problems at all. This becomes even harder since you don’t get to see yourself and because every piece of paper feels like reading someone else’s diary.

In Half-Life you’re Gordon Freeman. You don’t get to see yourself, but the box art kind of gives you an impression. You have a resume and people acknowledge you personally, calling you by your name, looking at you and smiling at you. Hell, you even start the saga by going to work as Gordon Freeman. I don’t have much of a feeling of being Gordon Freeman, but at least I feel responsible for my actions and I recognize them as Gordon Freeman’s. Mass Effect perfected character identification. I get to decide the sex and my own actions. I can live out my opinion through the character. THAT helps bonding with it and putting yourself in his shoes. Amnesia doesn’t offer any of that. You have to accept the few emotions your character goes through regardless of how you feel. So feeling with the character is basically impossible which makes immersion so much harder.

Another form of immersion is to get background information that is available. In Ultima 8 you can find tons of well written books to tell you about the world’s history and legends. In Amnesia there is not one shred of paper that gives you additional background information that isn’t needed to understand the underlying story.

When immersing myself in games one thing I do is to check out EVERY location, even if I have basically finished my assignment. However, there are none in Amnesia. Every room, every section, every nook and cranny is needed to progress through the game.

The easiest way to immerse yourself is to enjoy the graphics. In Mass Effect 2 I would listen to conversations of other people, I would check out all the many details of all the locations and I would especially enjoy the beautiful scenery in the big cities. All Amnesia has to offer is the same sepia look and empty levels once the monsters are gone.

Immersion is a great thing, but it’s not the player’s duty to work himself into such a state. It’s the developer’s duty to pull the player into the virtual world he created. In this case I rather read the line as: “Enjoy the ride, because there is no epic ending”. Other than that I find it quite impudent that a game requests immersion from the player without giving him much to work with.

Conclusion

While this may have sounded awfully negative Amnesia is not a bad game. I just don’t scare easily ever since playing Thief, especially Shalebridge Cradle and I also don’t switch off my brain when playing, so I expect to see some really intelligent gameplay that blows me away. If I see advertisements and reviews that claim that this is the scariest game ever, then my expectations skyrocket and so does my disappointment if it turns out to be all hype. If you thought Doom 3 and F.E.A.R were scary then Amnesia might scare you. If you don’t analyze your situation in a game and aren’t a good tactician in general then Amnesia should also cut it for you. If you’re a die hard Thief fan and expect to find similar tension and scary atmosphere that can rival Return to the Cathedral and Shalebridge Cradle then look elsewhere. But still give the game a try, because Frictional Games managed to create something different.

All the weaknesses aside, Amnesia is still good enough to warrant a playthrough. The voice acting is excellent except for a few over-emoted lines and the storyline itself is interesting. The game allows to load mods, so if the modders ever get to the quality level that Thief fan mission authors have already reached, then there’s quite a bit of extra entertainment to expect. The game also comes with developer commentaries – a nice feature that was introduced in the Chronicles of Riddick and then made popular by Half-Life 2 developer Valve and that is still underused. And the game offers three different endings. They don’t require different behavior from the player during the game as in Mass Effect or S.T.A.L.K.E.R but they add a nice touch. Oh and did I mention that the game is dirt cheap? It sells for as much as a movie ticket and for what it is, that’s quite a bargain.

Rating: 75/100

Advertisements

Categories

%d bloggers like this: