Amnesia: The Dark Descent – Final Review

Amnesia: The Dark Descent’s greatest ambition – and greatest achievement – is related to the construction and maintenance of atmosphere. Unfolding in a sprawling manor deep in the woods of Prussia, the game is of a decidedly moody sort, arresting and impactful from the first. Clever manipulation of light and shadow contribute to this atmospheric environment, sometimes inviting, though most often menacing, repelling. Light seemingly points to hope, the promise that darkness can be triumphed over, that the castle can be navigated and escaped, sanctuary achieved. But when considering the brooding aspects of the world design and atmosphere evoked, bleakness completely overshadows hopefulness – all is hostility and oppression in the mythical, isolated Castle Brenneburg, with its vast dungeons and torture chambers, somewhat balanced by the poshness of the living quarters, the most public aspects of the castle proper; it is what lies beneath – literally and figuratively – which matters most, for it is below, in the darkness, where the game truly excels, deftly evoking place and ambiance. Abounding in diversity, the castle feels genuinely lived in, enigmatic, and fast morphs into its own character, becoming central to the narrative. Excellent texture work and lighting effects are here present, though the environments are somewhat compromised by their unnecessary largeness, occasionally being chores to navigate.

When considering gameplay, most compelling are the puzzle-solving sections, which fortunately comprise a fairly considerable portion of the entire experience, often involving clever environmental manipulation, the gathering of items and then their employment or combination. Occasionally very elaborate, they are still grounded in logic, and thus were rarely frustrating to complete, save for the moments where environments must be scoured repeatedly. Here, though, the game is clinging to certain tropes – well executed ones, but tropes, nonetheless, as nearly everything in the castle is decrepit or nonfunctioning, always requiring maintenance for further progression; Amnesia certainly feels like a video game, almost embracing the cliched. Still, their involved nature keeps them consistently appealing, as with a puzzle in the early game, where manifold chemicals need be obtained, and then promptly mixed, all to destroy an organic barrier, preventing further progression into the depths of the manor proper; immensely satisfying to complete, this is but one of many similarly engaging puzzles. 

The game here clings tightly to immersion, never breaking from the first-person perspective. While Daniel’s limbs are never visible, immersion persists, as when seeing a handheld lantern – central to progression by providing light – bob to and fro while sprinting, reacting naturally to increased locomotion. Furthermore, the game actually has greater expectations for the player, anticipating they can solve these puzzles without any external assistance – handholding is almost non-existent, as no intrusive markers are ever on the screen, never nudging the player in one precise direction, which both makes solving the puzzles even more triumphant, while also preventing the HUD from becoming unnecessarily cluttered – here again atmosphere and immersion are evoked, the linking between Daniel and the player being immense, quite a remarkable achievement. An intuitive inventory system is also in place; easy to navigate and understand, it is cleverly designed, visual representations of all objects available in these menus, alongside icons representing Daniel’s health and sanity, the amount of lantern fuel and quantity of tinderboxes, both used for sustaining light. 

If puzzle-solving soars, another gameplay system similarly soars: that related to exploration, universally compelling and engaging, primarily because of the various documents scattered about the game’s many environments, building upon the narrative and Daniel as a person, his history, motivations, all coalescing to further the game’s efforts at world-building. The budget for the title may not have been immense, but Daniel’s voice acting is perfectly executed, his tone and delivery reflecting his constantly changing mental state, sometimes expressing hopefulness and eagerness, other times given over to dejection and pessimism, as if no release from his increasingly dire situation is in sight – Daniel, then, is an endearing character, a perfect, believable illustration of both man’s fragility and endurance. Knowing the existence of these documents, almost all of them well-written, only bolsters the joys of exploration, which are heightened further when considering the ambiance and technical and creative prowess of the level design, Castle Brenneburg similarly endearing, if frightful. In a consistently exciting manner, some new aesthetic marvel always rests just beyond the horizon. 

The game shows itself as having a very ambitious narrative, unfolding gradually, growing always in intrigue, the game benefitting from a mostly excellent, brisk pacing, only occasionally disrupted by particularly devious puzzles. In another stroke of boldness, very few satisfying answers are advanced, the game embracing ambiguity throughout, encouraging player introspection, the developers imploring them to arrive at their own conclusions – everything here is open ended, even as basic motivations are established from the first; namely, the destruction of Baron Alexander, ruler and owner of Castle Brenneburg. The nature of this narrative construction is appealing, providing considerable focus; Alexander is fast painted as ultimate antagonist, to be deposed and defeated, though the precise reasons for that deposition are not made evident at the beginning. An exhibition to Africa going awry, Daniel retrieves and removes a mythical orb, and is immediately plagued by the spectral, “Shadow.” Alexander offers Daniel sanctuary, so he promptly departs for the isolated woods. These events truly set the narrative in motion, and are gradually explained through the mentioned documents. As the narrative progresses, Daniel shows considerable growth and depth, the documents conveying a certain emotional and psychological odyssey. The game can be a slow burn; slow but effective.  

Many facets of the gameplay excel; an ambitious narrative is present; a masterful evocation of place and atmosphere characterizes the game and its design, very absorbing, literally transporting the player to an isolated dominion in the middle of the 19th-century – here are all resounding successes. And yet, despite these achievements, the game fails on a fundamental level – Amnesia, while a horror game, rarely elicits overwhelming horror or distress. Moody lighting and excellent sound design can occasionally result in anxiety, but traditionally scares are scarce. In admirable efforts to instill horror, mechanics centering around Daniel’s “sanity” are in place, his mental state gradually deteriorating with protracted stays in darkness, or when gazing upon a particularly unsettling scene or enemy. Reflecting this madness, visual effects are in place, like the distortion of objects and the scurrying of large insects across the screen. The existence of these flourishes should evoke considerable fear, though oftentimes this proves frustratingly untrue. 

Further destroying potential horror are the enemies in the title, almost laughable in construction, and consequently far from menacing or intimidating. An effective simile would be comparing their designs to Oogie Boogie from The Nightmare Before Christmas, as they resemble mere sacks, stuffed with a substance and then animated, shambling about mindlessly and erratically. This erratic nature – coupled with their perpetual spewing of admittedly frightening, agonizing groans – should again point to deft horror, though it is difficult to look past the lackluster nature of their visual designs, even as certain of them have massive blades extending from one hand, conveying the immensity of their power, which truly is immense, they being capable of slaying Daniel on the instant, if he is detected. This sense of powerlessness does contribute to a continued air of tension, though tension is a decidedly different emotion from terror; the game succeeds and fails here, though reflecting further failures, a sort of adaptive difficulty is in place, these antagonists literally despawning from the maps if they have slain Daniel for a predetermined number of times; it is immensely frustrating and excessively forgiving. Rare is the penalty for death, making life not as cherished. Even the sanity meter seems inconsequential, Daniel collapsing to the ground, though promptly recovering. Collectively, these things certainly destroy horror, a considerable failing considering the game styles itself as a true horror experience.   

The decision to make helpless Daniel was a calculated, mostly successful one, serving to maintain whatever tension the game manages to evoke – flee from danger rather than embrace it, a then revolutionary concept, which has since been seized upon and improved in countless other titles. Reflecting the novel nature of the game, the developers seemed engaged in a period of experimentation; tension may be immense, but the “stealth” systems on offer here are painfully basic and underdeveloped, escape and concealment rather too easily obtained and maintained. In many instances, Daniel can be positioned in an environment of considerable light, and yet still evade detection, just as if he were shrouded in complete darkness. It is very frustrating, again reflecting the basicness of gameplay. A bit more depth here – a gameplay emphasis beyond puzzle-solving and exploration – would only cause the game to soar ever higher. The lack of this soaring is made all the more frustrating when considering the immensity of potential on full display here, the stealth systems in place being a promising foundation. If a protagonist is deliberately constructed to be weak and vulnerable, more options for countering that vulnerability need be place – more effective use of light and shadow, the availability of greater hiding locations would add depth to the depthless. Admittedly, the survival horror elements are well executed, resource management being a constant concern, the lantern being depleted of fuel at a considerable rate, preserving tension.

Collectively, the game may fail as a horror title, though that failure is promptly and totally displaced, the game succeeding as a detective tale of sorts, everything shrouded in mystery, waiting to be unraveled, Castle Brenneburg abounding in intrigue, as is its enigmatic, ancient proprietor, characterized by excessive darkness, committing terrible offenses perpetually. More exotic characters – like Agrippa, first discovered bound in shackles, body and visage heavily mutilated – further this air of mystery, as the precise nature of his ailment is gradually made evident, he being subject to torture, being a centuries-old entity. Learning why he is in chains, why Alexander is so twisted, why every facet of the architecture seems pitched against Daniel – learning of these things is highly compelling and rewarding. In a clever (if somewhat intrusive) manner, flashbacks arise periodically, furthering the world-building purposes by providing a voice beyond Daniel’s; hearing Alexander speak is an eerie occurrence, even his inflection pointing to a maniacal darkness, his fanaticism about Daniel’s orb, harbinger of destruction, vessel of immense power. Even while playing at a leisurely pace, scouring the environments for those compelling documents, I still feel as though the true narrative complexities have eluded me, inspiring musing based on the knowledge available. Even loading screens seek to impart a secondary narrative, tangentially linked to the narrative proper. Here is admirable ambition and success, poignant messages advanced surrounding notions of violence and man’s sense of guilt, what insufferable torment will drive him to commit.       

Amnesia: The Dark Descent’s achievements are of an unexpected sort, the game existing as a horror title which is rarely horrifying or distressing, and consequently forges its own unique identity. A perpetual sense of discovery characterizes the narrative and the gameplay, matters compelling from the first, a compellingness which persists to the last, even as the narrative gradually loses its way, sometimes unnecessarily protracted. But learning about Alexander, the twisted experiments he partakes of to prolong his own life, and learning also about what role Daniel plays, how his sincerity and vulnerability are exploited – these acts of learning carry the title as its gameplay begins to falter. Daniel as character is likable and endearing, so being witness to his travails and tortures effects the player on a fundamental level, his internal torment being distressing in a manner not seen in any other aspects of the game’s design. A rather abrupt ending sees a blemish placed upon the narrative, though still the game feels like an odyssey, a psychological investigation and journey. Efforts, then, are made to evoke the horrific, principally though the establishment of atmosphere. Atmosphere is evoked, though quite often these larger efforts fail. But the game succeeds in manifold other areas, a horror game which serves as radical departure from other horror games; its uniqueness here is a major accomplishment.

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