Amnesia: Rebirth – Final Review

Amnesia Rebirth’s narrative is a nonsensical, muddled mess, rarely engaging, excessively abstract, poorly and lazily presented – after an immensely promising start, there is a rapid and constant descent into dull incoherence – very few are the positive attributes. The existence of this promising opening, meanwhile, only makes more frustrating that painful descent. Regarding this opening, the player character – Tasi -is aboard an airplane, surrounded by her companions, including her husband Salim, these individuals flying into the vast Algerian deserts to conduct an excavation of sorts, suggesting that all of these individuals are somewhat intellectual – or at least intrigued and fascinated by adventure. Indeed, the cast of characters here is a diverse one, though this is only learned after the fact, their backstories communicated through discoverable objects and documents distributed throughout the game’s many environments. But here, in the opening, they are essentially non-entities – there is only Tasi, only Salim. Expectantly, disaster strikes – the plane encounters difficulties while in flight, the end result of these difficulties being tragedy: the plane crashes violently in the remote deserts, taking the lives of some passengers, while others are mysteriously absent from the crash site, their fates unknown. In this regard, the narrative adopts a mysterious, investigative tone, as Tasi travels about the landscape, searching for answers, the most immediate being the damning, cryptic plane crash – was it caused naturally, do to some fluke or understandable error? Did the pilot, lazy, commit some mistake which ultimately precipitated this disaster? Or was something more sinister involved, did some outside force seek to maroon the expeditionists, to cause them swelling pain and hardships? Answers are elusive, wonderfully so, and it is this desire to dispel elusiveness which prompts the early stages of Tasi’s journey – remarkable is the tone established here, remarkable is the overall premise, human and grounded, many components of Tasi’s psyche related to the player, her affectionate yet sometimes strained relationship with her husband also seeing communication; as the plane makes its descent, the pair clutch hands, desperately searching for comfort and reassurance, which ultimately never arises – Tasi still experiences overflowing pain, largely attributable to her total aloneness, her isolation, which directly results in helplessness. In reuniting with her fellow expeditionists, then, Tasi could reclaim power, and accordingly she seeks them out, this search prompting additional pain, especially when Salim’s body is discovered, his mangled corpse suggesting a struggle. This opening hour or two is impressive, remarkably impactful cerebrally and emotionally. And then everything painfully goes astray.

These subsequent narrative failings are largely attributable to the stark shift in focus, as grounded, human drama is displaced by the bizarrely fantastical, and in this regard, Rebirth has a disjointed identity, two concepts lazily stitched together – humanness exists alongside the decidedly non-human. The strangely beautiful, sunbaked desertscapes are displaced by realms of darkness, realms shrouded in darkness, this world tonally and aesthetically detached from everything which came before. After the conclusion of those wonderful, introductory hours, Tasi stumbles upon an ancient amulet, which she promptly affixes to her wrist, this strange object directly enabling traversal from realm to realm. What is the nature of this object? From whence sprung its powers? What is its connection to this realm, and what is the history of this realm? Questions do again arise, though the precise nature of these questions is less compelling than the questions raised earlier in the narrative; bizarreness is wholeheartedly embraced, and the narrative absolutely loses its direction; it is painful to consider, meanwhile, that this directionlessness emerges so early on – by the three or four hour mark, everything has collapsed, the positive opening countered by hours upon hours of negative experiences. Fortunately, Tasi’s presence anchors the narrative; an immensely likable individual, she remains an excellent protagonist, expressing believable curiosity while gazing upon this strange realm, expressing great pains whenever presented with difficulties, heartbreak, demoralization. Her voice-acting is perfectly executed, with slight French intonations, which only heighten her endearing attributes, while the fact that the game never departs from the first-person perspective further connects the player to sweet Tasi. The narrative’s only real displays of poignancy are directly connected to Tasi, specifically the nature of her and her children’s relationship, which prompt questions of paternal obligation. Are there limits to paternal patience? Is it wrong to turn away from a child once those limitations have been reached. exceeded? Profound questions, they are given added strength by way of various flash-back sequences, where the player learns that Tasi’s earlier child was afflicted by a debilitating illness, which ultimately brought the daughter death, this death resulting in total heartbreak, even as the precise nature of that death would bring liberty to Tasi and Salim, strains dissipating. And still their love persists. Some humanity is preserved here, then, but everything outside of Tasi, her struggle, is steeped in dull, painful, and unengaging mediocrity, as the narrative more and more embraces the fantastical. In a clever, appreciated flourish, though, the developers sought to expand upon the precise nature of mother / child, principally by revealing to the player Tasi’s impregnation, though explanations for this state are frustratingly never provided, or provided only vaguely, and this absence of explanation only weakens the impactfulness of this revelation. Reflecting this inexplicability, in the opening hour, Tasi’s belly is completely flat, meaning suspicions of pregnancy were totally absent. And yet, toward the narrative’s conclusion Tasi gives birth to the child. How was this birthing process so accelerated? Who intervened to make this acceleration possible? Countless are the questions, and limited are the answers – no matter how fiercely the player scours the environment for documents of narrative elaboration, no matter how intently they attend to pseudo-cutscenes; none of it matters. Instead, Tasi navigates exotic environment after exotic environment, gradually learning – partially, anyway – about these inhabitants’ backstories, while an enigmatic female specter sees later introduction, fast becoming central to the entire narrative. Indeed, she commands attention in the conclusion, which serves the role of exposition dump, the player presented with a bombardment of information, which still leaves manifold narrative gaps, misunderstandings. Still, this information serves a unifying function, as Tasi learns of an illness gripping her, learns also that that illness has spread to her fellow expeditionists, at least those who survived, they being scant in number. Pregnancy sees additional development, while in the conclusion the player is presented with a choice, not easily decided. This conclusion is, admittedly, wonderful and impactful, but it cannot remedy the great failures seen elsewhere.

Existing alongside these great narrative failings is wonderful world-building and presentation, which do serve a compensatory role, the game brimming with atmosphere and moodiness, a somber tone adopted throughout, this somberness heightened by excellent shadow work, the interplay between light and dark. But just as the divided narrative results in failing – the human emphasized one moment, the supernatural the next, this vacillation contributing to the frustrating inconsistency – this division bolsters the environments’ resonance, in that this division results in considerable environmental diversity; aesthetically, that detached realm, that pervasively dark and gloomy realm, could not be farther removed from the Algerian landscapes and interiors, which while featuring ample darkness also include fierce displays of beautiful, blinding brightness, as deserts are briefly navigated, forts and villages also traversed. This environmental vacillation, meanwhile, results in considerable unpredictability, as the player is left to ponder over the precise nature of the next explorable environment – will it be bathed in brightness and hope, or will it be excessively frightful, eerie, bizarre beyond comprehension? These ponderances thus result in excitement, and no environment ever outstays its welcome, Tasi constantly on the move, leaping from that realm to this realm, all by way of that mythical amulet. Each environment thus has its own distinct identity, and even the Algerian environments feature ample diversity – just as there are those desertscapes and beautiful forts, remnants of civilization, there are traditionally horrific environments, especially those detached from the sun, its soothing presence, as is the case frequently, whenever interior locations are navigated. Here, in commanding darkness, claustrophobia is commonplace, as is observable when exploring Algerian caverns, the ceilings low, a bitter wind seemingly blowing throughout, menacing, reflecting nature’s strengths, Tasi’s – humankinds’ – weaknesses, vulnerabilities. Certain of the formerly heavily-populated regions – like the fort – are naturally endowed with human amenities and conveniences, suggesting its inhabitants sought to push back against that selfsame cruel nature, and partially met with success, the rooms defined by a strange sort of beauty, even with their desolation. The game, then, is sunny one moment, gloomy and melancholic next, and this is speaking only of Algeria.

Suitably, that detached, secondary realm is a bizarre construction, a place of staggering largeness, communicated by relatively sprawling draw distances. Some of these regions are dominated by towering structures, like a citadel of impossible height, looming menacingly overhead, though maintaining an enigmatic beauty despite that menace, the structure suggesting the highly advanced nature of that society, having access to tools and knowledges unknown to Tasi, to Algeria, to the whole world. This is observable further still when assessing the various contraptions distributed throughout, like caged objects which serve the role of transportation, and tablets of strange, runic texts, completely indecipherable, that text often accompanied by strange anatomical illustrations, illustrating that dark society’s fascination with knowledge, experimentation. It is this fascination which results in greatest bleakness, the strange civilization exploiting their knowledge to harvest life-prolonging vitae, a terrible substance whose consumption carries considerable risk, a risk these warped, corrupted people rarely heed. And this substance has a terrible history, the method of its extraction being violent, reflecting these peoples’ heartlessness, their craving for the substance – vitae is extracted by inflicting pain upon a still-living individual. Knowing of this darkness minimizes the grandeur implied in that towering citadel, those exotic contraptions and anatomical illustrations – light exists alongside dark; warfare is being waged in this world. As Tasi navigates this fallen world, it is obvious that darkness shall be victorious, the darkness already existing warping these ancient peoples into distorted monsters, having long lost their humanity, devolving into beasts. For all Algeria’s oppressions, its sometimes-sweltering sun, it is far preferable to this land of barbarisms, brutality, a place of dazzling blue, simultaneously primal and impossibly progressive, advanced.

The gameplay is typically shallow and dull, with a heavy emphasis upon puzzle-solving, this emphasis resulting in a slower, more plodding pacing. Much of this puzzle-solving is directly connected to environmental exploration, the manipulation of various discoverable objects. Fine in theory, the ubiquitousness of this design philosophy gradually grows to erode its effectiveness. It is immensely frustrating, meanwhile, to scour the environments for a protracted span, looking for one specific object necessary for advancement, further progression. Still, despite this relatively scant puzzle diversity, the puzzles proper are sometimes cerebrally engaging, neatly balancing the logical with the cryptic, meaning that after a bit of scrutiny – and provided the requisite object is on hand – progression is typically achievable in a short period of time. The more protracted puzzle sequences are especially rewarding, one useful illustration being Tasi’s exploration of the abandoned fort, clever environmental storytelling revealing this fort once had a strong military presence. Given this former presence, a smallish artillery gun is on hand, expectantly featuring an elongated barrel, which enables great destructiveness. This cannon is eventually used to blow apart a towering wooden door, this door preventing the player from leaving the fort. But the player must not simply enter the cannon, load a shell and begin the destruction process; they must instead craft a suitable shell, gathering together the requisite materials, distilling certain of them, eventually fusing them together and finally sealing the components in the shell’s outer casing. Object in hand, the cannon becomes operable – progression is achieved. This sequence is particularly enjoyable, and this enjoyability only makes the puzzle inconsistences all the more painful; the basic traditionally overwhelms the complex, though, again, even basic puzzles pose potential frustrations, owing to the immense care the player must take during exploration, being mindful and always alert of the environments, objects of seeming importance. The player, also, is provided with ample opportunities for environmental interaction, as objects can be carried, thrown about, or inspected, this interactivity directly connected to some of the puzzle-solving, as obstacles are manipulated, predetermined barriers destroyed. But Rebirth is fiercely linear, with few branching pathways, though the occasional largeness of the environments still results in potential confusion, player misdirection. Despite the painful inconsistencies here, the sense of triumph which accompanies completion of especially complex puzzles is fierce – the gameplay has rewarding attributes.  

With the almost total domination of puzzle-solving, of quietness, the few instances of loudness are especially appreciated, impactful, and the vacillation between loud / quiet preserves gameplay freshness. Loudness is directly connected to the spawning of enemy NPCs, those seemingly crafted owing to the exploitation and abuse of vitae – here are literal monsters, ravenous, seeing Tasi as a threat when all she desires is escape, distance from their world with its pervasive darkness. Quite often, their menace is strongly exerted in chase sequences, whereupon Tasi must flee with great haste, the monsters perfectly matching her pace. Assuming she fails – which is a not uncommon occurrence – the beasts have the tendency to violently latch on to her, whereupon their physical grotesqueness is easily discernible. And their design is frightful, while their menace is enhanced through superb sound design; hearing their plodding, shambling pace, or hearing the quickening of that pace after they have become alerted to Tasi’s presence: it is immensely immersive, and even with its minimalism, greatest terror is directly connected to this audio design; it cannot be praised enough, breathing life into the experience. And Rebirth is a survival horror game at heart, that designation of course bringing with it ample expectations, which are fulfilled here, even if sometimes half-heartedly. Tasi is, again, completely helpless, having only her fleet feet for security. This mechanic is far from innovative at this point – consider the Outlast series – meaning it is iterative, and is accordingly very tired. True, the power imbalance heightens tension, though the game is excessively forgiving on this front; death brings with it very few practical penalties, though accompanying death is a painfully obnoxious cutscene, sometimes lasting upwards of thirty or so seconds, fast growing tedious. It preserves immersion, certainly, in that the player is presented with no loading screen, though it is excessively and frustratingly intrusive. Further reflecting the tropes of the survival horror genre, resource management sees implementation, the two primary resources of concern being matches and lantern fuel. Both of these objects are finite in quantity, which seemingly points towards cautiousness; wastefulness here is punished; at least in theory – despite their finiteness both objects are easily acquired, fairly abundant. The lantern as object is especially empowering, casting a sharp ring of illumination, and accordingly lantern fuel is scarcer than matches, which braze bright for a time, before promptly extinguishing. The crucial role these objects play to the entire experience only heightens the joys of exploration; their existence incentivizes exploration, though again limits are in place here – Rebirth is fiercely linear in design. Still, planning a path before lighting a match, making a survey of how many torches can be ignited on a single match – it is rewarding and exciting, and resource management is mostly well-implemented here. In a bizarre turn, though, whenever shrouded in total darkness, the lighting shifts, the screen adopting subtle lavender hues, providing slight illumination, just sufficient for navigation, albeit with some lessened visibility. Protracted span in the dark does eventually result in insanity – and eventually death – meaning the player cannot rely on this purple illumination always, though its inclusion is puzzling, serving a very forgiving function, lessening tension. But with ferocious enemies, player helplessness, and the need to carefully monitor resource, here is an experience which clings tightly to the survival horror genre, though never advancing it.  

As an experience, Amnesia: Rebirth is painfully overwrought, needlessly long and accordingly needlessly tedious; had the developers exercised greater economy, more fully embraced narrative concision, the improvements would be substantial, in that the survival horror genre generally benefits from lessened length, for alongside greater, more protracted immersion within any game world comes a destruction of overall frightfulness. Reflecting this, not only does Rebirth grow tedious, but is also becomes devoid of that frightfulness – it becomes boring, the worst complaint which can be lodged against a horror title. The dearth of narrative engagement has lasting repercussions – one hour of play time can seem like four or five, while the divided nature of this narrative is Rebirth’s greatest failing – had the developers completely adopted the grounded, choosing to emphasize Algeria and Algeria alone, the experience would be focused, the vision complete and coherent, while the same could be said if the other dimension received sole emphasis. Instead, both vie for narrative importance, dominance. The gameplay sustaining this narrative is typically unengrossing, though sometimes punctuated with greatness, especially when a very robust puzzle is presented, though such puzzles are quite anomalous, dullness instead predominating, the player sometimes prompted to wander about aimlessly for a painfully long duration. Still, the game is abounding in atmosphere and immersion, with impactful sound design and world-building, though atmospheric gloom and melancholy – which do certainly exist here, owing to that selfsame sound design, visual experimentation – do not automatically equate to sheer dread; indeed, Rebirth is mostly dreadless, sometimes unnerving, though those unnerving sensations are not intense, are incredibly fleeting, scarce. When considered alongside the much earlier Amnesia: The Dark Descent – also developed by Frictional Games -countless are the inferiorities here, that game benefitting from a decidedly Gothic aesthetic, while one coherent vision was clung to and embraced throughout, never discarded, as so often happens here, many visions in direct competition with one another, sharply dividing the experience. The Dark Descent’s environment, Castle Brennenburg, was gloomy throughout, but that gloominess had a fiercely human, believable component to it, even as bestial monster roamed the corridors, frightful. Here, though, in the environments humanity is frequently deemphasized, displaced by the supernatural. Given the natural passage of time, the constant nature of progress, it follows that technically this game dwarfs in complexity that one; and so it does. But imbalances of enjoyability exist, too, that game consistently engaging and immersive, this one similarly immersive though rarely engaging – even while Rebirth has a great degree of heart and personality, being aesthetically beautiful and bizarre in turn, outside of presentation and sound design, many are the failures committed; restricted gameplay complexity, when compounded with a dull narrative, prompts disaster.

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