Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Justine review

In honour of the teaser website for the next Amnesia game by Frictional Games I decided that I would do a retrospective on the original Amnesia and it’s add-on Justine. Allow me to start the review by mentioning that I am well aware of how much has been said about this game by every reviewer in existence and I am likewise aware that there probably hasn’t been anyone who’s ever played it that didn’t like it.

Well unless the player absolutely cannot stand having to shower every time after gaming from having pissed themselves in fear too much.

Yes I realise it’s actually almost as cliche to say this about Amnesia: The Dark Descent as it is to actually review Amnesia: The Dark Descent, but the game is bloody scary. And despite it being a cliche, it’s still worth saying as it is what the game is ABOUT! And I don’t just mean scary. I mean you WILL crap your pants… Repeatedly…

You see I’ve only played a few games that could be described as in the “horror” genre. Or at least in the genre where they are trying to scare you. And in all honesty Amnesia is the only one to do it properly. Most of them are along the lines of Doom 3 where there are repeated “cheap scare” moments. You know the sort thing, wandering along a dark and dingy corridor and seeing a grate on the ceiling or floor or walls and when you get close enough, sure enough out jumps a monster trying to suck your ribs out through your skin. And despite expecting it and knowing it’s coming it still will make you jump or gasp with fright, most of the time anyway.

Then there are the games which despite being classes as horror barely even manage to pull off any of those cheap scare moments. Games like the most recent Aliens vs. Predator game from last year. Despite having a history of the movies actually being quite scary and the monsters being scary enough in their own right the game was simply not scary at all. This was because the jumpy moments were so obvious and predictable and it was then perfectly easy to blast the enemies apart with a storm of high-calibre gunfire.

Amnesia is nothing like these for a number of reasons but I think it might be worth pointing out first off that in all the other horror games I have ever played you have the ability to fight back and often in numerous ways. In Amnesia having absolutely no weapon what-so-ever means that running is the only option and knowing that you’re utterly defenceless, even if it’s just in a game, just adds another layer of psychological fear to the game.

What Amnesia did so well that so few other horrors do is that it understands the beauty of the human imagination. No matter how gruesome or horrible you make something the human imagination can almost always do it better. So what Frictional Games mostly focused on was the atmosphere of the game rather than the monsters themselves (although I will be honest the monsters are bloody terrifying in their own right as well).

Every single time the music playing in the game drops down to a low ominous note, every time a door creaks open or slams shut, every time something groans or growls somewhere nearby, every breath or gasp of wind and even the pounding of your character’s heart all add on to your paranoia that something is going to jump out at you from somewhere and do terrible and horrible things to you. And it IS paranoia because for the most part, it never actually happens!

Case in point: I would say that if you had nerves of steel and a fearless attitude to life and death you could make it through the first part of the game to where you first actually see a monster (and even then it’s just a glimpse of it from afar and round a corner) in about 15 minutes (less quite possibly). It took me the better part of an hour to get to that stage. This was because I jumped at every slightest sound and movement and spent ages hiding in shadows even when I was actually perfectly safe. My nerves were drawn tighter than a bowstring and I every single muscle was tensed in sheer bloody terror.

It’s all because the tension and build up in a game like this is where all the fear actually lies. The “cheap scares” in some games make you jump, sure. But in this you genuinely feel afraid. And I mean properly scared. Frictional worked out, as I said, that the imagination is stronger than anything they can really throw at you and they also know that the more you see of the monsters the less scary they become (this is also why Aliens from AvP are no longer scary, because we’ve spent too much time looking at them and actually killing them). In Amnesia you so rarely see the monsters that they never lose that mystery, that aura of “the unknown”. Because what you don’t know and don’t understand is scarier than what you do.

I know I heard something... Where is it? WHERE IS IT?!?

Alongside all the psychological fiddling with your tiny brain there are a number of other elements which just add to the fear and terror the game produces. What it does best actually is pacing. Every single thing seems calculated to keep you right on the edge of absolute terror, that knife edge before you actually piss yourself. And they hold you there, taut and tense for ridiculous lengths of time with nothing actually happening. Then there will be a sudden 20 or 30 second period of adrenaline fuelled panic with piss flying everywhere, followed by a further minute in which you try and calm yourself down. And then it starts all over again. And every single sound, sight or movement in the game is designed perfectly to keep that atmosphere.

As an example, further on in the game the monsters do actually roam and patrol various sections of the game and you have to sneak or run by then. But earlier on the monsters actually only have scripted appearances, mostly from a distance such that unless you actually go out of your way to attract their attention they won’t notice you and attack you. Despite this knowledge their simple proximity was often enough to reduce me to a drivelling wreck and I would have to go have a cup of tea to calm down.

Graphics wise the game still looks really rather good. It IS around a year and half old and it is an Indie game so top notch graphics are not to be expected. But as long as you don’t look too closely both the graphics and the physics engine are perfectly suited for the purposes of the game.

The puzzles in the game required to move from level to level are a little bit on the tedious side of things. You have to find an object, pick up object, use object on other object and move on to the next area. That in itself would have been boring, except that by advancing through the story (e.g. picking up objects or using them, or finding notes and other specific objects lying around) also usually results in a monster appearing or some other sort of scary thing happening.

A section where you have to find glass vials and then put the glass vials into a chemistry set

The story is a little hard to follow as it requires making assumptions and deductions from the variety of notes and bits of paper left lying around, but it’s pretty secondary and it’s not really necessary to understand the story to grasp the general gist of what’s going on.

The gameplay is fairly straightforward. I’ve explained the puzzles and I’ve hopefully made it clear that for the majority of the game you sneak about the place and the rest of the time you need to run as fast as you can in brief chases. The one last thing that ought to be mentioned is the fact that your survival does not hinge entirely on your character’s health. As well as actually having health (of a sort) you also have a sanity level and should you either die or become insane (if either one runs out) you lose. Sanity decreases when you observe supernatural things, look at monsters and stand where it is too dark. This means that when monsters do inevitably come close to your location you are forced to choose between hiding in the darkness and apparently dying of insanity or moving out into the open and having your lungs ripped out through your eyes.

While it’s a clever idea that only enhances the fear aspect of the game it does strike me as a little bit ridiculous (you know in the same world where dark magic and evil monsters roam about) that your character wouldn’t associate darkness with safety. At least when monsters are staring right at the only patch of light in the room…

I’ve been talking an awful lot about the main game here and not really mentioning Justine, the free stand-alone expansion which while set in the same universe doesn’t actually have anything to do with Amnesia itself. And the reason I haven’t mentioned it is because it’s simply more of the same. It’s shorter than Amnesia (a lot as far as I can tell) and there are actually only three monsters, all of whom are always present, so it’s a case of sneaking around them and avoiding them rather than them appearing when you least expect (okay, I lied, that happens too).

The screen goes all blurry as you go insane... But you're going to die anyway, so who cares?

There are also people who need saving in Justine, which is different from the main game in that you are no longer the only human about. Saving them takes longer and is more bother and gives the monsters more opportunity to catch you or you can just take the easy way out and kill them. But you wouldn’t be so callous and cruel would you? Apparently the number you save changes the end of Justine but I haven’t reached the end because of the one biggest difference. You can’t save in Justine, at all, so you are expected to play the game for about an hour straight and I imagine if you reach the end you’ll once again be sitting in a massive puddle of piss.

If there is any real problem with Amnesia (and by extension Justine) it’s that it’s TOO scary. I know that this is what the game sets out to do but I was honestly getting to the stage where I viewed playing the game with some trepidation as I knew I wouldn’t get too far in it before I’d have to turn it off and go have a little cry. I’ve played a fair way through the main story but each time I consider playing further it I only get as far as the loading screen before the music sets my tension level to max and I decide it’s just not worth the loss of sleep.

Rating: B

Amnesia is available on Steam for £12.99 and comes with Justine and a short novel of sorts… Which I haven’t read…

ALSO! Check me playing it for a bit:

3 thoughts on “Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Justine review

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