This is the part where I usually give credit to the developers of Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs and I had always planned to say “developed by Frictional Games in concert with The Chinese Room”. But you know what, I no longer know what I do and do not know any more considering that Wikipedia (the source of all knowledge, I’m sure you’ll agree) informs me that the sequel to the critically acclaimed and utterly horrifying Amnesia: The Dark Descent was developed by The Chinese Room and merely published by Frictional Games. Normally I’d assume I’m right, but disagreeing with Wikipedia seems to border on blasphemy so I’ll leave it up to you to figure out what the score is.
Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs is set in the same universe as The Dark Descent and is set 60 years following the events of said game. Beyond the fact that it is within the same universe there is very little relation between A Machine for Pigs and The Dark Descent. The main character, Oswald Mandus, has no interaction with Daniel whatsoever, there’s no real reference to the Castle of Brennenburg or even of Alexander, the mysterious antagonist of the original. There is even no mention of the “Shadow” which pursues Daniel for the majority of The Dark Descent. The only real plot point which carries over is the very occasional reference to an orb of power, similar to the one Daniel found prior to the events of The Dark Descent.
While backstory-wise the game is a very indirect sequel, within the game itself it has all the hallmarks of it’s predecessor. Mandus wakes up at the start of the game with no memory of the recent months, discovering that underneath his factory is a massively vast and fiendishly complex machine and he must travel down into it’s depths in order to fix the damage done by a saboteur, all in order to save his twin children. Of course as he progresses the mystery of his past begins to unveil and the player learns more and more about how involved Mandus was with the creation of the machine and what it’s ultimate purpose is. And, in case you hadn’t guessed, the answer to how involved Mandus was is “a fucking lot” and the answer to the purpose of the Machine is “it’s fucking evil”.
Exposition comes mostly in the form of confusing and vague notes scattered throughout the game; diary entries, scientific notes and other documents of a similar nature. Nothing which out-right explains what is going on but ultimately each add a little piece to the puzzle, allowing the player to gradually put together what the dark purpose of the massive and infernal machine is.
The gameplay itself is also very similar to the original. Mandus must make his way through dark and dingy corridors, through the bowels of the machine itself, often with only his lantern for illumination whilst all around him one can hear the machine wheezing and shuddering and coughing, all designed to torture the nerves into a state of unimaginable tension. Meanwhile you are stalked by the half-pig, half-man wretches which act as the denizens and subordinates of the machine, creatures whose very presence makes lights flicker and courage wither.
The Chinese Room was made famous by a few games, most notable amongst them though was Dear Esther, something that I (amongst many others) feel a little uncomfortable calling a game. It was a rather moving, quite gorgeous and very atmospheric experience, but as a game there was literally nothing there. So you can understand that The Chinese Room is a developer which tends to aim both for breaking the mould and that they very much take to heart the phrase “less is more”.
The problem is that in Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, less most definitely feels like LESS. The game lacks a few very surprising things from its predecessor, the most notable amongst which is the inventory. There is now no inventory screen of any kind and this results in the loss of a large number of mechanics from the original game which, I personally feel actively takes away from the game. There is now no health meter, no sanity meter, your lamp never runs out of oil (and there is nothing you can collect and store in order to fill it up even if it did) and because of the lack of an inventory puzzles are often far simpler and far more contained.
The largest improvement to the game is in the visuals, which can simply be attributed to the 3 year waiting period between the games. Saying that a sequel looks better and more impressive than it’s predecessor is almost inevitable really and is hardly worth saying. Of course, it is worth saying that The Chinese Room did a fantastic job of designing the game to look and feel so dark and terrifying without ever resorting to anything particularly in-your-face or glaringly ostentatious. The machine itself feels like it is vast beyond comprehension and that you are merely an ant scurrying about within it, far too large for you to comprehend either it’s designs or motives. The setting as well, the combination of steampunk machine and Victorian factory, makes for a wonderful setting for the series, it’s dark, it’s depressing and sombre and most importantly, there is always an excuse for some distant noise or some movement in the corner of your peripheral vision which can drive you insane as you attempt to sneak through dark corridors and pipes.
The lack of a health meter is not particularly noticeable I think, in the previous game I very rarely had cause to use the laudanum “health packs” which you had to collect but the other aspects are an entirely different matter. The sanity meter may have been a bit of an unusual mechanic, because it meant that when one was hiding in the darkness from a monster one had a chance of losing by going insane, despite the fact that Daniel ought to have associated the darkness with safety. However, it provided an added layer of tension to hiding which is noticeable by it’s absence now, you can hide in any dark nook or cranny for as long as you want and will be entirely safe. Equally the sanity meter provided one reason why you were not allowed to look at the monsters which were hunting you (the other reason being that if you stared too long they would notice you) but now you are entirely free to stare for as long as you like at the creatures trying to sniff you out. This makes the monsters lose some of their mystique and actually makes them feel a little less threatening as you are able to blatantly keep an eye on them without any negative repercussions. As everyone knows, the more unknown and mysterious a threat or monster is the scarier it can be, so by allowing you to so easily watch the monsters it does make them seem less scary overall.
The lack of an inventory itself provides a couple of issues. In The Dark Descent most puzzles were based around the inventory, for example, you would find a door which was locked and then you would have to find a key for the door. This allowed the modding community to base most of their puzzles around similar problems and solutions: you find an obstacle, you find a thing, you use the thing on the obstacle, obstacle gone. Now, I suspect the reason there are no mods at all (that I could find) for A Machine for Pigs is that there is no inventory allowing for the creation of simple puzzles like that, which is a great shame because there were some truly fantastically scary mods for the original. The other thing is that I think the lack of an inventory is directly responsible for the game feeling much more linear and much more straight-forward.
For example, at one stage of the game I entered a pump room in which I had to pull a lever to activate the pump. Unfortunately, and obviously, the machinery was broken so I would have to repair it first. Now, in the former, this would have been an excuse to send me down a variety of dark and dangerous side corridors, maybe throw in a monster event or even a new side location, so that I could find the necessary piece to repair the machine with. In reality what happened was that the door to the room locked and I had to find a couple of cogs which were sitting in the open to repair the machine and then the door opened again. It felt like genuinely one of the most utterly pointless thing I’ve ever done in a game. The cogs were literally right next to the broken machine. I didn’t have to look for them, I didn’t have to go anywhere (hell, I actually couldn’t). There really was no point to it, and frankly the same thing could have been achieved if I had simply thrown the lever and it worked first time (in fact I think that would have been better).
And this was a recurring theme throughout the game. There was never any central hubs which you had to traverse back and forth across to find the things needed to progress. There was never any side doors or rooms which one could traverse. It was all linear, one thing after the other, corridor after room after corridor. It was actually very disappointing in that regard.
The lack of an “oil meter” is also conspicuous by it’s absence, because yet again it removes an element of tension from the game. There’s never any fear of running out of light, never any fear of being trapped in the dark unable to see your way out, and so there’s just that bit less fear associated with the game.
One final conspicuous absence is that you can no longer interact with just about anything. In The Dark Descent, you could pick up and throw about just about every random piece of junk you came across in the game, now though you are limited only to things like chairs and plot items. This means that if you can interact with something, then invariably it is important to the plot. It actually, again, makes the game feel simpler, makes it feel like there is less to do and less impact for the player to make. The joker within me suggests that perhaps they did it so that when Pewdiepie did his playthrough he wouldn’t be distracted by, and talk to, literally every random piece of furniture. But surely that’s not a good enough reason to ACTUALLY remove that element of the game?
Hindsight also provides another spanner to throw into the works of the machine that is A Machine for Pigs. While at the time I have to admit that I was tense practically the entirety of my playthrough of the game and that I was definitely very scared very often, looking back I have to admit that I realise now that I was only very, VERY occasionally actually in any danger. It’s a very strange feeling to know that really I had no call to actually be as scared as I was, and I think it started to come through while I was playing, as towards the end of the game, even as my encounters with the wretches grew more frequent, I felt less threatened by them because they so rarely seemed to pay me any attention.
In the end though, the biggest problem with A Machine for Pigs is that it is a sequel to a game which had literally everyone quaking in their boots. It doesn’t feel like a sequel along the lines of Portal 2, where the company could use the funds and fans generated by the previous game and make a bigger, better, more extensive experience. Instead it feels like they were scrabbling for ideas, like this was never something planned and they just could not really live up to the hype and standard set by the previous game.
I want to make it clear, it WAS scary. Hell I was pretty bloody terrified for the majority of my playthrough. It came here to scare us, provide us with a few hours of terror, and you know what it does that job fantastically. The only reason that this review doesn’t involve me singing it’s praises is simply because it just wasn’t as scary as the first.