Thursday, May 5, 2011

amnesia - the dark descent, part 1

i loved Penumbra, but you knew that. It was a cerebral horror masterpiece by relatively unknown indie developer Frictional. They saw a minor success with the Penumbra games, and so this time around the media gave them a little more attention for their new release, Amnesia. Amnesia takes place 400 years in the past, and you control an amnesiac (imagine!) named Daniel. Like Penumbra, I did not outright buy this game based on reputation. I played its demo, and if memory serves right I bought Penumbra first because I wanted to play these games in proper succession. Penumbra was a lovely surprise, a game I wish every gamer had the attention span or patience for.

It's amazing how much like Penumbra this game is. You are, for all intents and purposes, alone in a dark English castle, and while a rudimentary internet search has not turned up a year for the game, I'm guessing it's set sometime around the 1700s. You wander this castle picking up items and flicking switches, and are told the game's story almost entirely through notes and auditory flashbacks. I hate using words like "tribute", but this game really does channel 90s CD-ROM point-and-click adventure games, a genre that I think is incredibly rewarding despite being incredibly frustrating. Despite liking that genre, the only one I really played in the 90s was The Neverhood, and I cheated through it. As an older person who lives in a time when, for the most part, such frustrations are not tolerated, I'm glad to see this genre still fighting to stay alive. Most of the tedium of having to click to move is replaced by simply having it control like an FPS. Problem solved, you can go wherever you want and it doesn't take a half hour to do that. The puzzles aren't really complicated to boot, and are usually solved in under 3 steps. Sometimes it's as simple as opening inventory, selecting crowbar, and then clicking a door.

Wrong crowbar. There are no weapons in this game.
Like (again) Penumbra, your most frequently used tools are light sources. Amnesia's setting predates things like flashlights and glow sticks, so your tools this time are a lantern and tinderboxes. The castle is full of wall-mounted torches and candles for you to light with tinder, and you carry a lantern that you must refill with oil. I found myself using the lantern way too much and constantly running out, but it's not like tinderboxes were excessively plentiful either. I started this game before installing Windows 7 on my computer, so I ran through the first few levels twice, and did them pretty quickly and without lighting many sources. Once I got to areas that were new, I started using tinderboxes and oil to the point of leaving myself in the dark. This was something Frictional had adjusted several times over the 3 parts of Penumbra, so it kinda seems like they're still trying to find a comfortable amount of light sources to give a player. I can understand that they don't want the player to have infinite light because it wouldn't be scary, but it is kind of frustrating to constantly run out of it, especially when being in the dark gnaws at your mental health.

In addition to having the standard health, you also get a mental health meter. If you stay in the dark too long or witness something scary, your psychological health is worn away which causes your vision to become blurry, and you walk around kinda drunk-like. I'm not sure what happens if it reaches 0, as I haven't let it get that bad, but if you're constantly having to watch a meter that's affected by darkness, maybe it's not such a good idea to have your players constantly hovering between "a little light" and "no light". The most annoying thing about it is that you can only see your mental health by pressing Tab and going into inventory. It's an atmosphere breaker, and atmosphere is probably this game's best trait. 

In almost complete darkness with only local light sources available and constant moans and such going on while you're trying to solve puzzles, this game is almost all atmosphere. The beginning of the game outright tells you "don't focus on combat. In fact, it's probably best to run. Just focus on immersing yourself." I've never seen a game outright say that to its player. I thought a move like that actually bordered on pretentious, especially because I already knew that this was that sort of game. It's probably a message for people who aren't familiar with Frictional, but I also think there's something to be said for letting things like that be. If a person has found their way to this game, they probably already know that. Anyways, the old castle that's lit entirely by candles is a wonderful setting for you to get lost in, door closed and lights off with headphones. A good horror game makes you hesitate before going to investigate the next rattle, and this game does that. I was scared by this game, and I was so glad that there was a game released since Fatal Frame that could do that.

The game is a little taxing on my machine, even though I've run better-looking games at a smoother framerate. This, however, is common with a lot of smaller developers; they just dont have as much resources to put into making a game run beautifully on every system. I'm currently rocking a Phenom II quad-core with 4gb of RAM and a GeForce 8800GTS, and this game has to be run on medium settings to get a decent framerate. This is probably due to my video card, which is 4 years old, or "pretty freaking old" in video card years. So make sure you have a video card from the last couple years, and over 320mb. Other than that, there's not a whole lot to report until I finish, then I'll get to the story. It's a solid game. Get it.

Buy it from Steam
Steam Demo
But it from Frictional Games
Frictional Demo (same as Steam demo)

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