Today, Frictional Games are known as masters of horror, but in 2006, they were a group of university students at work on their thesis. The project in question? A propitiatory game engine with advanced lighting, physics and bloom.
To show off their tech, they bolted on a short playable demo and named it Penumbra. Beautiful but eerie, Penumbra showed promise and a full game was commissioned with a second episode to follow a year later. Then, in 2010, Frictional’s place in the contemporary consciousness was assured thanks to a Gothic horror title set in a haunted mansion in the classic style of Lovecraft. Its name was Amensia: The Dark Descent.
Today, Amnesia‘s influence is clear to see in games like Alien: Isolation, Outlast and Layers of Fear. The Amnesia Collection bundles The Dark Descent alongside its DLC, Justine, and a sequel titled A Machine for Pigs, giving PS4 players exclusive access to a series that has only appeared on PC in the past. But in a world where we’ve enjoyed the graphical fidelity of newer titles, does this golden oldie still cut it?
Technically, it’s a mixed bag. The interplay between light and dark is a crucial complement of the experience but both Dark Descent and Justine scream last generation and suffer from simple lighting and muddy textures. A Machine for Pigs is prettier, but it too has problems: namely appalling framerate dips and long loading times.
Yet, perhaps the bigger disappointment is the complete lack of bonus content. Where are the delicious extras? The behind-the-scenes videos? Heck, there’s not even an option in the menu to switch back and forth between the three games. You’re asking people to to plonk down $30 for titles you could snap up on Steam and you’re doing the bare minimum? The omission of a developer commentary is a particular missed opportunity. I, for one, would have loved to hear how a small team of university students turned an engine into a classic game.
That classic, of course, is Amnesia: The Dark Descent, one of the most unsettling experiences I’ve had the (mis)fortune to play. You’re a young British explorer named Daniel, who awakens in a mysterious castle with no knowledge of his past. A strange baron holds the answers to the missing parts of your memory, but he’s located deep in the depths of the castle. To find him, you must descend down the rabbit hole. The deeper you dive, the darker it gets. In this pitch black existence, only your lantern and your tinderboxes are your friend – and both are in finite supply.
Make no mistake, this is survival horror in its purest form. Drink in the darkness too liberally and Daniel will start to lose his sanity, a neat trick borrowed from Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth. His grip on reality is made more tenuous by the nasties that turn up with the ability to kill you in a single shot. The more anxious Daniel gets, the more the screen begins to swim sickeningly, making vision and movement difficult. Amnesia expertly plays on your anxiety to fight back. That there are no weapons to defend yourself with is masterstroke.
All the same, this set up is less impressive six years on where enemy AI is simian at best, and at its worst, non-existent. Enemies often simply disappear, and in these moments, it’s hard not to ignore the suspicion that they’re simply spawning in and out of the map. After the cat and mouse brilliance of Ripley versus the alien in Isolation, Dark Descent no longer seems as smart.
The delicate balance of puzzle-solving hasn’t gotten old, however, and Dark Descent makes use of environmental puzzles as well as inventory gamesmanship to slow the pace and get you thinking. Set to a backdrop of unrelenting fear and despair, this methodical pace works well. It’s a pity then that the story is so over the top and falls afoul of supernatural silliness. Were it more plausible it might do the fantastic set up justice.
By contrast, A Machine for Pigs, its 2013 sequel, is almost a direct inverse of this equation. Developed by The Chinese Room (of Everybody’s Gone to Rapture fame) it offers a more interesting story married to a far less interesting game. If Dark Descent is a test of skill and mettle, A Machine for Pigs is a glorified walking simulator where the vision of the world is more important than what you do in it.
The motif of pigs is writ large. Pig masks are strewn around the world, enemies are walking pigs and somewhere, deep in the bowels of the world, is a machine for pigs. Crucially, the core components of Dark Descent have been ripped out. There’s no inventory, there are fewer puzzles, there are no tinderboxes and your lantern stays lit for the entire six hour runtime. The view is more important than the struggle. It’s hard to even compare the two games, in fact, because once you scratch beneath the surface they’re different entities. Yes, both are macabre and both elicit fear. But while A Machine for Pigs is a polished demonstration of art design, Dark Descent is the proper game.
The final serving is Justine, a DLC to the original Dark Descent. Chronologically, it’s sandwiched between Dark Descent and A Machine For Pigs, but I’ve left it last because it runs for no more than 90 minutes. Last, then, but certainly not least because if anything, Justine is my favourite serving in this three-course dish.
It’s a classic example of DLC done well: a pure distillation of the formula without any of the fat. The game that results is a true thrill ride which places you in the shoes of an amnesiac at the mercy of three test chambers. Only this time, you’ve got someone else’s life in your hands. Each chamber serves up a new victim. Kill them and you’re on step closer to safety. The question is – can you spare them? The set up is so perfect I dare not spoil any more.
It is possible to die and the enemies you encounter in Justine have a clear reason for existing. Their inclusion in a shortened story makes their presence more effective, and the genius of Justine is that if you die, or quit, you’re taken back to the start. It’s entirely possible to undo all your hard work with one slip up, which only amplifies the tension. Added to that is the moral dilemma of saving these poor souls while trying to hurry to your own salvation. It’s quite brilliant.
A light-hearted romp this is not, but for anyone with interest in horror done well, Justine almost justifies the $30 asking price on its own. Whether you pay the money should ultimately come down to your history with the series. If you’re a longtime fan you’ll be disappointed by an inexpert port and a complete absence of bonus content. On the other hand, if you’re a newcomer itching for horror, Amnesia scratches that itch like few other series can. This trilogy displays horror at its purest, its most unadulterated, but in the years since these games first emerged, the Amnesia brand is no longer the undisputed king.
Originally published in We Got This Covered on 5 December, 2016.