Amnesia: The Dark Descent
What if you could forget your past? The things you said that you regret, the time someone broke your heart or you broke theirs... wouldn't it be easier if it would all just go away? Amnesia: The Dark Descent is the latest horror adventure title from Frictional Games that not only deals with things that go bump in the dark, but regret, guilt, and hate as well. You wake up on the floor in a silent castle, unable to remember anything except, your name; Daniel. But a name isn't an identity, and just because you can't remember your past doesn't mean it isn't still out there waiting for you.
Movement is the [WASD] keys by default, and most items in your environment can be interacted with using the mouse and physics. If your cusor changes to a hand, you can manipulate whatever you're looking at. Click and hold on a door, for example, then push or pull the mouse to fling it open. (Or slowly to take a peek, if you prefer.) Press [TAB] to open your inventory and pause the game. Much of the game is dependant on light sources, which either come in the form of the lantern you pick up early on, which needs to be supplied with fuel, or by using tinderboxes to ignite things light torches, fireplaces, candles, and so forth.
For whatever arbitrary reason, you cannot carry even small torches or candlesticks when they're lit, so give some thought to the position of a light source before you use up your limited tinder on it. The game is surprisingly good at giving you supplies just when you need them the most, but you'll still want to conserve whenever possible. You also can't snuff out a stationary light source. Why is that important? Well, although Daniel's sanity suffers when he's in the dark, you're also harder to find.
Daniel is unable to fight off any attackers you might encounter, so whenever danger rears its head your options are typically hide, run, or run faster. Cupboards, overturned furniture, dark corners, and more all provide decent cover if something's on your tail. This is important, since there are no cutscenes and if something's coming after you, you'll need to act quickly. You should try to make a habit out of scouting out potential hiding places whenever you enter a new area, especially since you're frequently left with only a few seconds to react whenever you hear that you have company. Find somewhere dark, crouch down, don't move or turn on the lights, and whatever you do, don't look; staring at an enemy too long will make Daniel panic, so resist the temptation to turn around, no matter how close to your back that snuffling sounds...
The game autosaves for you at certain points, usually signified by a soft blue glow momentarily flushing across the screen, but the only way for you to really conveniently save your game is to choose "Save and Exit" from the menu.
Analysis: You might not agree with me on this, but I've always thought horror is best without much explanation and a lot of ambiguity. If we don't know why we're being hurt or hunted, and the creature after us can't be reasoned with or explained, then the confusion can make the fear sharper. "Ancient mystical doo-dad" is the gaming equivalent of "the butler did it", but at least it keeps Amnesia from throwing back the mystery from their monsters and their unsettling setting. The story here is related primarily through journal entries or flashbacks, as well as the dreamlike bits of text that pop up during loading screen. The teasing delivery manages to intrigue you enough to keep playing, revealing more and more, and is deliciously creepy to boot.
Amnesia takes you to some beautifully designed locations that go from lavish living quarters to bloody makeshift "laboratories" and places that can only be described as surreal. (The monsters, on the other hand, can be described as "OH GAWD WHAT IS THAT A-BUH-HUH-HUH-HUH!!") It's a welcome departure from Penumbra's endless buffet of near-identical caverns, tunnels, and steel rooms, and each area presents its own challenge. The game also sounds great, especially the sound effects that add tremendously to the atmosphere. The soft hush of the wind through a broken widow. Rocks or wooden beams settling overhead. The nearby howl of an interdimensional hellbeast that sends you scurrying into the sheltering embrace of the nearest wardrobe where you cower defenselessly as you try to blubber quietly.
Amnesia takes cues from both Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem and Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth at least as far as gameplay goes, relying on cunning and stealth rather than letting you take the Chuck Norris approach. The addition of sanity to the game allows you to see some really neat effects that add to the unsettling atmosphere, but it also means you've basically got another "health bar" to worry about. Since your sanity also suffers when you're in the dark (what a weenus), you either have to constantly light candles or burn through your oil if you don't want Daniel to cry himself into a puddle while the camera goes all wobbly and cockroaches crawl over your face.
Because you're unable to engage in fisticuffs with whatever beasties end up tracking you down, the game forces you to get creative. You can distract enemies by throwing objects away from you (yes, that old trick), or utilize your frequently destructible environment to create temporary barriers or obstacles to buy yourself some time. Hiding is still the best tool in your chest, however, and when you hear something looking for you, your best bet is usually to flee to somewhere dark, crouch down, and stay quiet. The appearance of monsters is fairly unpredictable, which means you're on edge roughly 95% of the time. You'll quickly learn not to trust the game when it tries to make you feel safe; just because there's soothing music playing and candles glowing all around doesn't mean something that thinks you look tasty isn't about to make an appearance.
Unfortunately, the game is not what you might call particularly difficult. Any puzzle aspects the game tries to offer up fail to really engage. When your progress is impeded by an obstacle, you'll usually find some sort of note or letter nearby that conveniently details what you need and where to find it, and usually what to do with it when you get it. Once you've tracked them down, it's typically just a matter of bringing the item back to where you were stuck and using it on the obstacle. Whether this is a big deal for you largely depends on how much you like that big, beautiful brain of yours to feel smug and stimulated. Admittedly, there's something to be said about the accessibility of a title where the puzzles largely revolve around throwing things at other things, and it does keep the pacing moving along rather nicely.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent has some of the most tense and unnerving gameplay you'll find with a satisfyingly creepy story as its tasty nougat center. A single playthrough will probably last you around eight hours or so, and there are a few different endings that depend on your actions towards the end of the game. A fantastic achievement for its developers, and the most intense experience I've had in a game in a long time. It's an improvement in virtually every way over its spiritual predecessor, and, while not quite perfect, is well worth a spot on your shelf if you've been waiting for a game that not only sets out to scare the living daylights out of you, it brings out the big guns to do it repeatedly.