To openly admit to one of the biggest cliché's in storytelling in the very title of your game is a pretty bold move. To then set your game in a stereotypical haunted castle complete with rattling chains, a mysterious host with a voice so deep and gravely its bordering on parody, and even a secret room hidden behind a bookshelf, seems more like waving a big pair of landing lights for the spectre of mediocrity. In fact, if you're a newcomer to the twisted creative vision of Frictional Games, you'd be forgiven for thinking that their latest attempt at scaring the living daylights out of you was seriously lacking in the imagination department.
If, however, you've experienced the macabre delights of the Penumbra trilogy, then you will probably be drooling at the prospect of Frictional going back to the roots of Gothic horror. While the third part of their trilogy, Requiem may have been something of a misfire, Overture was an impressive first release from the developer, and Black Plague was a mini masterpiece, earning itself a nomination from the Writer's Guild of Britain for best videogame script. Now, having got some serious hands-on time with Frictional's upcoming title – Amnesia: The Dark Descent – I can say that you needn't have any qualms about the apparent conventionality of Frictional's second original IP.
Players will assume the role of Daniel, who awakens on the floor of a small study room in a nineteenth century Prussian castle with no memory of anything except his own name. In the room he finds a note from himself, commanding him to find and kill Alexander Brennenberg, who is the lord of the castle. A simple enough premise, but the story becomes gradually more complex as it unfolds. I will refrain from saying too much more about it here, though the first third of the game (what was available in the preview) concentrates mainly on filling out Daniel's back-story, his reasons for coming to castle Brennenberg and the various myths and legends surrounding the castle and the forests in which it is located.
Anybody who has played Penumbra will be immediately familiar with the mixture of puzzle solving and survival horror. Amnesia uses a second iteration of Frictional's own HPL engine , which means the physics-based interactivity seen in the Penumbra series is making a welcome return. Drawers and doors can be manually pulled open by clicking the left mouse button and then dragging the mouse in the appropriate direction. It's a simple enough thing, but it certainly adds to the immersion, especially considering you will be searching an awful lot of drawers and cupboards during your time in Castle Brennenberg.
This is because exploration of the castle is key to staying alive. Amnesia implements a double health system. Firstly, there is Daniel's physical health, which drains if he is attacked by enemies. There are no weapons in the game, so running and hiding are the only ways to deal with the Castle's nefarious denizens. You can use the environment to your advantage - throwing books and ornaments at enemies will slow them down, but it won't kill them. This might sound off-putting to some, given how used we are as gamers to running around with a gun in our virtual palms, but even at this stage it's clear the game won't be lesser due to it, simply because it makes Castle Brennenberg a far more frightening place.
Water, now 100% more terrifying
Of course, the most intelligent thing to do is avoid being seen in the first place, which means embracing the darkness. The only problem is the dark in Castle Brennenberg is just as dangerous as whichever malevolent force lurks in it. This is where Daniel's mental health comes into play. Witnessing disturbing events, staring at an enemy, or staying in the dark too long all drain Daniel's sanity, so while keeping to the shadows is sometime necessary to survive, it's a trick that cannot be relied on because every moment spent in the dark brings Daniel one step closer to a straight-jacket and a padded cell. It's not a one-way trip to the asylum, though. Sanity can be restored by completing puzzles or drinking sanity potions which are littered about the castle (more on this later).
Much of the tension is derived from this precarious balancing act between safety and sanity. In addition, light is at a premium. Tinderboxes can be used to ignite stationary light sources such as candles and torches, but these only provide minimal illumination. Much more effective is your lantern, but this requires oil in order to function. This is why exploring the Castle is so crucial, as you will never know when you will come across your next light source. Of course, searching the rooms efficiently requires a light source, so you will need to be thorough when looking around without lingering too long.
It isn't just the game mechanics that create the tension in the game, the castle itself is drenched in it's own oppressive atmosphere, largely due to the dynamic sound effects. The wind whistles through the draughty corridors, floorboards randomly creak upstairs, usually accompanied by a shower of dust falling from the ceiling, and there are the frequent supernatural roars and howls that automatically make you shudder because you know Daniel's sanity has just taken another hit. One particular sequence involving an underground corridor flooded with water got me so worked up I had to walk away from the computer and gather my senses with a cup of coffee.
Windows you can see out of are a big hint as to what your next move should be
I did have one major concern though, and that was with the sanity potions. They seemed quite liberally spread through the third of the game that was available to play, so although Daniel occasionally got the shivers and began muttering to himself, I never got to see the repercussions of deep mental instability. Additionally, the simple fact of their presence is a little jarring. Why exactly are there sanity potions in every other cupboard in the castle? Hopefully this will be explained further down the line, but I am worried that the abundance of the sanity potions might risk ruining that sense of tension and apprehension that has otherwise been so carefully constructed.
Overall though, Amnesia: The Dark Descent is shaping up very well. Well, technically it's shaping up horribly, but in a great way. Penumbra was fantastic in parts, but it was a schizophrenic beast, unsure of what sort of game it wanted to be. By contrast Amnesia is the second child of parents who have learned from their experiences, and looks to be a much more balanced, more professional creation. And regardless of how the overall game turns out, one thing is already very clear – it's going to scare you absolutely witless.