Your enjoyment of Amnesia: The Dark Descent hinges almost entirely on what you expect to get out of it.
As a horror game, certainly what it’s advertised and probably considered by most to be, it shockingly comes across as rather...uninteresting. It does an amazing job setting a tense, foreboding atmosphere, layering on copious amounts of disturbing exposition and twisted imagery. And then sort of throws it away when it attempts to bring it all to boiling point and scare you out of your wits, relying on a sluggish, rather dimwitted monster which is rather less than frightening and scare tactics which all too quickly become predictable.
The sense of dread I felt when I first awoke in the mysterious castle that makes up Amnesia, was lost after just a few hours, as it became dreadfully easy to guess exactly when and how the game would attempt to scare me, no matter how much I kept hoping that it would reject my expectations. Picking up key items, opening a particularly unappealing door, or finding a note; Amnesia’s list of triggers is short and used liberally, making for an experience that quite frankly left me a bit annoyed at how little it managed to get to me. I was practically begging to be scared by the end, but aside from a few very brief standout sections Amnesia almost does more to set you at ease than it does to freak you out.
I say all this, and yet, Amnesia is still immensely compelling as something completely atypical of what I would have guessed: a traditional adventure game. Behind the gruesome imagery and very effective atmosphere, the excellent puzzle designs and exploration were what kept me intrigued and wanting to come back to the game. Though they’re often simple in design, there’s a rewarding logic to each puzzle that makes them unexpectedly enjoyable to solve. Frictional Games manages to make blind exploration and continual backtracking interesting and continually stimulating, with each area you visit being visually distinct and engaging, and often holding within contextual exposition that creates a great sense of place and causes the castle to feel far larger than just the areas you explore.
When you’re not solving puzzles, the disorganized narrative compels you forward, leaving you vague notes that give just enough information to make you want to learn more while rarely telling you the whole story until the very end. Finding the details of this plot are often disturbing and thoroughly unpleasant, leaving me feeling rather mixed about my protagonists actions but nonetheless complacent as I couldn’t leave this story unfinished. The flashbacks/hallucinations that your character often witnesses gives a look into how the castle used to operate, horribly inhumane and driven by some mysterious supernatural element, but all the same a place I wanted to learn more about if only so I could make sense of my character’s madness.
This madness is perhaps the game’s strongest achievement, distorting the world around you and causing you to see things that may very well not be there. Staying too long in the dark wears on your sanity, requiring you to ransack every room you come across so you can be sure to have enough oil for your lantern and tinderboxes to light candles and torches. I was a bit disappointed that these resources came in such large supply, as it made darkness less of a threat and more of an occasional hindrance to your view, but the mechanic was still engaging enough to cause me to pay more attention to the environment and as a result find things I may otherwise have missed.
It’s a little funny to me that despite being let down by the aspect that I expected would have prevented me from even finishing the game, what I found underneath it proved more than enough to push me through the game. If you’re hoping Amnesia will leave you terrified and sleeping with the lights on, you’ll most likely be let down by the underdeveloped, somewhat lazy frights found here. But if you can appreciate the game without those prerequisites, there’s an eerie and twisted adventure game waiting to swallow you whole into its brilliantly realized darkness.