I’ve never been more scared of reviewing a piece of media than I have been for AMNESIA: REBIRTH.
Its predecessor, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, developed by Frictional Games, remains the only video game I have never completed due to the sheer terror it evoked from me. Not because it was too difficult or because I didn’t enjoy it – because I was too scared.
Given that I’m a writer for a website like Nightmarish Conjurings, it should come as no surprise that I’m fond of all things horror and this includes video games. Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem is a contender for my favorite game of all time. Resident Evil 4 also ranks somewhere in my top ten. I enjoy horror titles and consume them somewhat frequently. So when I say that The Dark Descent scared me on a visceral level that’s practically unmatched, that’s not something I toss around lightly.
It has been ten years since The Dark Descent’s release, which changed the game completely (pun intended). It has been credited as launching the careers of YouTubers like PewDiePie and has been imitated numerous times in other titles, whether indie or AAA.
Released in 2013, there was Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs. Developed this time around by The Chinese Room, it served as an indirect sequel to the first game, only to be met with lukewarm reception (though I would personally defend it as being misunderstood and undeserving of some of the vitriol it received).
Then, in 2015, Frictional released Soma: a claustrophobic sci-fi horror tale set at the bottom of the ocean. While some wrote it off as being less scary than their prior work, Soma stood apart from The Dark Descent for being quieter and more existential, as it was more interested in exploring issues of technology, consciousness, and the human condition. This time around, enemy encounters weren’t the nightmare fuel – it was the subtle implications of its lore and storytelling that were truly hair-raising.
Finally, Frictional returns to the IP that propelled them to mainstream success with AMNESIA: REBIRTH. While the gameplay and overall package will remain familiar to fans of their previous titles, it’s also a surprising game in a number of ways.
Set in 1937, you play as Tasi – a French archeologist whose plane crashes during an expedition in colonial Africa. After the crash, Tasi wakes up with no memory to discover that the rest of the crew, along with her husband, Salim, has gone missing. Pregnant and alone in a vast desert, Tasi must venture on her own to piece together her memory and survive the horrors that plague the desert.
As Tasi puts it: “Live for the child. Find the others. Get home.”
REBIRTH’s setting is a welcome change of pace from The Dark Descent’s European gothic architecture, offering beautiful ancient desert cities and ruins that are equally exciting and unnerving to investigate. The game’s lighting is excellent – the blinding sunlight of the open barren plains is a stark contrast from the dimly lit buildings and caves that you’ll find yourself in. However, the desert is just a tease of what’s to come. Tasi has an amulet at her disposal that acts as a mystical conduit to breathtakingly strange, otherworldly locations for you to explore, effectively subverting players’ expectations throughout the 7 to 10 hour-long runtime.
As mentioned, gameplay will otherwise feel right at home for returning fans. The Amnesia series is all about playing at your own pace, soaking in the atmosphere and uncovering the story through organic puzzle solving and world building. Though there is a helpful hint system available, the game doesn’t wish to hold your hand, but instead direct your attention to several individual pieces of a greater puzzle. See that cannon that appears to be missing some wheels? Don’t you remember seeing some wheels in a previous room? Bingo! It’s nothing crazy complicated, but the puzzle design works because of how natural it feels when you solve one.
Documents are scattered around and certain locations will trigger flashbacks to help Tasi work through her memory loss and fill in the gaps of the plot. The story this time around can be difficult to decipher completely at first, but there’s enough here to connect with and keep you moving. The endgame is also rewarding and hits some surprisingly emotional notes.
Aside from your own observation and cleverness, you have matches and a lantern. These are essential to your survival, as spending too much time in the darkness will scare Tasi, leading to hallucinations and, eventually, insanity. While the game is fairly generous with the number of matches and oil canisters littered throughout, you must manage these resources carefully. It’s a clever system that worked well in The Dark Descent and it works here too. Another way of calming Tasi down is by checking on your baby. It’s a unique mechanic, as it allows for moments of quiet contemplation, strengthening the relationship between this mother and her unborn child.
Once again, you can pick up just about any object you come across. Though you are defenseless against the game’s enemies, you can sometimes toss objects to distract them and blockade doors to temporarily halt them from chasing you. Interestingly enough, you don’t exactly “die” per se in AMNESIA: REBIRTH. During an enemy encounter, if Tasi succumbs to her insanity, she’ll black out and find herself back in the same location as before. It’s an unusual choice at first, but it actually works in tandem with the game’s story. It also eliminates the need for a load screen, which maintains a sense of immersion.
As is necessary in any horror game, sound design is superb. Every time you open a creaky door, drop an item on the cold hard ground, or step on something crunchy, the noises are enough to make you wince. After all, the last thing you want is to draw attention to yourself. Music is also solid for what it is, making for some especially tense moments during chase sequences as well as somber moments during key story sequences. There’s considerably more voice acting this time around, with Tasi providing ample narration in a way that’s reminiscent of Soma’s storytelling. It’s an experience that feels more scripted than The Dark Descent, which has its ups and downs.
On one hand, it’s easy to appreciate how ambitious of a story REBIRTH really is. Despite how grandiose it feels compared to the more contained world of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, the tale told here is an extremely intimate one of family, grief, and personal sacrifice. On the other hand, this emphasis on storytelling means that the level design here isn’t as open-ended as the original title. Rather than presenting players with a playground of unpredictable horror, REBIRTH has more of a clear narrative path. It’s a scary game, make no mistake, but it’s unlikely to produce the type of viral content that catapulted its predecessor to legendary status.
While it may not be their most groundbreaking work, Frictional Games has proven yet again that they are masters of their craft. There’s elegance to their game design that’s virtually unrivaled. With such a strong understanding of tone, immersion, and environmental storytelling, AMNESIA: REBIRTH is a sequel that takes the ingredients from its predecessor and explores new territory for the series. Whether you’re a fan or have never touched a Frictional game before, this is another dark descent worth taking.
AMNESIA: REBIRTH is available now on PlayStation 4, Linux and Windows. A review copy was provided to Nightmarish Conjurings for the purpose of this review.