This week on Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Amnesia: Rebirth.
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It’s been so long since the last Amnesia game I almost forgot it existed, ironically, lol. And even longer since the last instalment by Frictional games. A Machine for Pigs was of course developed by the Chinese Room, and had all the gameplay of a supermarket conveyer belt covered in pork products. Not to mention a rather off-putting subtitle, but I remember saying at the time at least it didn’t go for some incredibly generic one-word sequel name, inevitably beginning with the letters RE. In which case, oh dear oh dear oh dear, Amnesia: Rebirth. You left the starting blocks and one of your shoes has already fallen off. Between this and the Paper Mario hole punch boss, I really need to figure out a way to exploit my power to make exaggerated terrible ideas reality. Hey, wouldn’t it be crazy if the post office stopped delivering letters and instead delivered free money to my house? But I digress. In Amnesia Rebirth we play as Tasi Trianon, a French archaeologist around the turn of the previous, less fucked up century who heads out into the desert with her husband and expedition team, but after their plane crashes she wakes up in the wreckage with no memory and everyone else mysteriously gone. So in the grand tradition of Amnesia games we as Tasi must figure out what happened by descending into somewhere that’s very dark.
And brace yourself, it’ll probably turn out you can’t remember because you did a bad thing. And everyone’s gone because you ate them or turned them into camels or whatever. Minor spoiler alert, one of the central plot elements concerns a couple trying for a second child. Which I suppose you might call a “rebirth.” If you’re a robot from space. It’s just about the only rebirth on offer, as rebirth implies evolution and this is mainly a return to the gameplay of the first Amnesia The Dark Descent, in that it actually has some gameplay. You explore spooky environments while using your limited supply of oil and matches to minimise the amount of time you spend in pitch darkness, where you run the risk of suffering a major trouser accident and lethally bankrupting yourself with dry cleaning expenses. And you have to balance all that while solving inventory puzzles and hiding from gribblies. Which it turns out you’re only in actual danger from about 5% of the time BUT YOU DON’T KNOW WHICH 5% WOOOOOO. And of course there’s still that trademark Frictional Games physics interaction where you open doors by clicking the mouse and then moving the mouse and realising you should have moved it the other way, dumbtwat.
None of which should be a dealbreaker if you did like the original Amnesia, this game even features the triumphant return of the jam that comes out of the walls. But at the same time, Dark Descent is ten years old. It’d be in middle school by now swapping its asthma inhaler for Pokemon cards. It was one of the progenitors of the first person atmospheric survival horror mystery subgenre that has since evolved to new heights with games like Resident Evil 7 and PT and simultaneously devolved into new, shit-smeared depths with the nine hundred million horror walking simulators out there that still think that the door you just came in now leading to somewhere else like we’re in Willy Wonka’s fucking chocolate factory is the height of clever mindfucks. And Rebirth hasn’t really moved with the times in either direction. I think it’s on the same engine as Dark Descent, it’s certainly quite graphically dated. And the physics is still rife with issues, it’ll stop you dead in the middle of walking just because it’s scandalized by the sheer audacity with which you’re attempting to navigate a gentle slope with a small cardboard box on it.
The story, on the other hand, has taken a couple of cues from horror games in the intervening years. Specifically, it’s latched onto Outlast’s idea of kicking the absolute snot out of the main character from start to finish. Tasi has apparently been binging on the same donuts Lara Croft likes because the floor has a tendency to collapse beneath her big fat arse at about the same rate. Which might be due to the machinations of the various evil Lovecraftian monsters that chase her but one suspects is actually the work of evil Lovecraftian game designers trying to pad the run time out. I think what we’ve learned in the post-Five Nights At Freddy’s world is that horror games actually benefit from brevity, unless they can keep pulling new surprises out of their non-Euclidean buttholes. That’s why short concept horror games bloom in the gardens of indie gaming like cigarette butts in a public park. While I liked Amnesia The Dark Descent, in retrospect I only remember a handful of moments from it, mostly the story beats towards the end, and everything else is a forgettable haze of samey rooms and having to change my trousers every time I saw something move.
Similarly, while the plot of Amnesia: Reloaded is intriguing enough and may hit particularly hard if you yourself are the parent of a young child or if floors tend to collapse under you for no reason, it’s mainly the last few hours of the story that stand out in my memory, and there were a lot of gameplay sections on the way that could have been removed to no great loss. I can tell from my pristine trousers that the monsters just don’t command the same terror that they did in Dark Descent, probably because in this case you get a good look at them enough times that you can see they’re just generic zombie dudes and suspense only lasts as long as the mysterious snarly thing lurking in the dark could be anything from a gelatinous cube to a hung over Orson Welles. The general problem is one of demystification, I think. In the Dark Descent we only learn scrips and scraps about an evil Lovecraftian other dimension that’s causing all the problems, but in Amnesia Recalcitrant Tasi gets to physically go to one. In fact, she pops in and out of it every ten minutes like she’s never quite convinced that she locked the doors properly the last time she was there.
At one point she takes the public subway train in the evil Lovecraftian dimension and misses her stop because the map was confusing. No really, this happens. It’s one of the things that draws out the runtime like your mum’s waistband at the cock buffet. So maybe it’s The Dark Descent’s stronger grounding in reality that made it more effective. Remember the rhyme: Monster in a scary world, that’s just where monsters come from, girl. Monster in your living room, better sense of creeping doom. So as for whether or not I recommend Amnesia: Revengeance, hm. I suppose I have a hard time pointing to any specific deal breakers. Despite having its head a bit too far up in magic land there’s still enough of a human element that the story lands with effective emotional impact and everything else is functional enough. It’s just that Amnesia The Dark Descent was such an influential game of its time I guess I was expecting more. Dark Descent brought us to an interesting place, and other games have since explored that interesting place further, but Amnesia itself seems to just want to stay in the car listening to Radio 4.