From Frictional comes a genuinely horrifying survival horror. "The scariest game I've ever played," claims Steve Hogarty. And he's played Pippa Funnell 3: The Golden Stirrup Challenge...
Nightmares have their own strange, internal logic. Usually, by the time you're aware of the fact you've become trapped inside your own, temporarily warped psyche, your brain has invented a whole bunch of twisted, presumed knowledge: you can't see anything, but you know there's something terrifying in the room with you. If you think about the bad guy too hard, he'll promptly manifest himself in front of your face and slash your throat. If you look directly at a monster, it'll know that you're there.
Amnesia, whether consciously or not, taps into nightmare logic in a way the likes of recent horror titles, your Dead Spaces and Resident Evils never quite could. Here's a game in which you not only have to run and hide from enemies, but stare at the floor lest they sense you looking at them. Amnesia forces your imagination to fill in the outlines of some truly unnerving, stumbling, shuffling enemies, and then toys with you by having them spontaneously vanish or move in unpredictable ways.
Practically speaking, observing "weird things" in Amnesia will drain you of your sanity, and once you start to lose it, the screen will warp, your movements will slow and you'll hallucinate all sort of imagined horrors. But this sanity mechanic forces you to take the actions of a terrified man. You're made to hide in the darkness, when darkness itself will chip away at your sanity, and through enacting these fearful actions... well, you yourself will become scared.
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Mileage will of course vary depending on how your brain is wired, but Amnesia, for me, is the scariest game I've ever played. Other games have bigger one-off frights, sure, but this game's overbearing sense of psychological dread genuinely leaves you feeling exhausted. Enemies are scarce, weapons are pretty much non-existent, and the castle you're exploring is filled with threatening, scratching, groaning noises. I won't exaggerate the levels of horror on show - you won't "soil yourself", and it won't "leave you a shivering, naked wreck" - but Amnesia really did make me fling my mouse across my desk out of shock, as I recoiled and drew my hands to my face like a big girl's blouse.
So, in Amnesia you play Daniel, who finds himself piecing together his own memory having forced himself to forget it all in the first place. You learn this in a Memento style "To Daniel, From Daniel" letter, as well as subsequent aural flashbacks whenever you approach a significant location. Carried over from Frictional's previous games, the Penumbra series, are the puzzles and the physical interaction element - you'll use your mouse to "pull" and "push" doors, turn wheels, pick up and move objects and open drawers. Solving puzzles clears your mind, and improves your sanity, and puzzles typically involve exploration, item collection and combination, and some timed elements. As a puzzler, Amnesia doesn't offer a huge deal of originality - in fact, for many it might disappoint with some its more traditional switches-and-cogs problems - but combined with the high degree of control over physical objects in the world it manages to feel unique throughout.
Shrouded in perpetual bleakness, you'll also have to use tinderboxes to light torches and candles along your path - a balancing act given that you need light to remain sane, and darkness to remain hidden. To this end you've got an oil lamp, the downside of which becomes apparent later in the game when you realise you're a shining beacon for every creepy thing in the room.
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Set-pieces such as a flooded area in which you're being stalked by an invisible, blind creature who tracks you by listening out for your clumsy splashing before sprinting towards you (itself only detectable by its own frantic sloshing), walk along a knife edge: such a basic "don't touch the water" mechanic could easily seem contrived, but instead Amnesia succeeds in creating a highly terrifying scenario. And that, by a long shot, is what this game does best. Through drip-feeding tension it builds up such an effective atmosphere of low-level terror that when it finally makes its attempt to frighten, the pay-off is huge and real. Bigger studios have a lot to learn from Frictional when it comes to titillating our fear-lobes.
There are some niggles here that betray the game's indie heritage - ropey voice acting and a lot of localised repetition in the environments, but at £12.95 Amnesia comes strongly recommended for anybody after a cheap scare.
8 / 10
Genuinely terrifying game, with a lovely physics engine that lets you open and close drawers
Voice acting is ropey, some of the puzzles are starkly unoriginal.