It is difficulty to try and write about Amnesia: The Dark Descent in a way that does justice to the game, as any kind of detailed recommendation cannot help but to defeat its own purpose. The game's appeal is all about mystery and the fear of the unknown. This article does its best to avoid heavy story spoilers, but analysis by definition is the very antithesis of both, and if you actually care about immersion and the power unfamiliarity, the experience will be the better the earlier you quit reading this article (or any kind of review) and start playing the game already. I'd even go as far as recommending to disable the ingame tutorials; the mechanics are not that complicated.
Amnesia begins with the protagonist waking up inside a dusty old castle, barely clinging to the memory of his own name - Daniel. Following a strange trail of purple freckles through the darkness, he soon stumbles upon a letter written by himself, telling him he drank an amnesia-inflicting potion to forget certain incidents, and one dreadful instruction: Find and murder an old man named Alexander of Brennenburg in the castle's Inner Sanctum.
The entire game is played through Daniel's eyes as he makes his way through the murky ruins, finding pieces of his own diary and other documents along the way, which gradually reveal the horrors that happened before the fateful drink of oblivion. Sometimes Daniel also gets visions of the past when he crosses locations that used to be familiar to him. The player remains in control during those, but the sight typically gets so bad that it's not feasible to do anything that goes beyond continuing to walk down a straight corridor. Like in the System Shock and Bioshock series, pretty much all of the narrative happened before the game, and it's left to the player to unearth the records of what happened. One by one, the notes reveal a truly bleak view into ancient horrors as well as the darkest voids of the human soul, and the fact that the majority of it is written by the player avatar himself makes the narrative feel all the more direct and "close to home."
Most of the castle is shrouded in darkness, but there is an immediate sense that the shadows are not good for Daniel's health - when staying in unlit areas for too long, his senses get twisted, he starts hearing noises and hallucinates about what may lie in the shadows. Compared to a game like Eternal Darkness, however, the "sanity effects" are rather subtle, no fourth-wall breaking stuff here. The game does a very great simulation of the need to adjust your eyes to the surroundings for a few seconds after diving into the darkness, too. Throughout the castle, Daniel finds tinderboxes that enable him to light candles and torches to drive out the darkness. He also gets a mobile light source in form of a lantern, but it has to be fueled with oil regularly.
Amnesia manages to instill a fear of the darkness into the player without throwing in any kind of horrible monster or obvious immediate threat for hours. Early on, players will find themselves clinging to brooms and chairs to arm themselves against the dangers that might lurk in the unknown. And as soon as the player gets over the fear of the darkness, the game draws attention to other menacing uncertainties, like murky water. Eventually it even drives the player to seek out the darkness, as it eventually turns out the only protection against greater evils. The castle also soon starts to get infected by an unhealthy-looking red taint, that actually hurts Daniel and obstructs his progress. On the other hand it takes its due time to introduce its monstrosities; at first you'll just see shadows scuffling through dark corridors from afar, and for a long time it is everything but clear whether or not they're just products of the protagonist's imagination. When they finally strike, however, they strike fiercely, and carry more potential to inflict terror than all the creatures of Raccoon City and Silent Hill combined. The atmosphere in the castle is truly phenomenal, and the crawling bugs and other gross-out moments are genuinely disgusting.
As a kind of Immersive Simulation, Amnesia has no on-screen display whatsoever, but there is an inventory screen where it's possible to check up on Daniel's health and sanity, and to manage items that have been picked up on the way. Only certain items can be carried around indefinitely, while most objects are only held temporarily in front of the player's eyes, where they can be carried around, rotated or thrown, as Amnesia uses the Havok physics engine for them.
About half of the puzzles in Amnesia are thus physics-based: Throw a rock to destroy a chain, put the cogwheels of a machine together so that they fit, or pull a bed from over a trapdoor. The other half are typical inventory puzzles, where items are combined in the inventory and applied to objects in the 3D view. Compared to the rest of the game, they're all pretty standard survival horror fare and fairly simple to solve, but at least here they all fit in with the scenario; as Daniel descends into the lair of a mighty and mad alchemist, all kinds of weird contraptions and rituals are to be expected.
Amnesia is not without flaws, though; its humble indie origin is betrayed by the limitation of its assets. The focus on atmosphere instead of fidelity is laudable, but at certain points the lack of variety can be quite the immersion-killer, for example when it seems that Alexander was apparently the author of a book called Pflanzenreich ("Plant Realm"), and it failed horribly at retail - how else is it to be explained that he keeps several hundred copies of the work? The physics engine also quickly shows its limitations, and the distinction between what is grab-able and what is not often feels arbitrary. It's stupid fun to pull all the books out of a shelf to throw them at the floor, but when moving on to the next shelf, all the books are apparently glued to it.
The worst problem of Amnesia has nothing to do with its budget, though; and that is the utter lack of penalty for dying. When killed, Daniel just starts out at the beginning of the current (small) map, even keeping all collected items. Therefore it's not much of an issue that health becomes pretty much pointless in the latter half, when everything that's a serious threat is capable of killing him instantly, but that's not for the better. Forcing the player to start large parts of the game all over, or making the game even harder are devices that have been rightly discredited as inappropriate means to punish failure, but game designers have yet to come up with a meaningful way to replace them. In a genuine horror game, solving this problem is even more important than anywhere else: The suspension in Amnesia takes a severe hit as soon as the player realizes the complete absence of "real" danger. Resource management also loses its bite in the second half of the game. In the beginning it's often necessary to spare light sources, but once it's figured out when and how to best conserve them, Daniel quickly ends up with a very healthy stock of tinderboxes and a reserve of spare oil for the lamp. In a way Amnesia lasts too long for its own good, even though the official story takes less than ten hours to complete (there's also the option to load custom-made mods, of which there's quite a few available).
Amnesia is still a very intense experience at least in the first half, and overall one of the most frightening and unsettling games ever. Especially the extremely morbid references to torture are not for the faint of heart, even if none of it actually happens on screen. Big budget survival horror may be well underway of having abolished itself, but indie games like Amnesia prove that there is still a future for the genre.
Amnesia: Justine is not a standalone game, but rather free DLC for The Dark Descent. It was originally part of a Portal 2 celebration project on Steam, which consisted of 13 individual projects. It was automatically patched into the launcher a few months after the original game's release. The player is once again put in the shoes of an amnesiac, but this time the plot takes a hint not only from Portal but also Saw. At the beginning you wake up in a prison cell with a gramophone, which is tied to a contraption required to open the door. Listening to it not only sets you free - relatively speaking - but introduces you to Justine Florbelle - apparently a sick psychopath that likes to seduce men and torture them in her lair.
Like the non-heroes in the Saw movies, the prison is shared with a number of other victims. There is always a simple way out of each puzzle room - by having the helpless inmate murdered by his personal torture device. But as Justine declares in the beginning, there is always a way. So the player is forced to chose between accounting for a gruesome death or solving a rather tricky puzzle. From Portal the game takes the female "supervisor" that keeps taunting the player, although in this case hearing the messages is mostly voluntary, activated by turning the cranks of more gramophones throughout the dungeon.
But it's not just all quiet puzzle solving: Some of Justine's older victims, bodies and souls severely damaged, walk freely around the perimeter, and they're not in the best of moods considering their situation. As with The Dark Descent, all you can do is hide in the shadows or get the hell away from them. The last challenge is especially tough, because the final enemy is constantly after you while you try to solve it.
Amnesia: Justine is incredibly short. There are only really three puzzles, and those taking the easy way out of all three can probably finish the game in five minutes. But it's a free bonus after all, so there is not much reason to complain about that. Unfortunately, the three puzzles are not very good. The first one is physics-based, but demands efforts the engine is not really up to, and as a result is just horribly annoying. The second one ist just kind of dull and easy, and if the relentless pursuer in the third part catches you once, you're pretty much dead - upon which the program just drops you out of the game. There is no saving function whatsoever, and the quest has to be started from the beginning each time.
Likewise, not too much new work went into the assets, either. There are some new textures and objects, but in total the rooms of Justine wouldn't have felt out of place if integrated into The Dark Descent, despite the game being set in a mansion in 19th century France, presumably near Paris. And yes, there are more copies of Pflanzenreich here. The obligatory story twist is also rather similar to the main game and leaves a bit of a stale aftertaste. All this makes Justine not really recommendable, even for free. In fact, the only purpose it really serves is building up fatigue for the series, so best avoid it and skip right to A Machine for Pigs.
The second full game in the Amnesia series wasn't developed by Frictional Games, but instead was taken over by The Chinese Room, known for the digital guided museum tour Dear Esther. That is... worrying.
As usual, the protagonist in A Machine for Pigs wakes up at the beginning after a dose of the drug Amnesia, which makes its user forget all the terrible things they've done. Unfortunately, the effect is not that precise, and once again you find yourself thoroughly confused about your role in the play. It becomes clear soon that you were the entrepreneur Mandus, a once simple butcher whose ambitions turned him into the overlord of an enormous meat factory. All Mandus can rightly remember and think of are his two sons, who supposedly are to be found deep at the core of his great machine.
The story is once again predominantly epistolary, laid out in the various letters, diary entries and - possibly taken over from Justine - gramophone recordings found throughout the area. Mandus keeps elaborating his feelings in his journal, though, and he keeps being called by an anonymous helper on every phone he passes. He has to make his way through his mansion, several parts of the meat factory, and even a few areas in town outside, always a few steps behind a mysterious saboteur, who flooded the lower parts of the machinery and blocked the way to Mandus' children.
When playing a horror game called A Machine for Pigs, it hardly is a spoiler to reveal that what Mandus built is no ordinary meat factory. Mad with grief over the death of his wife, the early logs reveal that he was obsessed with getting control over life and death at some point, which of course means his facility has a creepy secondary purpose, and yes it's no surprise that it involves pigs.
In contrast to the ancient-feeling surroundings in the first Amnesia, the areas Mandus has to go through are much closer to home. The first, in fact, is his own residence, a creepy turn-of-the-century mansion with disturbing paintings hanging on every other wall and a lot of secret passages between its walls. Despite the tunnel-like progression through hallways with more locked than open doors, it looks like an actual place a wealthy Victorian era family might have once lived in, but the emptiness makes it seem haunted, and once again the Amnesia series plays its strengths through atmospheric uncertainty rather than immediate threat.
The trend continues as Mandus passes his company's offices, the city streets (although the small area is a bit too conveniently locked off from the rest of London), a desecrated church, and finally the enormous factory. All the elaborate machines are not just a feast for every steampunk fan - the factory halls with their alien noises, constantly moving parts and bad lighting are an excellent venue to create fear, kind of like a natural variant of Silent Hill's dark world.
The enemies behave roughly the same as in The Dark Descent, but there are really only a handful encounters with them. Much more than its predecessor, A Machine for Pigs is more like an experience you walk through than a challenge-based game. All survival aspects have been excised without any replacements - the inventory is gone entirely, and with it the need to maintain a stock of tinderboxes to create light sources - and the insanity effect in darkness, for that matter. Mandus still gets a lamp with unlimited fuel early on, and he really needs it, as the areas are all very dark, much darker than a just moderately lit room in The Dark Descent.
A Machine for Pigs is also much less of a physics simulation. There's a distinct sense of Dear Esther museum syndrome creeping in. There's not much that can be touched in this world, and if something can be, chances are it's an integral part to a puzzle - if it even deserves that name. Most of the time, the required items are found right next to the solution, and even in the few cases where some backtracking is required, it's always obvious what goes in where to progress.
While The Chinese Room's chapter in the Amnesia series makes big strides away from being a game and to becoming a vaporous "interactive experience," the writing is still very excellent and oozes with Victorian atmosphere. The surroundings do once again an excellent job to complement this, although once again seeing five copies of the same painting hanging in the same mansion or finding more copies of Pflanzenreich does hurt the immersion a bit. It gets perfect once the areas that are supposed to look soulless are reached, though. Some scripted scenes later on lack credibility due to the lack of assets again, but it's not too hard to accept the handwave to ignore the problem.
Only the narrative's attempts at allusion and symbolism may cause some cringing. The game never spells out the greater meaning and relations of its story fragments, but it's always painfully obvious about the possibilities it wants you to consider. Having Mandus wake up inside a cage and stumbling over wooden pig masks everywhere is anything but subtle. To the player it's also clear from the beginning that the protagonist's quest is taken in vain, and at times it feels as if one only goes along for the ride not to upset poor old Mandus too much.
Nitpicking aside, A Machine For Pigs is still definitely worth experiencing. Even though expectations should be trimmed back when coming from The Dark Descent, the sequel might even be a more adequate entry into the series for newcomers, as it's the much less daunting of the two. Just don't hold it against The Dark Descent if The Machine for Pigs seems to be lacking gameplay substance.