The world didn't know it needed Amnesia: The Dark Descent, but when it was released by Frictional Games in 2010, gamers and press alike wondered what had taken so long. Putting an emphasis on atmosphere and hiding, the little game from Sweden instilled fear into hundreds of thousands of players after going viral, with many seeing it as a rejuvenating experience for the entire horror genre.
Horror in video games have been going through somewhat of an identity crisis of late. Flagship franchises in the genre like Dead Space and Resident Evil have moved away from their original tone and have gone about trying to appeal to action focused audiences, while other franchises like Silent Hill have simply struggled to find form. With that, many have placed a lot of hope on Amnesia's long delayed spiritual sequel, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, to continue the good work and show the market that pure horror games can be successful.
Does Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs live up to those lofty expectations? It's scary, but not as much as the original. It's also a very good game. This time round Frictional Games has taken on publisher duties and left the creative side to The Chinese Room, the small studio who crafted the ethereal Dear Esther. On the surface it is perhaps an odd match, but when you look at it closer, it makes a lot of sense. A large portion of Dear Esther, much like The Dark Decent, revolved around building atmosphere and playing as a passive participant to the story, with a large portion of the game involving piecing together details through notes and journal entries of past events. Their promise has proven to be a compelling match for the Amnesia franchise.
The game isn't a true sequel in the sense that it continues the story of the first, but instead is tied to the previous game through narrative and gameplay devices. Set at the dawn of the 20h century, Oswald Mandus wakes up with amnesia, soon to find out from a mysterious voice that his missing children have ventured down into the depths of his own factory towards "The Machine," meaning he must trudge to the very bowels to retrieve them. To say much more than that is to reveal more than you should know going into the experience, but it makes for a haunting setup, only made more haunting by the inevitable destination of your journey.
Structurally, the game has many twists and turns that are revelations to the character, but thematically, they do not serve the same purpose for an audience. The game leaves pretty heavy clues early on that Mandus isn't just a caring father on a hunt to save his children, so the reveals don't necessarily 'shock' players. But this is not a mark against the game. On the contrary, it is a plus. Knowing that there is more to Mandus and his relationship with 'The Machine' adds an incredible weight of dread to his journey down into the penetralia of pipes and steam.
However, as alluded to earlier, the game fails to scare on a consistent basis. Amensia: The Dark Descent was full of scream inducing moments, and players felt hunted and followed throughout the experience. A Machine with Pigs, while certainly knowing how to pull a good jump scare as well as featuring several of the series' trademark "hiding from monster" scenes, doesn't keep players on the edge of their seat on such a consistent basis.
While the game isn't a terror-fest, it is certainly unsettling. In fact, it nails unsettling in a way seldom seen since Silent Hill 2. While The Dark Descent's distress came from something unknown coming for you, A Machine for Pigs' comes from facing an internal truth of what has been done. To explain it another way, The Dark Descent was often likened to H.P. Lovecraft's works which were often about an unknown and unstoppable terror emerging from the dark to torment protagonists and the world. On the other hand, A Machine for Pigs is more in line with the works of Edgar Allen Poe, often the terror coming from within the deep recesses of a protagonist who wrestles with madness and torment of a terrible act seen or done. The screams are less immediate but the horror often has more emotional impact, which A Machine For Pigs succeeds in even more so than its predecessor.
That is why it's a shame the gameplay can sometimes let it down. For the majority, the gameplay is split between marching through the environments and picking up notes to help illuminate the story, hiding from deformed "wretches" and solving simple, if not time consuming puzzles. Easily, the most enjoyable of all of these is exploring deeper into 'The Machine' and uncovering the story. As mentioned, hiding and running from the "wretches" is effective, but just never quite reaches previous nerve-wrenching highs, where as the puzzle solving, despite giving you more of an excuse to explore the world, can get repetitious as you walk from room to room flipping switches. For just a short time in the middle of the game, where the story is most convoluted and puzzle heavy, it can almost approach something close to tedium. That is a pity because it does hurt the overall experience of the game. A Machine For Pigs more than makes up for it with its scare laden beginning and surprisingly bombastic ending, but it is just an experience that is occasionally marred by its limited execution.
However, as a whole, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs is a haunting yet gratifying ride, rewarding players who are willing to read every note and explore the horrendous truths of 'The Machine'. The location is really a compelling dive into the recesses of nineteenth century Britain, 'The Machine' just falling short of iconic locations like Rapture and Aperture Science Labs (of which it borrows heavily from). While it is brought down by some troublesome execution and a lull in the middle, A Machine for Pigs is full of ideas and heart, telling a compelling story of all encompassing grief with a smattering of political commentary. It may not surpass The Dark Descent in scares, but it tells a more unsettling and emotionally gratifying story that sticks with players after turning the lights back on. It is up to you which makes the better Horror game.
Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs arrives on PC, Mac and Linux on September 10, 2013.