Amnesia: Dark Descent, Mini-Review

Posted by Alex Jordan on

Actually, see that title? I'm kinda lying. Well, not really "lying" so much as understating the "mini" part. That's because I have very little to say in an Amnesia "review", per se, as I do about its mechanics.

Here's the review part: this game is fucking scary, and that makes it fucking awesome. It's the scariest game I've ever played, although that probably isn't saying much. It's well-designed, of decent length (my playthrough took 10 hours), and is marvelously paced. Not only that, but it has an incredibly engrossing story that perfectly compliments the scares that the game sends your way. Oh, and did I mention the game is fucking scary? Your character is tasked with descending into the lowest levels of a dark, rundown castle while battling encroaching darkness, diminishing sanity, and some very nasty former servants.

Got that? Suffice it to say that's a wonderful game and a real fright, so you should buy it, now. But I also played the game while taking copious notes. I really want to design a scary video game at some point, and I recognize that doing so requires a hell of a lot of resources (graphics, characters, ambience, sound design, music, etc.) that must be brought to bear to elicit horror. Yet, here's an indie team of just five guys that managed to terrify me while keeping to a minimalist design philosophy. So, here are my notes on what they did well, and where there's room for improvement:

Good Things

Bad Things

As stated above, when I noticed that you have relatively few encounters with monsters, I thought that was a net minus. However, I fully understand why the developers did it: if you can't fight the monsters, you also can't overexpose them to the player. Fighting monsters builds tension through weapon and ammo management.

If that's not an option, you can't keep flinging unbeatable monsters at the player, because the player will either grow accustomed to them and less afraid as a result, or will become too good at avoiding the monsters. And if the monsters aren't easy to avoid, then the player will die a lot, which... as I stated when discussing the Cthulhu game... just pisses off the player in the long run, rather than scaring them. Death has to be infrequent enough to still pack a punch, and encounters with monsters have to be infrequent enough to keep them scary.

Well, there you have it. I nice cross section of what to do and what not to do when designing monster encounters for a scary game. I'll probably have more thoughts on Amnesia's small development team later, but this'll do for now.