Amnesia: Rebirth is a terrifying tale haunted by half-baked mechanics
Inverse Score: 7/10
Amnesia: Rebirth will leave you disturbed, confused, and too frightened to learn more.
After a decade, developer Frictional Games has revisited the first-person, survival horror classic, Amnesia: The Dark Descent. The original made the Swedish studio the undisputed indie survival horror kings. A direct sequel set 90 years after the fiendish events that unfolded at Brennenburg Castle. Rebirth puts gamers in the shoes of a new female protagonist, anthropologist Tasi Trianon, who is stranded in an Algerian desert after losing her memory and her colleagues in an accident.
Frictional has looked past Amnesia’s traditionally gothic aesthetic and brought to life a spooky, Tomb Raider-esque world that intrigues as much as it horrifies. The fleshy, zombie-like Gatherers from the original have been replaced by Ghouls that look a lot like the Husks in Mass Effect, minus the cybernetics. Plus, The Dark Descents’ signature Sanity gauge has been changed into a veiny aura that slowly obscures Tasi’s vision the longer she stays in darkness.
Rebirth is still rooted in the gameplay loops and bloodcurdling design elements that established The Dark Descent as an unforgettable psychological thriller. Players are once again defenseless against any threats and can only find momentary refuge near sources of light. Staying in the dark for too long warps Tasi’s vision and makes using the game’s point-and-click slightly more difficult, as if you were trembling in fear trying to light a match.
But Frictional has also fundamentally expanded the scope of the Amnesia series with the release of Rebirth.
Rebirth’s setting is made exponentially more hair-raising by Frictional’s signature mix of cryptic notes found in the environments and surreal flashbacks. What starts as the mystery about what happened to Tasi and her colleagues transforms into a paranormal spiral into insanity. While it addresses some of the most mystifying parts of The Dark Descent, playing the original is by no means a prerequisite here.
Ultimately, Rebirth refines all of The Dark Descent's most frustrating parts, making Frictional’s new release nothing short of high octane nightmare fuel. But the title never fully lives up to the new mechanics and features it introduces early on.
A dance with darkness
Rebirth is an insanity simulator in essence. Throughout the roughly 10-hour plot, Rebirth beckons you into pitch-black hallways and dilapidated crypts with a slim hope of understanding what brought Tasi here. Every new area and puzzle made me internally squeal “NOPE,” but I pressed on anyway because of Frictional’s masterful resource management system.
Like previous Amnesia titles, the longer you stay in darkness, the more panicked you become. This increases the likelihood of seeing the ghoulish, human husks that stalk Rebirth’s levels. Players must constantly juggle their supply of matches and lantern oil to illuminate their surroundings and avoid slipping into madness.
Each stage contains the bare minimum of supplies to find your way out, reminiscent of scrouging together supplies in other survival games like Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II. Moments of frantically opening chests and pushing aside books in total darkness to find one last match are balanced out by the brief moments of relief when you manage to fully illuminate an entire room.
These moments of heart-pumping intensity were only slightly bogged down by Rebirth’s point-and-click controls on the PlayStation 4 version. The game requires players to perfectly hover over candles and torches to light them, which console joysticks make more difficult and can result in wasted matches. Having users’ cursor magnetize to points of interest once they get close enough could make hovering over items in the PS4 build of Rebirth less frustrating.
Keep your wits about you
Rebirth also throws a number of environmental and physics puzzles at the player that feel fresh and not as drawn out as some were in The Dark Descent. Many of these challenges require players to first explore the surrounding areas before you’re able to solve them.
For example, Tasi finds herself in an abandoned military base during the opening stage of Rebirth. Smack dab in the middle of the fort’s courtyard is a dilapidated tank that is begging to be fired, but without a shell in sight, Tasi has to craft her own ammo by gathering the appropriate ingredients.
Most of the Rebirth’s puzzles rely on this satisfying epiphany moment where players understand the end goal and set off to complete their terrifying task. This cycle is kept fresh by a wide variety of puzzle archetypes for each of the game’s stages that only slightly stale towards the end of the game.
Two significant new mechanics in Rebirth set it apart from The Dark Descent. One is a supernatural amulet that Tasi wakes up with when the game begins. The second is a Death Stranding-inspired feature that can’t be described without spoiling a major part of the plot. Both, particularly the amulet, are presented as major tools for Tasi, but they never feel fully realized
The amulet acts as Tasi’s ticket to an alternate dimension that unfortunately has very few uses compared to how game-changing it seems early in the game. The second mechanic was a bit more fleshed out but still suffered from the same issues.
A petrifying plot
The story that ties Rebirth together is equally traumatic and hopeful. In signature Frictional fashion, details about Rebirth’s plot are sprinkled across the game’s environments in notes and slabs. You’ll never miss out on any major revelations, however, because Tasi talks through everything that comes to light during the 10-hour adventure. But the finer details in the story are easily lost in the mad-dash towards safety that Rebirth encourages at every moment.
Tasi’s story arc comes full circle, but as far as the events in The Dark Descent goes it was difficult to parse how the original game fits into the overarching narrative. Rebirth addresses the origins of the supernatural objects from the previous installment. But by revealing the dark underbelly of The Dark Descent’s mysteries, Frictional raises more questions that I’m too afraid to go back and find the answers to.
Amnesia: Rebirth is out now for PC and PS4.
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