I've mentioned in other reviews here that I have a high threshold for horror games; I don't know why, but they just don't scare me for the most part. One of the rare exceptions was the first Clock Tower for the SNES; at least, the first hour or so of it. Once I explored the bulk of the environment and came to realize that the Scissorman (the game's iconic villain) only popped out at certain pre-set scripted points, and usually with a bit of advance warning, the game lost a great deal of its intimidating edge, at least enough that I no longer felt apprehensive about exploring. Then once you clock his rather simplistic AI routine, and learn the hiding places, the edge is almost completely gone - his appearances become more of an annoying detour that takes you off your puzzle-solving path than a "horror experience."
So it goes with Amnesia: The Dark Descent, one of the most highly touted "horror experiences" ever. The first half hour or so wasn't quite as intense for me as Clock Tower was some ten years ago, but there was definitely more trepidation than usual. A couple of hours into the game, that was almost completely gone because - you guessed it - you come to realize the monsters only patrol and spawn at certain pre-scripted points, which the game usually telegraphs with a corny cliched piano bang or with doors and furniture slamming about.
There's a couple more similarities between Amnesia and the first Clock Tower. One is that you're defenseless; when a monster appears, your only options are Run and Hide, usually in that order. The other is that both have odd, seemingly intentionally clunky control schemes. A lot of hand-waving can be done to claim that this is an intentional design choice to make the player feel like they lack control, thus increasing their sense of terror; I've argued against this at length in other places, but the tl;dr version is that this is an *extremely* fine line that a designer has to walk, because taking away too much control makes the game unplayable and annoying, and frankly most devs just don't have the chops for finding that balance and should probably approach their design with a different philosophy. Frictional goes for it here ... and doesn't quite make it. But let's begin with the game's basic story and setting, because that's necessary to know first.
You play as a guy named Daniel, who awakes in a ruined old dusty castle, with Amnesia. There's a rose petal trail in front of him which the game exhorts you to follow, and when you do, you soon find a note left to Daniel ... by himself. Daniel came to this castle to kill its master, who is sealed in some chamber deep below, for reasons unspecified (and also wiped his own memory with some sort of potion, for reasons also not specified.) But Daniel must also be wary, because some sort of destructive force called The Shadow is apparently dogging his steps. At this point you're dumped off unceremoniously to explore the castle on your own, and figure out how to accomplish this assassination, maybe find a bag of Milky Ways lying around if you're lucky.
Frictional's previous first-person horror games, the Penumbra series, revolved around a detailed Fizzicks engine that let you merrily pick up, swing and fling every liftable object in the area. And this was a necessity, as you frequently needed to hurl stuff or swing stuff at monsters to injure or kill them. Amnesia appears to use the same engine, but the Fizzicks have been toned down; you can push, pull and drag objects to block doors off from a pursuing monster, but there's no more defending yourself by clumsily swinging pickaxes at demon dogs or hucking exploding canisters about the room. More often you'll be solving puzzles by pushing and pulling stuff, or just trying to drag a closet open and then closed to hide before a monster busts into the room.
Daniel gets killed in only a blow or two from the monsters in this one, and there's no visible health meter. You're measured instead by your "sanity", which also doesn't have a visible meter, but you'll know when it's depleting as Daniel starts staggering around, becomes unresponsive, has his perspective swing around randomly, and the view gets all blurry and foggy. The handling of "sanity" is, I feel, the game's key misstep - Daniel is just too much of a little bitch. After a minute in semi-darkness he starts going crazy, let alone actually seeing a monster prowling about. This means constant jank in the control and camera as you try to move about. It's annoying because it makes little sense in the context of the game; Daniel's apparently hardcore enough to come to some haunted castle to assassinate a dude, and as the game progresses we learn enough about his history to know he's definitely not the squeamish type, yet he acts like such a ridiculous little bitch-boy as soon as he's more than 5 steps away from a lit torch. If they had restrained the intentional jank in the controls to truly panic-inducing moments, like being chased by a monster, I'd be more forgiving. As it is, it just happens too goddamn often, you can't walk down one slightly-dark corridor without Daniel stumbling and swinging his head around and generally making an unresponsive ass out of himself. They just laid this aspect on way too thick and it goes over the line from "horror enhancer" to "gameplay destroyer."
Amnesia maybe should be called a "heavily scripted atmospheric experience" rather than a game. It's the video game equivalent of walking through a very good haunted house ... just with ... erm ... carnies dressed up like Lovecraftian mutants that try to murder you periodically. Unfortunately, leaning on the "helplessness" effect only works really well for the first couple of hours or so, and when that wears off, you're just left with a mediocre adventure game that controls poorly. Still, I'll give it a 3/5 for raising the bar somewhat in atmospheric achievement at the very least, and the ability to make and play the "custom stories" of others is the first I've seen of user-created maps for a horror game (that wasn't primarily an FPS.)