Consoles owners – prepare to be terrified, as one of the most iconic horror games has arrived on the PS4. Along with Amnesia: The Dark Descent, PS4 owners can now subject themselves to Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, and a short expansion to the Frictional’s first Amnesia game, Justine. Altogether, they have been released as the Amnesia Collection on the PS4. What you see on the PC version of all these games is what you get with the console version. Nothing has been touched. The only additions are a collection of Playstation Trophies and some tweaks to the user interface to make it console friendly. Having played The Dark Descent and A Machine for Pigs on the PC, I found the experience on the console somehow less personal, and therefore less immersive. That isn’t to say that the Amnesia Collection didn’t still manage to give me a healthy portion of insanity just before bedtime.
Fear the Dark
Flung from the darkness of obscurity during the time where the “Let’s Play” phenomenon was blossoming, Amnesia: The Dark Descent was Frictional’s last ditch attempt to save their company. Taking heed of what worked with their Penumbra series, they set out to make the scariest, most disturbing game possible. The story is immediately captivating; you wake up as Daniel, having taken some concoction that has wiped all memory of what has gone before. After stumbling through antiquated hallways, you come to a desk with a note on, which gives you your one overarching objective: kill Alexander, the owner of this castle of monstrosities. As you progress, you find more of these notes with Daniel narrating the events that preceded his arrival at Brennenburg castle, as well as auditory flashbacks to conversations between Alexander and Daniel. The voice acting in these sections is superb.
A gripe I have with The Dark Descent is that most of the narrative is told in this way, until near the end. It can create a disconnect between these expository asides, and what the character you control is actually doing in the here and now. As you guide Daniel through his descent, you solve puzzles, fix machinery, and avoid monsters. At times it feels like the Daniel in these notes and flashbacks is part of a different narrative. That isn’t to say I wasn’t gripped by the story right until the end. A good story is a cornerstone of the horror genre, and The Dark Descent delivers.
Atmosphere is another cornerstone, and once again The Dark Descent excels. While the graphics have begun to show their age, this worn look adds to the decrepit, distorted and demented aesthetic of Brennenburg castle. I loved how Frictional managed the interplay between light and dark. When immersed in darkness, you can always see just enough, and are never left blind and scrambling if you run out of lantern oil. It means that hazy shapes in the distance could be innocent, or the outline of something sinister. Where the atmosphere is made though is with the audio design. Playing this game with headphones awakens your senses to fear, as every creak, squeak or distant moan could be the harbinger of imminent danger. One small problem I had was with the audio cues for the monsters. There’s only really one noise they make to announce their presence, and it’s not a very good one. It’s the kind of growl some cheesy B-movie beast would make, and it really jolts your senses from an otherwise immersive experience.
Even so, I would have liked a few more encounters with Brennenburg castle’s inhuman inhabitants. As it stands, you spend a lot of time as a glorified mechanic, fixing up various pieces of machinery to allow you to progress. For a brief moment, I considered that this whole amnesia business was an elaborate ploy to trick Daniel into repairing the castle for Alexander, who had become trapped within the Inner Sanctum after his machines had failed him. I honestly enjoyed the puzzles, but there were just too many of them. One thing that this allowed to shine though was how you can manipulate objects in the Amnesia Collection. This precision of control means you can inch open doors to check whether some beastie isn’t lurking just outside, and gives the world a higher sense of realism.
This is why The Dark Descent is so revered; it brought many unique and fresh ideas to the horror genre, while keeping the main character real enough and grounded enough to be just as the player is (at least initially); unknowing and defenseless. This relationship between the player and Daniel is weakened somewhat as the game descends slightly too far into the supernatural at the end, but The Dark Descent is just the beginning of your experience with the Amnesia Collection.
Until getting my hands on the Amnesia Collection, I had never heard of the small standalone story of Justine. This expansion to The Dark Descent was initially released on Steam as a way to promote the upcoming release of Portal 2, on account of a few Portal 2 Easter Eggs hidden away within the 1 hour campaign. The story starts as an unidentified female wakes up in a cell, where she can play a series phonographs to guide her through the gruesome (cue dramatic voice) Cabinet of Perturbation. Justine shares The Dark Descent‘s disturbing atmosphere, so you can once again expect a darkly cerebral experience.
The main aim of Justine is to make your way through the chambers by deciding the fate of various prisoners trapped within. The easiest and quickest method is to just let everyone die, as hanging around trying to save the prisoners can have it’s own consequences. Justine tells you at the very beginning that once dead, the game is over, so with this in mind, Justine develops a kind of tension that The Dark Descent doesn’t have. You’re constantly weighing up whether it’s worth taking the time to free the captives, or just to let them die and move ahead to escape the danger.
Justine does away with the supernatural focus of The Dark Descent and instead offers something different. The danger is always physical, rather than otherworldly, and the story that unfolds alongside the gameplay is rather less convoluted. The puzzles also vary. Instead of fixing up more machinery, which got tiresome in The Dark Descent, you have to think a little more dynamically to ensure everyone lives. Justine is in some ways more enjoyable that it’s full-length counterparts, and it would have been excellent to see this extra content expanded.
A Pig’s Ear
The final course of the Amnesia Collection in this trio of delicacies is a mechanized pork chop. A Machine for Pigs is set in the same universe as The Dark Descent, but a lot of what the series is known for has been amputated from the main body. You wake up in an abandoned Victorian mansion as Oswald, who is implied to be a descendant of Daniel (memory loss must be genetic). The decidedly divergent nature of A Machine for Pigs is largely down to the fact that Frictional Games gave control of this entry to The Chinese Room, known for walking simulators Dear Esther and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. The influence from these titles is felt, as a lot of what made The Dark Descent so unique is stripped away, and we’re instead left with an exclusive focus on narrative.
Gone is the need for lantern oil, tinderboxes and maintaining your sanity. Though your lantern still alerts nearby beasties, you no longer have to weigh up the cost of hiding in darkness and dying of insanity against sprinting away from danger into blessed, sanity cleansing light. A lot of the tension was created in these moments during The Dark Descent; giving you that jarring, heart-thumping jolt in your chest as you turn a corner and one of Alexander’s Gatherers is shambling towards you. The enemy encounters in A Machine for Pigs are few and far between. The Chinese Room instead chooses to permeate the game with elements that lend it an undeniably creepy atmosphere. The fear is created psychologically through the disturbing narrative and excellent design aesthetic.
The downside of this shift in focus is that sometimes A Machine for Pigs is a little two-dimensional. Apart from walking around and following the path, there isn’t much else to do. The puzzles can become more of a hindrance than an interesting challenge. You turn a few steam valves, manipulate some levers, and slot some fuses back into their rightful place. The ability to pick up, rotate and chuck stuff is utilized so well in The Dark Descent, and I was saddened to discover this isn’t so with it’s successor. Weirdly though, I was able to pick up a pig carcass, which lead to a very strange moment of swine/human pirouetting.
Ultimately though, you’re compelled to keep moving forward. The very fact that the experience has been stripped to its bare bones means you’re forced to focus on what The Chinese Room wants you to focus on. Objects can appear where there was an empty space moments earlier. Notes and audio logs allow you to further unravel the story. The game’s main enemy, the Wretches, skitter across the path you’re about to tread, squealing as they do so. You’re never too distracted to miss anything, where in The Dark Descent you may have been busy snuffling around in drawers or piles of rocks looking for more lantern oil.
A Macabre Collection
It was a grueling few days, working through this collection. Each game offered something similar, while providing a distinctly unique experience in every iteration. Even Justine was great, despite its brevity. I’m not one to scare easily. With horror games, probably my favored genre, I revel in the challenges presented by however the antagonist seeks to impede you. Now I’m not going to say that the Amnesia Collection reduced me to a nervous wreck, but there were moments of genuine terror. Believe me when I say that for a game to make me feel that is huge. Ironically, I can say with certainty you will never forget playing through the Amnesia Collection.