Mention 2010’s Amnesia: Dark Descent, and even the most hardened horror fan is likely to begin reciting their chilling tales of playing, like some kind of seasoned war vet. An ingenious ‘sanity’ system, sparse lighting and terrifying, unscripted events all made for the scariest survival horror this side of Silent Hill 2.
I’ve always been a bit of a wimp when it comes to playing horror games. This probably stems from playing an old medical-based DOS game, called Life and Death, and accidentally killing a patient. I was only about six, but I can still remember the terror, and I’ve tended to avoid any video games that focus on being scary. Therefore, I was a bit apprehensive about tackling the sequel to what is considered one of the more terrifying games of all time.
Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs is an indirect sequel; it does not continue the story or feature the same characters of Dark Descent. Frictional Games, the developers of the first game, are also only publishing this one. The Chinese Room, known for being behind the ponderous Dear Esther, have taken the helm in Machine for Pigs, bringing a new approach and design philosophy.
Machine for Pigs opens with the player controlling an amnesiac, awakening in a dark mansion, hearing voices. It’s very unsettling from the get go, beyond just the typical ‘haunted house’ environment. Wind whistles through the halls, warped portraits stare wildly (becoming even more eerie after you explore behind the walls), and sudden shakes rattle the furniture periodically. I was constantly looking behind me, convinced that I was being followed, and I would often see figures flitting about in the corner of my eyes. I’m still unsure whether half of what I saw was paranoia or not.
After an hour or so of highly stressful gameplay, I took a bit of a break to read up some more about the Amnesia series. I was surprised to see a large amount of people complaining that Machine for Pigs was not scary enough, and missing a large amount of features present in the original. I hadn’t played Dark Descent until this point, but decided that I’d probably need to in order to give a worthwhile opinion for this review.
I put Machine for Pigs on hold, manned up, and gave Dark Descent a go. After a few hours, I could see why people found Machine for Pigs comparatively tame. Dark Descent is horror cranked up to 11, an incredibly uneasy journey, punctuated by terrifying encounters. Armed with an updated perspective on what makes an Amnesia game, I returned to the sequel.
Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs is most definitely a scary game. However, I found that the further I went into the game, the less scared and more at ease I felt. Of course, that’s not to say that I was ever anything but on edge. This is a game less focused on things jumping out at you, and more on making you feel totally powerless and pathetic. The monsters you encounter cannot be hurt or stopped, with your only defense being to run away and hide. In this way, the original game’s spirit is intact.
Unfortunately, I have to agree with some of the fans arguing that the game has less of an impact than its predecessor. Dark Descent had a love/hate relationship with darkness. The shadows offered a hiding place from monsters, but also slowly drove up your insanity meter. This created an incredible dynamic, in which the player had to decide between hiding in darkness, while turning slowly more insane, or lighting their lantern and risk attracting unwanted attention.
Machine for Pigs has none of this. Darkness is always your friend and, beyond making it difficult to see, offers no drawbacks. The lantern has unlimited oil, and there is no sanity meter to worry about. One of my least favourite design choices in the game is that your lantern will start flickering when a monster is near. It was creepy the first few times, but once I realised what was going on, it began to lessen the tension considerably, as it provided an early signal for danger. Venturing down dark corridors just isn’t the same when you know something won’t pop out without warning.
Survival horror games often feature head scratchers, made all the more stressful by the constant threat of death. Dark Descent featured some great puzzles that, while never overly taxing, would make for some tense situations while looking out for nasties. Puzzles in Machine for Pigs seem to only be there for the sake of it. None present any challenge, and they mainly consist of flipping some switches or replacing a blown fuse. There were a few scary moments in which an object had to be retrieved by sneaking around an enemy, but I felt that puzzles were generally poorly implemented.
This introduces one of the most divisive design choices in Machine for Pigs. The game plays much more like an interactive story, rather with few gameplay elements. The ability to control the character does enhance the fear factor over a movie, and there are some inspired moments. However, I feel that the video game medium could have been better exploited, especially considering the solid foundations provided by the original.
The story presented in Machine for Pigs is a particularly chilling one, even by horror standards. Less ambiguous and more focused than the first game, the game features some big twists and moments that will turn your stomach. I wasn’t totally happy with how the story was told, especially when compared to the brilliant Dear Esther. Getting the most out of the story requires reading through dozens of journals scattered around the game. After the excellent narration in Dear Esther, I was surprised to find that most journals had no voice over. I don’t have an aversion to reading, but I did find that it disrupted the flow of the game, and it’s a clumsy way of telling a story considering the potential.
Something consistently great in Machine for Pigs is the environments, atmosphere and sound. There is a surprising variety to the levels you’ll explore, from the opening mansion, to creepy churches, to machine-filled basements, to the streets of a Victorian London. Every location is unique, and it’s all very eerie. It offers greater variety than the first title, and The Chinese Room have managed to create an incredible atmosphere throughout. The visuals and audio work together beautifully, leaving you in awe of how well everything’s presented.
Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs offers a scarily enjoyable journey through some unforgettable locations. It doesn’t feature the heart-pumping terror of the original, but it’s still a worthwhile, creepy sequel that drips with atmosphere. The game is a bit short at four hours, and doesn’t mix story and gameplay well, but this is still a highly recommended experience for horror junkies and wusses alike.