Horror can take many forms and work in many ways, but in video games we see the same handful of approaches appear time and again, from the action horror of Doom to the helpless terror of Alien Isolation. More broadly, we can think of horror being split between the fear of some outside unknown and the fear of the self. Amnesia: Rebirth promises to focus on the latter, whilst also allowing some good old fashioned monstrous jump scares along the way.
This is appropriate given the almost legendary status of the first Amnesia game, Dark Descent, and how it was responsible for launching a host of YouTube reaction videos (and spurring on sales of clean underwear). Developers Frictional Games are back in full control, having handed duties over to The Chinese Room for the slower paced A Machine for Pigs, so have they brought the horror back with them?
Amnesia: Rebirth is a brand new story set within the Amnesia world rather than a direct sequel, but it still contains the trademark combination of dread and danger that fans demand. Set in the Algerian Desert during the 1930s you play as the pregnant Tasi, part of an archaeological dig that goes very wrong. The intro sees your plane crash and you waking up under the hot sun with no idea where your companions have gone. The first thing to strike me here was the unexpected use of bright light as a threat. Amnesia is a series renowned for its use of darkness, so to have to take refuge in the shade from the burning desert sun was a real surprise. It isn’t long, though, before you venture into more traditional darker environments.
There’s some excellent architectural design and impressive vistas to take in through the game. The standard PS4 took everything in its stride, though obviously not as technically refined as it would have been on a high spec PC. As so much of the game takes place in darkness, however, the difference between platforms is less obvious than for other titles. Facial animations are fine (albeit infrequent given how much time you spend alone) and creature designs are well in keeping with the series. I wasn’t as scared by these creatures as I was expecting to be, but whether that is down to the design or my being desensitised by too many horror games I couldn’t say.
As with most horror games, I’d highly recommend playing Amnesia: Rebirth with headphones, as the audio design plays a huge role in conveying the terror of Tasi’s situation. Voice acting is well handled and I felt as though I really got to know Tasi through her scattered memories and reactions to what was happening around her. She is a great protagonist and her portrayal is a large part of the success of the game as a whole. Playing as a pregnant woman is a bold choice for any game, let alone one where the player will be put in as much peril as they are here. While the more picky might complain that Tasi’s condition would prevent her from running and climbing as she must here, the framing helps to demonstrate how desperate her situation is. As the game progresses, the status of her pregnancy begins to blur into the horror too as well.
Tasi’s backstory is slowly revealed through a combination of notes, recalled memories, and her own dialogue. This works especially well in ensuring that you come to identify with her without having to endure any lengthy exposition. Of course, the resultant unanswered questions also contribute to the unsettling atmosphere. Completionists will find plenty of replayability in scouring the various environments for all of the notes and memories. I was taking things pretty slowly and still missed out on loads of collectable.
Amnesia: Rebirth feels like a hybrid of the earlier titles, with elements of sneaking, hiding, and running feeling a good deal like Dark Descent, but then seeing this mixed up with more slow paced, almost walking sim sequences. These combine to give the game a more dynamic range to the tension, a factor that many competing titles overlook.
The effect here is that the chase sequences don’t ever become a chore, as is so often the case. Death will happen but you are pretty swiftly returned back to the fray and there aren’t lengthy periods of backtracking. There were a couple of moments when dying continued the narrative, but I would need to replay to see if there were ways around these instances. Making your way through the game requires you to solve a myriad of environmental puzzles, ranging from moving obstructions from doorways to manipulating strange power sources, and some of these are challenging enough to give a sense of achievement upon completion.
You have no defence against the creatures that stalk the darkness so you must hide or run from them. While most of your time is spent without light, you have the trademark matches to offer a brief respite (or to light candles and torches in the environment) and also a lantern that must be refilled from hidden jars of oil. Running out of these light sources isn’t game breaking though, as your in-game eyes adjust to the lack of light and give you enough of a view to navigate by, albeit at the cost of your sanity. Encroaching madness is visually represented through subliminal hallucinations and black tendrils obscuring the screen, as well as appropriately unpleasant sound effects.