Minor spoilers for Amnesia: Rebirth follow:
Developer Frictional Games has become one of my favorite developers. I first ran across Penumbra: Overture about twelve or so years ago, and I was enthralled with the atmosphere and cryptic story telling. But Frictional didn’t really gain widespread popularity until the excellent Amnesia: The Dark Descent in 2010. And 2015’s Soma is probably one of my favorite games ever. I was excited, to say the least, for the opportunity to cover Amnesia: Rebirth. I’m happy to say that Rebirth manages to take the Amnesia series into an exciting, more spectacular direction.
Amnesia: Rebirth is a first person horror survival game. In it, you play as Tasi Trianon, a woman who’s suffering from memory loss after a plane crash. You wake up in the plane, which has crashed in the desert—but you discover that time has passed, and you have no recollection of the last few days. It turns out that something has happened to the survivors of the crash—and it wasn’t the desert that got to them. Tasi has to survive a host of horrors while retracing her steps in search of answers—and to save her unborn child.
If you’ve played an Amnesia game before, you’ll know that, when facing unimaginable horror, the best thing to do is run and hide. You can’t fight back against the creatures that stalk you in Amnesia: Rebirth, either. Many times Tasi will have to traverse darkened areas, and to do so, all she’ll have is a gas lantern and matches. You can use matches to light other light sources—but moving too much makes the matches go out more quickly. This can lead to some tense moments if you’re running low on fuel or matches, but some of the tension dissolves with Tasi’s amazing night vision. Being able to see almost perfectly in the dark (even with the gamma set to the recommended level) makes the dark less scary—even if it does mean that Tasi’s fear is going up.
Amnesia: Rebirth utilizes a sort of fear mechanic that acts a little bit like The Dark Descent’s sanity. Except, instead of a meter, you get a screen effect showing the influence of some dark entity overtaking you. If it takes you completely, you run as a wild creature—waking up later back at an earlier location. It’s a way to resolve player failure while keeping the narrative going forward, and it’s clever—though I think it leans a little bit too much towards player forgiveness. If you’re caught by certain creatures, instead of being killed, you are brought to an earlier point—and those creatures are sometimes even missing. I can’t say this is the case for every encounter, but I failed a couple of encounters—and in both cases, the monster that caused me to fail wasn’t even there anymore when I returned.
There is some excellent world building in Amnesia: Rebirth, and the entire game is quite a spectacle. Frictional Games really outdid themselves with the settings and locations. The Algerian desert, despite its bright sun, is a horrifying desolate wasteland that only emphasizes Tasi’s desperation. The other world– that of the portal builders–is a horrific glimpse into a society that is literally powered by torture, and its architecture and iconography is appropriately horrifying. But it’s almost too much information, and ruins the sense of the unknown.
There are plenty of tense moments in Amnesia: Rebirth—and even a few outright scary ones—but the overwhelming sense of dread I found in other Frictional games just never manifested. I’m not sure if that’s because too much of the veil was taken away for this story, too soon. A lot of the horror of Amnesia: The Dark Descent was in not knowing exactly what was happening. In Rebirth, it’s almost spelled out in painstaking detail. This is true for Soma, too—but Soma’s revelations heightened the horror, while Rebirth’s dampened it. Soma left me with lingering existential dread while Amnesia: Rebirth’s exploration of “the other world” left me more with a “huh, that’s interesting” impression than a horrified one. It’s almost like playing a game based on Lovecraft mythos, and reading the Old Gods’ discarded diary pages—it takes away some of the unimaginable horror aspect.
When I finished Soma, I was left with lingering existential dread—while at the end of Amnesia: Rebirth, I felt a little underwhelmed. Tasi’s struggle ends with a few unanswered questions, but it doesn’t feel like those answers are necessary. It leaves room for a sequel, perhaps, but now that the veil has been lifted what new direction can it take? It’s really a shame, too, because Amnesia: Rebirth’s setting and story is so much grander than that of Amnesia: The Dark Descent that Dark Descent’s events are almost relegated to being Easter eggs than narrative beats. That’s not inherently a bad thing; it just shows how much bigger Frictional went for Amnesia: Rebirth, but I think Rebirth suffered slightly for it.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Soma had a good amount of areas to explore, but Amnesia: Rebirth just has so much more. Each of these areas has their own mysteries to uncover—but the narrative is constantly pushing you forward to the next area, with only a puzzle or two in each section. The puzzles themselves were pretty simple, and felt more like finding the right items than deciphering complicated mechanics. They also overuse transitional subterfuge—and what I mean by that is this: you think you’re going to exit out of one area, just to be put somewhere else, sometimes more dangerous and scarier than the place you wanted to be. It’s used so often it degrades its effectiveness towards shock.
Don’t get me wrong: Amnesia: Rebirth is a great survival horror game. It’s story is a little underwhelming, and it would have benefitted from more detailed areas instead of just more of them—but it has several tense moments, and an outstanding production value. It really feels like Amnesia: Rebirth is a blockbuster sequel compared to the indie gem that was Amnesia: The Dark Descent. It lifts the veil behind the mysteries of the previous games so much that I wonder if Frictional is finished with the Amnesia series—or just plans on taking it in an entirely new direction.
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