Be very afraid of the dark

The culprit: Amnesia: The Dark Descent + Justine (PC, Mac)

Dracula would love this placeYou who are faint of heart, stop reading now. I thought that Penumbra was a strong contender for the top spot on my horror list, but Frictional Games have since outdone themselves and produced Amnesia, premium quality, high-octane nightmare fuel. Taking a common plot device (amnesia) and running away with it (into a dark wood) has never been so effective, and it’s no exaggeration to say that this is the scariest game I have played to date. People–and the game itself, in fact–will tell you to play at night with the lights off. Well, even with the lights on, I was still terrified. Heck, to this day, I can’t look at a picture of a Grunt for more than a few seconds without wincing.

Everything that Penumbra did right is reused and amplified in this game, from lack of combat to unreliable perception. The interface is largely Carpet needs cleaningthe same (first-person view, hand cursor and physics engine), as is the menu. The game is set in XIXth century Prussia, in the foreboding Brennenburg Castle, situated in the middle of a forest. You are put in the shoes of Daniel, a young Englishman, who wakes up, confused and disoriented somewhere in the building. He can barely remember his name, and yet he must make sense of both his surroundings, which are anything but reassuring or safe, and his situation, which is downright horrifying. You discover snippets of Daniel’s history from short texts on loading screens, but also through flashbacks, letters and diary entries strewn throughout the castle…which he has left for himself. Apparently, his amnesia is self-inflicted and voluntary, and if you’re wondering what could possibly have driven him to such an action, well…play and find out. I’ll just say that he was involved in an ill-fated archaeological expedition, and it was all downhill from there.

Worse for wearDaniel is one of the game’s best assets, as a channel for fear, because saying that he has a fragile psyche is an understatement. Philip, his predecessor from Penumbra, could panic if staring directly at an enemy for a prolonged period of time. But compared to Dan, that makes him a paragon of stoicism. And where Phil was a gasper, Dan’s a professional whimperer. He whimpers like a boss. This is especially striking when compared to his normal, somewhat gruff baritone, showcasing just how much of a wreck he has become. Dan’s other defining characteristic is his severe nyctophobia. Just walk him through a dark corridor, and you’ll see what I mean. The screen will start distorting and blurring, and you’ll hear the unnerving sound of grinding teeth. Should he remain without a light source for long enough or witness one horrifying event too many, hallucinations­ may kick in. Those could be bugs crawling across the screen, imaginary corpses or a portrait distorting into a nightmarish vision (this is a particularly nasty one). That, or he will start talking to himself. This is a system most likely inspired by Eternal Just how mad are you?Darkness: besides his health meter (indicated by a human heart on the menu screen), Dan also has a sanity meter (indicated by a brain and spinal cord). You can increase it by solving puzzles or stabilise it by staying in the light, but its natural state, so to speak, is a steady downward curve. Should it ever deplete completely, Dan will collapse on the floor in a gibbering mess for a few seconds, before getting back up with a hit to his health. The problem is that if this happens when an enemy is nearby, he might as well be blowing a foghorn.

To make matters worse, since Dan can’t fight, his only recourse when faced with a hostile is to cower in a dark corner until it lumbers away. Except that, with his condition, you’d better hope that it happens quickly. This makes for some particularly tense moments, and a crucial issue in the game is balancing the amount of ambient light: enough to keep Dan decently lucid, but not enough to make him a sitting duck. This is compounded with the fact that both of his Feeble lightlight sources are limited. Where Phil had his trusty, inexhaustible glowstick, Dan has an oil lantern–and available oil refills are scant at best–and some tinderboxes, which he can use to light candles or torches. The other commodity in short supply are laudanum vials, which are used to recover health. Another clue, if you needed any, that you need to avoid damage as much as possible.

SilhouetteEnemies…oh god. The most common type–and, unfortunately for me, the one I find scariest–is the Grunt. Affectionately dubbed ‘Mr.Face’ by the fanbase. This should clue you in as to the most distinctive part of its anatomy. And I’ll leave it at that. If you want a clearer image (think very carefully before deciding), look here. I just don’t want this thing staring back at me every time I look at this review. *shudders* Although your mileage may vary: some people find the Brute, which shows up in later levels, scarier. It’s certainly more deadly, as it will usually down Dan in one hit, whereas he can weather Wet footstepsa couple of Grunt slashes. The third enemy goes by the uncouth moniker of ‘Kaernk’ and…it’s invisible. To some, that’s even more terrifying than visible monstrosities. Fortunately, it’s the rarest enemy of the three. Unfortunately, the sequences involving it are pretty harrowing. There’s one other hostile out for Dan’s blood, but I’ll leave you to experience that one for yourself.

There are three endings to the game, and while one of them is indisputably bad, it’s a toss-up as to which of the other two is the best. Up to you to make up your mind, but there’s certainly food for thought involved. The other positive aspects are the graphics and the music, composed by Mikko Tarmia, who already worked on Penumbra. Where Safe for nowthe former game had that gritty, semi-industrial feel to it, Amnesia is unabashedly baroque, with wooden furniture, thick red curtains and carpets, and old stones dimly lit by flickering candlelight. An old castle is a perfect setting for horror, and Amnesia  is more pleasing to the eye than its predecessor. Especially the Back Hall…at first. The Back Hall also features my favourite piece from the game’s soundtrack, a surprisingly calm, solemn and soothing track, which contributes to giving the place a temporary aura of safety. The rest of the soundtrack is none too shabby either, successfully upholding a creepy, gloomy atmosphere, with some disturbing sound effects interspersed with the music.

Several months after the release of the game, an expansion titled Justine saw the light of day. While it’s also set in the XIXth century, it bears no relation to Daniel’s story (or a very tenuous one), and features a different protagonist–amnesia being the only common characteristic–and a very different perspective on things. The goal She's got a plan for youthis time is to find a way through a series of psychological ‘tests’, set up by Justine, a French noblewoman, who is a sadistic sociopath (it’s no wonder she’s named after a book by Sade). You find yourself in her Cabinet of Perturbation, and she guides you through a series of phonograph recordings she has left behind. It’s a shorter experience than Amnesia, but no less intense. There’s still no combat and only three enemies, but they all used to be Justine’s suitors…before she decided to experiment on them: Aloïs, the tennis player, Basile, the carpenter, and Malo, the violinist. Each represents a different kind of ‘love’ and exhibits the corresponding personality: Aloïs is needy and devoted, Basile is rough and abusive, and Malo is passionate and…well, insane. And if I were in their shoes, I’d swear bloody revenge on Justine as well.

No guardian angelJustine is also made significantly dicier by the inability to save. Your character dies, you start over from the beginning. And considering that there is an excruciatingly difficult chase sequence towards the end, the likelihood of having to start over is a very real one. So if you become frustrated after being repeatedly mauled, like I did, you may consider installing a mod which implements saving, fittingly titled “Softcore Justine”. This problem aside, I did enjoy this storyline for its difference in tone. It even has a chilling twist ending. Special commendation goes to the profoundly unsettling messages on the wall of the mazelike Crypt corridors (“death shall move across the floor”Writing on the wall gave me a hearty wave of goosebumps) and to the adrenaline-charged music which plays when a Suitor gives chase. Still gives me a jolt when I hear it.

Into the darknessAll in all, Amnesia is a heck of an experience. There is room for improvement, such as randomising enemy encounters, which are currently scripted and therefore lose some impact after the first playthrough, but don’t let that deter you. It would just be the cherry on top of a deliciously terrifying cake. If I had to recommend one horror game above all others, this would be it. But I decline all responsibility for any involuntary yelps, screams, nightmares or sudden trips to a different room which may ensue.

A wolf in hero’s clothing

The culprit: The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (GameCube, Wii)

In the Zelda series, Ocarina of Time (or OoT) stands tall as a monument of greatness. It’s the most famous and the best-loved opus, and for those who have played it before Twilight Princess, it almost invariably wins by comparison. Well, not for me.

Of course, I recognise the older game’s merits and fully agree that it has earned its status. I’m aware how heavily it has influenced the series, Twilight Princess included. In fact, you’ll find many elements from OoT peppering the game: from Epona the Sharpshootinghorse, to the Gorons and Zoras, to the Temple of Time. Link also gets a female sidekick, although she’s a distinct step up from Navi. Even the controls are largely similar, involving quick-button mapping, lock-on targeting and so on. There’s also a musical element involved, although it’s significantly less prominent than in OoT (or in Majora’s Mask, or in The Wind Waker, for that matter). Still, even with all the borrowing going on, Twilight Princess is my favourite Zelda game to date.

The first reason, shallow as it may sound, would be the graphics. I’m sure that even the most diehard OoT fans will agree that N64 graphics weren’t exactly of the highest quality, and that they made numerous NPCs look really ugly. I mean nightmare-fuel ugly. Not so here: Twilight Princess is, first and foremost, lovely to look at. It couldn’t hold a candle to some of its contemporaries on beefier consoles, but that’s not really Dappled groundthe point. To me, the Zelda series has always had a fairytale-like quality to it, and this game does it ample justice. Whether it be the quaint Ordon village, where Link resides, the lush forest which surrounds it, the green fields of Hyrule, the sweeping expanse of Lake Hylia or the grandiose architecture of Hyrule Castle, every environment is bright, warm (well, except Snowpeak) and alive, striking what I find to be exactly the right note for this kind of game. All these locales are populated with quirky, colourful characters who no longer look like they’re auditioning for Playing the herothe latest Tim Burton film (well…mostly *edges slowly away from Fyer and Falbi*). Most importantly, the graphics greatly help in the expressiveness department, which is vital in making a silent protagonist relatable, and Link’s baby blues and sharp features have never looked so good. Especially since he spends the entire game as an adult, rather than switching between being 7 and 17, as he did in OoT.

The second reason is the gameplay. While the basics are essentially a direct copy of OoT, there is one major innovation. According to the storyline, the kingdom of Hyrule becomes parasitized by the Twilight Realm, a dimension which usually exists in parallel to the ‘normal’ world, but suddenly begins to manifest directly into it, shadowy black monsters included. It appears as a golden glow with dark particles rising up from the Lupine accessorisingground, and transforms Hyrule’s inhabitants into spirits. However, Link, who holds the Triforce of Courage, as he usually does in the series, reacts to it in quite a different way: he transforms into a large wolf. And while this feature unfortunately dwindles in importance as the game progresses, it nevertheless lends a welcome change of pace to several of the game’s sequences. Wolf Link may not be a genius swordsman or a master bowyer, but he’s fun and original to play as. Paradoxically enough, he is also instrumental in learning sword techniques: peppered around the world are stones with holes in them, which look like Gossip Wolf karaoke!Stones from OoT and produce a melody when the wind blows through them. By howling along with the melody (there’s your musical element), Wolf Link can trigger sequences which allow vanilla Link to perfect his swordplay. Some of these techniques are particularly handy, by the way, lending an extra layer of sophistication to combat.To continue in the gameplay department, one of the main features of any Zelda game are the various gadgets Link picks up during his travels, such as a boomerang or bombs. While the selection available in this game is fairly run-of-the-mill, it does feature three highlights. Bomb arrows–which, as their name implies, can be created by attaching a bomb to an arrow–allow for long-range destruction without the iffy aim of simply throwing a bomb (they can still detonate in Link’s face if not fired promptly, however). The double clawshot turns Link into a Spiderman-wannabe and allows him to perform aerial stunts. It is acquired and abundantly used in the infamous City in the Sky dungeon, which I must Spin it like you mean itpraise for its originality (especially the boss battle at the end), but also curse abundantly for its setting. I’m afraid of heights! Finally, you have the spinner, which is best described as a clockwork hoverboard. It can attach itself to grooves in walls, propelling Link along at high speeds, which makes the boss battle in the dungeon it’s acquired from a lot of fun.

The third reason is the supporting cast. I’m sure Navi was created with the best intentions in mind, but “hey listen!” got infuriating after a while. Tatl, her successor in Majora’s Mask, did little to improve the score with her rudeness. This time around, Link Giddy up!is (literally) saddled with Midna, a mischievous, imp-like inhabitant of the Twilight Realm who has a bone to pick with the game’s main antagonist, Zant. She finds him in his wolf form and proffers her help by riding on his back and using the decidedly strange properties of her hair (which can turn into a large hand…) to help him execute certain manoeuvres. When he is in Hylian form, she hides in his shadow and continues to supply guidance. Sounds like just another variation on the annoying-yet-lovable sidekick thus far, but Midna trumps her predecessors by dint of being a fully-fledged, sympathetic character and one of the main protagonists of the game, second Cuddlyonly to Link himself. Sure, Princess Zelda’s in there too, and she both offers and needs assistance as well, but she takes a definite backseat to the driving duo, the dynamics of which are one of the game’s main perks. Other than that, there’s also a handful of resistants to Zant’s rule who try their best to help Link, making him feel a bit more integrated than his ‘lone ranger’ persona in OoT. And I must also put a word in for the pair of yetis he runs into during his travels: the female one, aptly named Yeta, is all kinds of adorable. Even though she’s a crack snowboarder and may give you trouble in the minigame which involves challenging her and her husband Yeto for a piece of heart (hearts being the typical health-measuring unit in a Zelda game).

What IS this?With all this in mind, the game does have its flaws. For one thing, the Wii and GameCube versions are mirror images of each other: as Link is traditionally left-handed, but the Wiimote isn’t, the developers solved the problem by flipping the entire game over (so what’s east on the GameCube is west on the Wii). I’d classify it as a nitpick, but Link purists may disagree. Moving along, strange creatures called Oocca have been introduced, their main gameplay purpose being to serve as quicksave points within dungeons, allowing Link to exit and come back in where he left off. I suppose this could be handy, if you found you needed to leave a dungeon for whatever reason, but I don’t think I’ve ever used them, so I find it a supremely superfluous feature. Not to mention that they look downright disturbing. There are still minigames, as mentioned earlier, usually for winning heart pieces, but if you were looking for a challenge, you may be disappointed. None of them reach the punishing heights of the archery challenges in OoT or Majora’s Mask. I actually thought that was a good thing, but your mileage may vary. However, if Sinister escortyou were getting tired of the formulaic nature of the Zelda series, this won’t be the game to change your opinion, as it is not only the spiritual successor to OoT, but retains many traditional elements of the series as well. This notably applies to the villain department. While Zant is a successfully nefarious presence for the greater part of the game, his charisma takes a nosedive towards the end, and Ganondorf still turns out to be the big bad. That being said, you do get the satisfaction Horseback heroicsof a bona fide, one-on-one swordfight between him and Link. And you could put the repetitiveness in a different perspective. Twilight Princess could be perceived as the culminating point of the OoT formula in the series. That’s certainly what it felt like to me.

High-speed stunts and fictitious pastries

The culprit: Portal (PC, Mac, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)

Whee!Sleeper hits are great. Not only are they a proof of inventiveness from game developers, who, despite not banking on commercial success, decide to try something new, but also a testimony to the players’ curiosity. In short: think outside the box, play outside the box. That’s how innovations occur.

Portal was just one such sleeper hit. Released as part of The Orange Box package by Valve, it is set in the same universe as the Half-Life series, at some point in time between Half-Life and Half-Life 2. However, it’s not required to have played either one of those. Portal is a largely self-contained experience and works perfectly fine on its own. You’ll probably miss some references, but it’s nothing dramatic.

She never agreed to thisThe premise is a simple one: you are put in the metaphorical shoes (she’s actually barefoot, with only some leg springs for support) of Chell, a young woman who somehow ended up as a test subject in a strange facility named Aperture Science, all glass walls and pristine white surfaces. She is awoken by a robotic female voice, an AI which identifies herself as GLaDOS, and informs her that she must make her way through a series of test chambers, to ultimately be rewarded with “cake and grief counselling”. She then proceeds to instruct and advise her on getting through the tests…in her own way.

Open doorsChell’s available commands are pretty basic: she can crouch, jump, pick up objects or press switches. However, the core of the gameplay is the clever use of portals: oval-shaped holes which can be created on almost any flat surface with the help of a portal gun (or Handheld Portal Device), which Chell acquires a couple of rooms in. There are two types of portals: a blue one (primary) and an orange one (secondary). Chell can freely pass between them and reposition them at will, and if they’re not situated on the same plane, she’ll be reoriented head up in relation to the gravity upon exiting. The only thing she can’t do is fire a portal through another portal. The idea is straightforward, but the possibilities are endless, allowing for creative use of space to resolve what may at first appear to be impossible conundrums. You could have her put a portal on a wall and one on a ceiling through the door of a different room, for example. And don’t worry about falling from too high: as long as it’s a floor Chell is landing on, the leg springs will take care of it. This is a wonderfully adaptive system, and it wasn’t long before I found myself ‘thinking with portals’, as the advertising for the game puts it, and hopping my way through the various rooms with relative ease. I say ‘relative’ because, while it may be easy to figure out the principle behind a certain puzzle, the execution may require some fine-tuning, as well as some top-notch reflexes.

Let's see you figure this outOf course, if that’s all there was to it, the game would be too easy. So it also presents Chell with impediments, such as moving platforms, timed switches, pools of acid, High Energy Pellets, which she’ll need to redirect, or Material Emancipation Grills, which will not only vaporise any solid object that’s not the portal gun (although they have also been known to ‘emancipate’ fillings and teeth…), but also reset any previously placed portals. Chell will also encounter sentry turrets, which, despite greeting her in disarmingly polite, childish-sounding voices (“hello, friend”) will attempt to shoot her on sight, intoning guilt-inducing messages such as “I don’t hate you” or “no hard feelings” when she destroys them. To counteract all these obstacles, Chell only The one and onlyhas her wits, her portal gun and Weighted Storage Cubes. These are…well, exactly what the description says: large cubes meant to be used as props for solving puzzles (usually by being placed on switches). Although one of them, the Companion Cube, designated by a large pink heart drawn on each of its sides, may come to hold a special place in Chell’s tribulations.

Are you still there?Portal’s other major distinguishing feature is the delightfully quirky black humour pervading the game, the great majority of which is dispensed by GLaDOS, who also sings during the ending credits. On the surface, it sounds like she’s providing helpful advice. However, when you hear things like “while safety is one of many Enrichment Center goals, the Aperture Science High-Energy Pellets seen to the left of the chamber can and have caused permanent disabilities, such as vaporisation”, you may very well start asking yourself questions. This, alongside the friendly killer turrets, the sometimes less-than-reassuring instruction diagrams found at the beginning of each test chamber as well as the strange scribblings which start to crop up in hidden nooks towards the end of the game, all ends up creating a unique blend of the worrying and the hilarious.

The main portion of the storyline is fairly easily cleared, once you get the hang of the portal mechanics. However, you also have access to the Advanced Chambers and the Challenge Mode under the Bonus Maps heading of the main menu. The former are chambers 13 to 18 from the main game, redesigned to be more difficult. The Challenge Mode takes place in those same chambers (now identical to the main game), except with one of three restrictions: clear the chamber placing the least You take the cake!portals, taking the least steps or the least time. Each chamber has its own set limit for each of these categories (represented by a cake on the tally screen), reaching or beating which will grant you a gold medal. There are also limits for the silver medal and the bronze medal. And, of course, there are achievements/trophies involved. By order of difficulty, I’d say the “least portals” challenges are the easiest, while the “least time” ones are–and by far–the hardest, especially for people playing on a console. Moreover, folks on the Xbox 360 actually got their own version of the game, called Portal: Still Alive, which contains a whopping 14 additional test chambers.

Ad infinitumAll in all, Portal is great fun. However, for the sake of providing some criticism, I must say that it’s a bit of a one-trick pony. There is an interesting backstory to the game (which has since been explored in a comic entitled Lab Rat and in the sequel, Portal 2), and GLaDOS may be a wellspring of repartee, but this can only go so far when, in point of fact, you’re being made to do the same thing over and over again. Fortunately, the game is rather short, so you won’t have time to get bored on your first time through. It does, however, mean that it suffers in the replayability department, since, apart from collecting hidden radios, it’s the same old show. Still, I won’t be a party-pooper: in spite of this, Portal remains one of the most original games released in the past decade, and the premise behind it is Mmm, cake...wonderfully inventive. GLaDOS has become a fan-favourite (for good reason), and chances are you’ve encountered the “cake is a lie” meme somewhere at least once. In short, give it a try. It’s a blast. Oh, and did you know you can donate one or all of your vital organs to the Aperture Science Self-Esteem Fund for Girls?