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.

He should’ve listened to his old man

The culprit: the Penumbra trilogy (PC, Mac, available through Steam)

That can't be good...It’s off the beaten track that you often come across the most interesting things. This applies to videogames in general, and the horror genre in particular. Like the infamous shortcut through the woods without which some horror films wouldn’t exist, taking a turn into indie title territory can yield spectacular results. Penumbra is a shining example of just such a lucky find. Created by a small Swedish company called Frictional Games, it displays such a mastery of the mechanisms of fear that it simply begs to be tried out. If Dead Space left you unimpressed, Silent Hill barely affected you and even Fatal Frame didn’t quite do the trick, or if you’re simply looking to broaden your horror horizons, do try this one on for size. Sure, the game has its kinks and flaws, and it’s pretty clear that it wasn’t made on a big budget, but let it not be said that more is better. None of the aforementioned games have scared me to this extent.

Cursed legacyPenumbra is technically a trilogy, consisting of Overture, Black Plague and Requiem. However, considering the three games have one common protagonist and storyline–which has all the makings of a good X-Files episode–, take place in immediate succession, are each rather short and use the same gameplay, it makes sense to view them as a whole. The story is narrated in what you eventually find out is an e-mail by Philip, a 30-year-old physicist with an estranged father. On the day of his mother’s funeral, he receives a mysterious letter from said father, directing him to a deposit box in a bank and instructing him to burn everything he finds in there without asking any questions or attempting to locate him. The box contains an indecipherable journal, Dude...BEHIND YOU!but also a set of coordinates, which point to somewhere in Northern Greenland. Three guesses as to what Philip decides to do. The coordinates designate an abandoned mine, where he soon discovers that something is very wrong. You’d think that any sensible person would just try to get the hell out, but curiosity is a powerful drive. It also has a nasty habit of terminating inquisitive felines. But I digress.

The people who made this game understand perfectly well that being isolated, defenceless and confused/disoriented/in doubt of your sanity is an ideal recipe for horror. There’s really nothing scarier than what an over-active imagination can conjure up, even if the game also contains very real hostiles who want nothing more than a tasty physicist snack or some chopping practice. Imagine for a moment how it would I sure hope these beams are safefeel to be stuck in an abandoned mine in the middle of nowhere with strange whispers periodically fading in and out of your hearing range (my god, the pause menu in Overture…), alarming messages left behind by miners and scientists whose corpses you periodically come across, bizarre Inuit artefacts that give you out-of-body experiences (those are the save points), escape and concealment as your best means of defence, and god-knows-what prowling in the shadows. Philip’s frightened gasps, which punctuate some of the more intense events, really don’t help. Contrary to what you might expect, there are other people down there…But a) you can count them on the fingers of one hand, b) they’re really not all that helpful…or reassuring, for that matter, and c) Philip begins and ends the game alone; you do the math. I find that these additional characters only serve to exacerbate the deep sense of loneliness and fear the game instils, with help from a minimalistic, cold and forlorn-sounding musical track. Black Plague also adds a nasty–and very successfully Where's the cleaning crew when you need it?executed, might I add–twist into the bargain, whereby Philip finds that he can no longer trust his perception. I would also like to remark that, if you manage to get through the kennels in Black Plague without having to pause the game to collect yourself at least once (especially with headphones on), you’re a better man (or woman) than I.

Penumbra takes place in first person, with a hand cursor on the screen to handle interactions. It uses a physics engine, whereby controls and movement are influenced by gravity. Say you’re trying to roll a boulder: not only do you need to mimic the movement, but it’ll also keep rolling if it’s on a surface where it would be realistically expected to roll. Same thing when trying to spin a valve or pull out a drawer. It takes The bare necessitiessome getting used to, but the game gives you adequate time to ease into it. Other than that, there’s a basic inventory, available at the press of a key, which you can also use to combine items or assign them to keyboard shortcuts, as well as check on Philip’s general health (which regenerates over time if he gets hurt and can be remedied with painkillers) and the state of the flashlight’s batteries. However, since the glowstick is just as useful as the flashlight and doesn’t need batteries, this is a moot point. There’s also a journal, in which Philip collects the various notes he picks up, as well as jotting down his thoughts on what to do next.

The game’s major downside is combat, but, thankfully, it’s only a factor in Overture. Philip’s only weapons are a hammer, a pickaxe or debris he can pick up and throw. And let’s just say that ‘imprecise’ doesn’t even begin to describe what swinging a pickaxe with that type of game engine is like; ‘extremely frustrating’ is probably a better description. Black Plague mercifully does away with weapons altogether, but not hostile Now would be a good time to...RUN!creatures, thus ramping up the fear factor. Philip can still try fighting them by throwing debris, but it’s really not safe and takes so long that you should understand that you’re simply not meant to do it. The point is that Philip, being a physicist, and not, say, a marine, is just no good in a straight-up fight. What’s more, he’s actually not half bad at hiding: enemies are far less likely to notice him if he crouches in a dark corner with his flashlight or glowstick off. The game even automatically switches to night-vision when he crouches undisturbed for a couple of seconds: this is signalled by a relieved sigh, a slight change of angle and everything taking on a bluish tint. Conversely, you’ll find that staring directly at an enemy for too long will make him panic, jolt out of night-vision and become more noticeable.

Gives a whole new meaning to weight-liftingAnother part which might disappoint some people is Requiem. Developed as an expansion to Black Plague, it serves as a sort of coda to the storyline. It’s much shorter than its predecessors, and while it looks and feels similar, it’s also more unorthodox, in that it clearly doesn’t take place in reality, as indicated by several not-so-subtle hints…such as exploding ketchup bottles or infinite batteries. There are also no enemies. Or well…no real enemies. Just a succession of puzzles. And while some of them are set in rather disturbing environments, the fact that there’s no actual threat of bodily harm, except from falling, does tend to somewhat defuse the sense of fear, which may be disappointing. Still, once you figure out why Requiem is the way it is, I find that it’s not a bad conclusion to the game. Certainly atypical, but…why not? It also has two endings, one of which is more obvious than the other, but this is the only game I know of where the “hidden” ending is actually the bad one.

Other things which might cause minor annoyance are some of the textures (eg. rubbish bags on the floor which should be 3-dimensional, but aren’t) and one particular voice actor. There’s also very little in the way of optional things to do, only a bunch of statuettes located in improbable places, which you can collect to unlock some Easter eggs on a subsequent playthrough. They’re rather underwhelming, though, so I Do I really have to go this way...?shouldn’t worry if you can’t find all the statuettes. Just goes to show that replayability isn’t exactly the game’s strong suit. Still, I find that none of this quite mars its effectiveness. If you’re receptive to psychological horror, you’re in for a treat. Just don’t be surprised if you find yourself too frightened to turn a corner or open a door, every once in a while. It certainly happened to me on more than one occasion.