Review: Amnesia: The Dark Descent

At a Glance

ESRB Rating: M - Mature Audiences
My Rating: Adults - 18+
Genre: First Person Puzzler / Horror
License: Commercial
Release Year: 2010
Review Published On: December 22th, 2015
Played on: Martha & Thaddeus

Available from:

Humble Store, Steam

Save System:

There is an autosave, though it only triggers at specific points, such as when you enter a new area. If you want to save manually, there's an option to save and quit in the pause menu. To bring up that menu, press ESC at any time.

Alternatively, you can also pause the game by viewing your inventory or journal.

Summary of
Major Issues:

This is a horror game, and as such, it contains a lot of graphic imagery, occult references, and even scenes depicting cruel methods of torture.

There is also a psychological horror effect, as the game becomes distorted and creepier as your character struggles with their sanity.


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A slightly rundown study

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Evidence of the Shadow's presence

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An unsettling dumping ground

Game Overview

Although it's not the first game to feature a sanity meter, Amnesia's use of it is often one of the reasons players are drawn to this classic horror game. Staying in dark areas or looking at the monsters will deplete this resource, and as it falls, the world becomes increasingly claustrophobic and distorted. Eventually, you'll begin hallucinating and bugs will crawl all over your screen as strange ambient sounds start to echo around you. To keep from drifting into this madness, you'll need to stay in lit areas or make further progress into the story.

Finding those lit areas is a bit tricky however, as Brennenburg Castle is an unnaturally dark and foreboding place. Early on, you'll acquire a lantern, but be careful how much stock you put in its light. You'll need to find fuel to keep it alight, and as you go deeper into the depths, the less often it appears. Once you're out of oil, the lantern goes out, and the darkness closes in. Your other option is to light candles, fireplaces, or other light fixtures using tinderboxes you'll find scattered about. Like the lantern oil, there aren't enough tinderboxes to go around, so you'll have to use them sparingly.

There is another issue with both of these approaches, however. Gruesome monsters roam the castle halls, and you're an easy target when you're standing in the light. Since there's no way for you to fight back, you'll need to be ready to scurry away into some dark corner should you encounter one of these freaks. Thus, you have a choice to make between your survival and your questionable sanity.

With its unique style of gameplay and storytelling, Amnesia: The Dark Descent was an instant hit with the gaming community. Over time that popularity has been slipping, but even so, this is still one of the biggest names in the genre, and more than worth a try if you like things to be more than a little spooky.

Story summary

There are actually two stories that come with Amnesia: The Dark Descent. The first story is the main game, which follows the misadventures of an unlucky man named Daniel. The second is a short tale about a deeply troubled woman named Justine. Both tales are tied together via a special potion known as the Amnesia Mixture. The potion gets its name from its primary function: whomever drinks it will lose their memories.

Daniel's story begins in early summer of 1983, when he and a close friend went on an archaeological dig in Africa. While there, Daniel became the target of an ancient curse. Now hunted by a being known only as the Shadow, he fled to Castle Brennenburg where a man known as Baron Alexander would be able to protect him. Under Alexander's guidance, Daniel began performing a disturbing warding ritual that involved torture and human sacrifice.

But, eventually Daniel couldn't rationalize his actions anymore. Distraught, he drank the Amnesia Mixture. Once Daniel regained consciousness, he discovered a note he'd left for himself. It had but a simple instruction: to put an end to the horrible crimes against humanity and nature, he must find and kill the Baron.

Justine's story is considerably shorter. Three innocent men have trapped in a deadly series of tests. The player must solve these puzzles, save the hostages, and avoid being killed by Justine's twisted Suitors.

Points of Interest

Excellent atmosphere
Probably my favorite thing about this game is how every area of the castle has a different design theme to it. Some areas seem like they would've been nice places to live, while others are strange masses of pipes and gears. The color scheme of each area is also often unique, giving the places you visit different tones and feelings.
Diary entries are read aloud
Throughout the journey you'll find a lot of notes lying around. Many of these are notes regarding some puzzle you'll be solving soon, but a good many of them are pages torn out of Daniel's private journal. These journal scraps document his entire misadventure up to the start of the game, and they are read aloud by Daniel himself.
Hints are provided if you mess up
Should you meet an untimely end, and you eventually will, you'll be presented with a brief statement while the game rewinds time to shortly before your demise. Many of these statements are just encouragement, but more than a few are hints that can help you progress if you're having trouble.
Multiple endings, with a secret to be unlocked if you get them all
There are three different endings. Which one you get depends on what you do in the final room. The best ending also requires you to have done some side quests prior to reaching this far in the game, so keep an eye out for opportunities.

Once the credits have finished rolling, you'll be presented with a series of letters that matches the ending you received. Once you have all three groups of letters, you can use them to open a hidden archive file in the game's folder. Inside is some bonus content to reward you for your effort.
Actually kinda scary
Amnesia manages to be a little scary, as the monsters pose a serious threat and the results of losing too much Sanity are pretty disorienting. Some areas are clearly designed to remind the player of a previous monster encounter, letting your imagination fill in the gaps and put you on edge. In fact, your imagination is the main reason the game is scary at all. By design, you don't get a good look at any of the monsters and the developers deliberately paced things so that you don't become accustomed to what you'll encounter.
Easily moddable with custom story tools
Although it doesn't have Steam workshop support nor does it provide the editing tools in the game's download, there are some easy to use tools available from the game's homepage. Making a custom story does require a little coding, but these custom stories are often very popular, and are usually worth the effort it took to make them.
Steam community features
For a long time, this game didn't have any special features beyond its own modding system. Today, it boasts a total of 14 achievements for intrepid players to earn while they explore the castle and save the victims of the twisted Justine. Two of the achievements are there for the true completionists in the crowd -- they are earned by finding all of the precious tinderboxes and notes in the game.
The monsters can be rather stupid
The AI that guides the various monsters isn't as robust as many players would like. It's often too easy to make them forget about your presence, and in some cases they can wind up getting stuck on things in the world.

This may actually be a good thing since it means that players who aren't terribly skilled have a bigger chance of surviving, but some people feel that it takes away some of the fun by making the monsters less threatening.
Sometimes you need to hurt yourself before you know what to do
In several cases, Daniel should be able to know what's going on just by looking at something. For example, a big container of bubbling green liquid is probably dangerous. Sadly, he needs to stick his hand in the thing to realize that it's a dangerous acid. Brilliant move there, Daniel.

Concerns and Issues

One thing worth pointing out
Before I list the many objectionable things about this title, I would like to point out an important aspect of the game's story. Despite everything mentioned below, Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a story about redemption and Daniel redeeming himself. Although he can't forgive himself for what he's done, he wants to ensure that it never happens again.
Very dark subjects
Alexander practices some seriously dark and evil things in his castle. Specifically, he gathers, uses and experiments with a substance called "vitae". This substance is generated by living creatures, and torture increases the amount of vitae in the bloodstream. Together with Daniel, he tortures many people in order to extract as much vitae as he can. Once they've outlived their usefulness, he has Daniel sacrifice them to ward away the Shadow.
Occult trappings
Where there is dark magic, occult references usually follow. In this case, there are runes painted in various walls, sacrificial altars, candles everywhere, fancy geometrical patterns and other generalized occult objects and designs. But, on a positive note, there isn't anything that appears to be overtly satanic.

A cult is mentioned in some of the notes Daniel finds, but they are listed as being long dead and practically forgotten. Their only real role in the game is to provide some backstory for the curse Daniel ended up receiving prior to the events of the game.
Blood and gore
Since collecting vitae is a key part of the story, blood is also a common in the game. Most of it has already been spilled on walls and floors before Daniel arrives in an area, but there are points where he'll need to collect or interact with it.

Naturally, gore is also commonly seen in Amnesia, since it's usually the source of the blood. However, most of the gore isn't the remains of the Baron's victims, but rather a gross organic tissue that develops whenever the Shadow has been nearby.
Human and animal remains
It seems that Brennenburg desperately needs a maid or two, as there are intact bodies or other remains of humans and animals found around the castle. Obviously, there's a lot of them in the Morgue, but the bodies of a dog and a rabbit can be found in the Study. Some of the bodies you see randomly appear and disappear, implying that someone carried them around and left them behind.

Of course, the castle's kitchen has a storage area for meat, and it's fairly well stocked. The contents of a meat locker aren't usually considered gore, but it's worth mentioning them anyway just to be thorough.
Nudity and body horror
Alexander's servants are humans that were twisted and distorted to a terrifying degree. Some are barely recognizable as human, while others are covered haphazardly in metal and nails. In the side story Justine, the Suitors are mangled further, wearing chains, blindfolds and a cogwheel like fixture around their necks. As if that wasn't enough to disturb the player, they are also pretty close to being nude, and this isn't flattering at all.

While the monsters have some fragments of clothing on them, there is some nudity in this game. Every corpse has been stripped bare, some of the statues depict naked men, and one of the last characters you'll encounter is magically floating about in his birthday suit. Absolutely none of this is sexualised however, as it's pretty grotesque and definitely meant to be repulsive.
Depictions of torture and murder
In order to extract the precious vitae, the subject must be thoroughly tortured. Unsurprisingly then, the latter part of the game involves exploring the many different torture chambers, most of which contain very explicit pictures detailing how the equipment is used. Interacting with the devices lets you listen to what their victims sounded like, and displays a graphically detailed paragraph or two about the last time Daniel had used the device.

There are also audio clips and notes that tell of times when Alexander calmly murdered people who were no longer useful to him.