There's something in the water. I can't see it, but I can hear it, lumbering around the waist-deep pool, waiting for me to step off the box that I'm perched upon. I grab a chunk of something that was once human, an extremity no longer used by its expired owner, and heave it across the room. The creature quickly follows this new ghoulish target and begins to gorge itself, the water foaming and roiling with the blood of its meal and the voraciousness with which it consumes its long-dead prey. Seeing an opportunity, I begin spinning the wheel that will raise the sewer gate and allow for my escape from the unseen hunter. The protesting squeal of metal can only partially cover the quickly approaching splashes as the creature realizes my ruse. I spin even faster, but it's all in vain: the creature is upon me and my world quickly goes red, then black. I release my hand from the mouse, instantly aware of both the sweatiness of my palms and the shaking of my fingers. My pulse beats an anxious tattoo in my temples, and my breath comes in short, ragged gasps. I am completely terrified…and I love it.
The game in question is Amnesia: The Dark Descent, the latest game from Penumbra developer Frictional Games. I've discussed my love for the Penumbra series a few times before over the years: the novel physics-based gameplay, the Lovecraftian sense of cosmic insignificance, and the imposing sense of dread that hung over your head throughout the game like a dark cloud. Amnesia is cut from the exact same cloth as its predecessor, with its more modern sensibilities replaced with the appropriate late 19th century analogues: the battery-hungry flashlight is now an oil-burning lamp, and pain pills are now bottled chemicals. Even the controls are mapped out exactly as they were in the Penumbra series. What Amnesia lacks in innovation, however, it makes up for it in scariness…in spades.
Without giving away too many cues from the deep, non-linear story, the game sets its uncomfortable tone by placing you in the shoes of a man who wakes up with no memory, and only has a letter to guide him: a letter from himself that implores him to murder another man in cold blood. From there, it's a journey through crumbling gothic environments, trying to figure out just what has happened while staying one step ahead of the monstrous things that are hunting you. The mood that the game establishes is almost suffocating in just how well-calculated and heavy it is, manipulating the player without even bringing out any sort of monster or other threat. When the game finally does roll out its enemies, the tone quickly changes from slow-burn moodiness to outright pants-soiling terror, due in no small part to the game's decision to leave you defenseless. This is not the first time that a game has done this (games like Clock Tower and Amnesia's own predecessor Penumbra: Black Plague come to mind), but I've never felt so completely powerless before, due almost entirely to the utterly alien and monstrous nature of your foes. I hate to mention is again, but the feeling of insignificance calls to mind the best stories of H.P. Lovecraft, which is always a good thing.
While it may not innovate in the way that Penumbra did (although, what games do innovate these days?), Amnesia: The Dark Descent instead focuses on raw, primal terror that succeeds on every level. At the very least, check out the demo and see for yourself.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent can be purchased for $20.00 direct from the Frictional Store, or from most major online retailers.