Review: Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs

AmnesiaMachineForPigs

Carrying the horror-game torch passed on by Frictional Games, Dear Esther developer The Chinese Room took on the monumental task of crafting a follow-up to Amnesia: The Dark Descent, an indie horror game regarded by many as one of the scariest there’s ever been. Having no involvement in the original game’s creation, The Chinese Room switches a few things around to present a different vision of the Amnesia universe tailored to its approach to game design.

The Chinese Room’s influence is found most in the game’s more deeply emphasized narrative. Similar to Dear Esther (but not even close to the same extreme), this Amnesia is less game than the original Amnesia, and more along the lines of interactive fiction, where storytelling and a richly developed atmosphere take precedent over conventional video game actions like freedom of exploration and puzzle solving.

To that end, returning amnesiacs will immediately notice, and likely lament the fact that many of the mechanics central to The Dark Descent have been altogether removed. A lantern with unlimited fuel replaces any need to scavenge for more lantern oil and tinderboxes to light candles and torches, which simply don’t exist in this world. In fact, there is no inventory management of any kind. Even more noticeable is the removal of the insanity meter, which means you need not worry about sitting in constant darkness or staring at monsters for too long. All of these core alterations do lower the sense of urgency somewhat, but at the same time, to me these elements all felt kind of unnecessary to begin with. Playing through The Dark Descent, I never really felt in danger of running out of supplies or reaching maximum insanity. These were just devices to make me believe I was under constant threat. Of course, that may have been a result of my OCD tendency to search every nook and cranny to find every last tinderbox. By the end of the game I think I still had like 15-20 unused tinderboxes left in my inventory.

A Machine for Pigs does, however, recycle many of the same themes, assets, and controls. A lot of the visual elements and object models are similar in appearance, although the engine does manage to pump out more impressive detail across the board. The mouse gestures for flipping switches, rotating wheel devices and opening doors, closets, and desk drawers will feel immediately familiar to anyone with past Amnesia experience—only in this game none of these controls are used to solve puzzles that require even the slightest bit of intellect. You’re mostly just traveling from room to room, hitting switches or replacing fuses to turn on power to open access to the next area. Only objects that react to the cursor when you scroll the mouse pointer over them can be interacted with, which is almost always limited to the exact item you need for the current scenario. Unless it’s a chair, if the game allows you to pick something up, it’s going to be used to solve a nearby problem.

So yes, to some players A Machine for Pigs will seem like a step back in the gameplay department, but the tradeoff is a more engaging and well written story, told in a world just as creepy and atmospheric as The Dark Descent, yet even grander in scale. This game is a clear downgrade when it comes to puzzles, no doubt. Conversely, it is a clear upgrade in level design. Loading times still break up certain areas, but there are fewer of them and overall the world is more fluid and natural in the way its environments flow together, including seamless transitions from indoor areas to courtyards and alleyways that lead to adjacent locales.

There may be less overall interaction, but you feel more attached to and absorbed by the game world, which takes place in 1899 London, at the home and meat processing facility of an industrialist butcher named Oswald Mandus. This is one of those game stories that is best experienced fresh without knowing a lot of the background, so without going into great detail the basic premise centers around Mandus waking up inside a gloomy mansion with a foggy memory and beginning a search to find his two sons who are in some type of danger. This search leads him on a dark descent into the depths of a mysterious machine that seemingly does far more than just process meat. (And boy does it ever!)

As before, the story unfolds predominantly through the reading of notes laying out on tables or shelves, or tucked away inside drawers and cabinets, as well as narrated flashbacks of past or sometimes even imagined events. Gramophone audio diaries and strange phone calls further expand the game’s bag of storytelling tricks. What’s great about this format is the way you get to slowly piece together what’s going on and what happened during the chunk of time that Mandus can’t remember, deciphering the hidden meaning of certain texts and determining what’s real and what isn’t. Of course, that just means it’s crucial that you find every last note to get the whole story. Most of the notes are found in places that must be entered to progress the game, but a good amount are hidden in places that can be missed if you don’t bother to check every room.

Having a compelling story is great, but Amnesia is about horror so none of the intrigue would matter if the games weren’t scary. Fortunately, A Machine for Pigs once again excels at its main objective to creep the player out. This is not the kind of horror game that’s going to turn your stomach with in-your-face gore, or make you jump out of your seat in terror. For that, you’ll want to play a game like Outlast. The horror in this game is the kind that unsettles the nerves with more nuanced techniques. The truly scary stuff is what is heard around you rather than what you actually see, and that’s something I find more terrifying than conspicuous jump-out scares. To me, it’s scarier to hear something terrible stalking you in the dark without actually being able to see what it is or where it’s coming from. In this case, the what-is-it that’s stalking you is an experimental breed of half-man, half-pig monstrosities fittingly known as Manpigs, whose tormented squeals and angered grunts will surely put a jolt to your heart rate.

Atmospheric immersion is central to the game’s successful attempt to suck you into the unfolding terror. It’s hard not to be on edge while walking through dimly lit warehouses and old industrial buildings lined with animal cages, dead bodies, and rotting pig corpses—or the occasional Manpig which must be avoided using simple stealth tactics. Sounds of floorboards creaking, footsteps that aren’t your own, kids giggling, clock pendulums clicking back and forth, steam rushing and whistling through pipes, and distant screams of torment do their part to keep you completely unnerved. In complement to the rest of the spine-tingling audio package, Jessica Curry’s score sets a truly haunting mood. Many of the tracks go heavy on string or piano melodies, while others are more gothic and operatic in tone. During a few tracks I think I also picked up on the use of music box and children’s toy sounds, underscoring Mandus’ relationship to his children in a truly creepy way.

The game also does a wonderful job of using darkness and lighting techniques to play tricks with your mind. For example, you might begin to walk into a pitch black room and see two red lights which look like eyes watching you from a distance, but upon closer inspection they’ll turn out to be nothing more than machine lights shining from the back of the room. When a creature is around, your lantern and surrounding lights will begin to flicker as a cue that you better watch your ass. You’ll often have just enough light to make out some grotesque beast prowling ahead of you or the vague shape of something darting by, but not enough to know exactly what lurks in the enveloping darkness. I also remember one time I came across a room with two doors. I went to the first to find that it was locked, so I moved on to the second one. That door was locked too, but when I turned around the first door that was once locked was suddenly wide open. Needless to say, I was hesitant to walk back over to the door and see what was on the other side. Subtle tricks of the mind like this are what give me the heebie-jeebies.

I know it will be difficult for many players to avoid the debate of which Amnesia game is better, The Dark Descent or A Machine for Pigs? But I find the whole argument silly and unnecessary. There are certain things that I like about the original, and there are certain things that I don’t. There are certain things this game improves upon, and there are certain things that don’t work out quite as well. That doesn’t make one better or worse than the other in my opinion; they are simply two different but equally well crafted games that should be treated as such. Bottom line: Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs is a bloody fine work of interactive horror entertainment.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Deeply consuming narrative experience
+ Incredibly rich and suspenseful atmosphere
+ More natural level design flow
+ Adept use of audio cues and mind games to freak you out rather than overt gore and jump scares

Cons:
– Removed mechanics from The Dark Descent may startle and disappoint returning players
– Overly simplistic puzzle solving
– Interaction and exploration have been pared back a bit too much

Game Info:
Platform: PC/Mac/Linux
Publisher: Frictional Games
Developer: The Chinese Room
Release Date: 9/10/2013
Genre: Adventure/Horror
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

[nggallery id=3077]

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!