It’s no exaggeration to say that the first Amnesia: The Dark Descent changed horror games when it came out in 2010. It quickly became an online phenomenon, praised for its slow creeping pace, dreadful atmosphere, and intuitive physics puzzles. It was also scary as hell. Bucking the trend of its contemporaries like Resident Evil and FEAR, Amnesia did away entirely with combat, instead having you rely entirely on running and hiding to survive. Players could only count on their own wit and bravery against horrifying monsters, while also managing their in-game sanity. To this day, there’s still not many other games that match the pure terror of Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
Setting the Stage
Since then, we’ve had a sequel in name only with Machine for Pigs (made by a different team), as well as the amazing Soma by developer Frictional Games. But now Frictional has finally returned to the series with a true follow-up in Amnesia: Rebirth. Does it revolutionize the horror genre again? Is it as scary as its predecessor?
Ehh, not really.
While The Dark Descent had us exploring a spooky 19th century castle, Rebirth takes us to the sandy dunes of Algeria in 1937. And while the new locale is at first a refreshing setting for a horror story, it eventually goes completely off the rails. (More on that in a bit) This time around, the story centers on Tasi Trianon, a French explorer who wakes up alone in a the remains of a plane crash with, you guessed it, amnesia. She soon discovers she’s pregnant, and ventures out into the desert to find her lost crewmates, recover her memory, and generally not die.
Are You Afraid of the Dark?
Alright alright, that’s enough scene setting, now let’s talk about how scary Amnesia: Rebirth actually is. Like the first Amnesia, the majority of the scares will come from monsters stalking you through the darkness. To navigate, you’ll have a lantern and matches to light any candles or torches along the way. Both of these last very little time however, and you’ll often be scrambling around to find more matches or lantern oil. It can verge on annoyance when your match only lasts a few seconds, but this constant search for more light can get pretty tense.
As in The Dark Descent, you need to stay in the light to keep your sanity. When it falls low enough, your sight will be impaired by the sight of bugs on your periphery and you’ll be interrupted by sudden jump scare visions. Which is pretty scary the first couple times… And that’s about it. The sanity mechanic is actually pretty disappointing in Rebirth. Tasi starts to freak out if she’s even in dimly lit rooms, so having to keep track of lighting everything just so you don’t get a sudden jump scare can actually be kind of annoying. In the decade since The Dark Descent, I was really hoping the sanity effects in Rebirth would be a lot more fleshed out. Instead it quickly becomes a mild inconvenience.
Monsters Make Their Return in Amnesia: Rebirth
Of course it wouldn’t be a Frictional Games game without monsters to hide from. But like the sanity effects, monster encounters go from frightening to mundane. The first few instances of coming into contact with the new monsters are really effective. The tension is builds as you find notes warning about it, find mutilated bodies, and catch glimpses of it down the hall or around the corner. The first few areas when the monster is just out of sight but you know it’s there, or when you suddenly realize it’s chasing you and have to escape, are pretty terrifying and absolutely the scariest part of the game.
Eventually however you’ll get caught by it and two things will happen. One, you’ll realize that up close, they’re not that scary. They kind of just look like zombies, which is a far cry from the creepiness of the twisted monsters from The Dark Descent. And two, you’ll notice that Amnesia: Rebirth has no fail state after the monster catches you. Instead, for plot reasons, the monster will leave you alone and you’ll be progressed ahead in the area. It’s pretty underwhelming.
I’ve talked before about how constant repetition in horror can quickly lead to annoyance over fear. But here, the opposite is true – with no stakes in death, why fear it? Sometimes being caught is actually beneficial just to be able to progress faster. So with the dawning realization that the sanity effects are more of a hindrance than something to fear and the enemies being defanged, you may start to wonder just how scary this game is actually is. Then Rebirth hits you with another curveball – it goes sci-fi.
From Horror to Science Fiction
Throughout The Dark Descent, you learn of the existence of another dimension. You don’t discover much about it, only that the villain comes from there and it may be the source of the terrible things that hunt you. Now in Rebirth you actually travel to that dimension frequently, and much of the second half of the game takes place there. And it’s a really cool expansion on what the previous game hinted at… Only it’s not really scary.
It’s fun to see and learn about this twisted dark world, but it also loses all its mystery once you do. It stops being Lovecraftian unknowable horror and feels more like something out of Prometheus. It’s even more brightly lit than the fortresses you wandered earlier.
You’ll of course be chased by monsters here too, but they’re just not as scary when you’re in an alien world. Exploring a dark room and hearing something breathe behind you? That’s scary. Being in another dimension where the skies are green and nothing looks human and a monster pops up? That’s just standard video games. Like Yahtzee Croshaw said in his review, “Monsters in a scary world, that’s just where monsters come from girl. Monster in your living room, better sense of creeping doom.” Even the newly introduced monsters in the second half are more familiar than scary. You know the type, the kind that have spotlights on their head you have to avoid? C’mon Frictional Games, you’re more imaginative than this.
Not So Alone in the Dark
And throughout all of this, Tasi is quite the talker. In The Dark Descent, the player character, Daniel, was silent. It really allowed you to place yourself in his perspective and feel the fear he was feeling as he explored the castle and discovered its dark secrets. Tasi on the other hand, is a fleshed out character. She has a full backstory that’s revealed quickly, she remembers how she got where she is much faster than Daniel, and she talks the whole way through.
That’s not really a bad thing, but it certainly cuts down on the fear factor when she’s cradling her stomach and soothing her baby every ten minutes, or audibly commenting on everything of interest. It’s just hard to feel that isolated sense of dread the first game nailed so well when the player character is a bit of a chatterbox.
Scary Amnesia Stories to Tell in the Dark
Finally, let’s talk about the story. The Dark Descent spun a tale of madness, cruelty, and obsession, and it was as effective as it was bone chilling. Piecing together Daniel’s memory and discovering the horrors committed in the castle walls, and his own accountability in them, was an extremely dark and memorable story that still sticks with me today. Rebirth’s story on the other hand, not so much. Without going too into spoilers, Tasi is a lot more innocent than Daniel, and her journey is more predictable and far less dark.
The scariest that Rebirth’s story ever gets is when its retreading the same ground as The Dark Descent, and even then it’s much less subtle and thus less creepy in execution. The theme of Rebirth seems to be “How far will you go to save your child?” which is extremely well-worn territory and is never particularly horrifying. It’s not a really bad story in the end, but it’s much more cliché, clumsily told, and less intriguingly skin-crawling than The Dark Descent.
How Scary Is Amnesia: Rebirth?
Overall, Amnesia: Rebirth is a decent horror game with a some chills and thrills to entertain for a few nights. But as the follow-up to one of the scariest and most influential horror games of all time, it falls short. What starts off as an intriguing premise in an exciting locale slowly deescalates in both tension and fear. The mechanics and enemy encounters undermine the horror, the setting goes from creepy to sci-fi, and the story and player character don’t give you a lot of reasons to get scared.
It’s not entirely without horror, but it doesn’t hold a torch to it’s predecessor. Newcomers to the series will find some fun scares for sure, but veterans may be left wanting. At least it’s no Machine for Pigs.