Mysteries are very difficult to pull off well. It’s a balancing act of how much information to reveal, how many secrets to conceal, and how to lift the curtain on the unknown in a satisfying way. The formula needs to be just right so that ultimately your audience feels both compelled by the mystery and satisfied in the end when the puzzle all comes together. Amnesia Rebirth is a game drowning in mystery. Every character, chapter and plot point for a grand majority of the game is shrouded in complete secrecy meant to entice the player into peeling back the layers during their playtime. The developers at Frictional Games put all their chips in on the idea that you as the player will be along for the ride through all the questions and dangling plot threads. But does Amnesia Rebirth have the compelling storytelling chops to execute a satisfying horror mystery, or does this tale get lost in the darkness?
The first thing I should note is that this is the very first Amnesia game I’ve played from the trilogy. I have no backstory or connection with the series and in fact when provided the review code for this game I knew nothing about it other than it is the third installment of a horror franchise that has been in my peripheral vision for quite some time. So when I loaded Amnesia Rebirth for the first time I wasn’t sure what to expect other than I assumed I would be in for a frightening good Halloween tale. You play as Tasi Trianon, a plane wreck survivor who suffers from (you guessed it) amnesia. You awake in the wreck of the plane which has crashed in the middle of the desert and you must make your way to safety while slowly unwinding the yarn that Frictional Games has laid out for you as Tasi recovers her memories. Tasi comes across the bodies of passengers from her plane as she explores caves, tombs and deserted cities and it soon becomes apparent that not only is she not alone, but these passengers did not perish from the wounds they received from the crash.
The game controls in the first person perspective and feels very much like it is meant to be played on mouse and keyboard. Your right stick will guide an aiming reticule onto points of interest and as you hold down the shoulder button to grab them you have free control to pull, twist or turn objects in a manner that never feels quite natural on a controller. For example every door must be opened by you grabbing a handle or a latch and while holding down the grab button you must pull back on the stick to swing the door towards you, rather than just clicking a button to prompt the door to open. This kind of physics based manipulation works well in certain situations as you have to grab and move sandbags from doors you’re trying to get through as you are being chased, or by grabbing planks of wood to place as makeshift bridges to cross over pits or steep drops. But it also feels clumsy and unnecessary when it comes to simple interactions that could just as easily be handled with the press of a single button. There were countless times when I was trying to quickly get through a door to evade an enemy and I had to fumble with the controls so that I would stop slamming the door into my own face.
Another key feature that is very interesting in theory is that Tasi’s fear and anxiety must be monitored through gameplay. This means if you look at grotesque or frightening sights for too long or stay in the dark while things stalk around you, you begin to lose your composure and your sight grows blurry as your risk slipping into a panic attack. It’s a very cool technique that is mostly effective. The problem however is that like with a lot of other things about Amnesia, the game never quite establishes the rules in an effective way. There were times when I would be in a lit area and start to panic for unknown reasons and also times when I would be in the pitch black with no reaction at all. It’s a minor issue but it adds up with some of the other games problems.
Which leads me to the monsters and enemies in Amnesia. Without spoiling too much of what is happening in the world of Amnesia I will say there are a variety of creatures in this game that give relentless pursuit to Tasi. At first their presence is quite scary as they look at you through holes in the walls, their shadows dance across the walls but their forms stay out of sight and you have a feeling that you are being stalked by something intent on attacking your psyche just as much as your flesh. Once the creatures reveal themselves however they are far less threatening than the initial mystery of them leads you to believe.
Eventually the enemy encounters amount to trying to hide from them and running from them if they spot you. You cannot fight back and actually you can’t effectively hide either which gives the enemy encounters a feeling more of annoyance than of fear. For example the game wants to encourage the player to hide in the dark from the ghouls by allowing you to extinguish candles or torches you have lit, thus making you balance your fear of the dark with the threat of being captured. But there are two huge faults with this. Firstly, the enemies can smell you, so hiding in the dark is almost pointless. And secondly there is no penalty in the game for being caught by the enemy. You simply black out and are taken to a spawn point as the game removes the enemy from the area. It is simply baffling to me why the game would eliminate any threat the enemy poses to you because in doing so the player has almost no reason to fear them, something important in a horror game. In fact there were several times where being caught by the enemy sent me to a spawn point further along in the level from where I was caught, making being taken down by the enemy an actual help for me progressing through that part of the game.
Ultimately it’s the story of Amnesia that hurts this game the most. Frictional Games spends so much time trying to demonstrate how confused Tasi is by delivering scene after scene of moments and areas that make absolutely no sense and mean nothing to me as the player that by the time the grand reveal happens towards the end of the game I simply didn’t care anymore. I had grown so frustrated by not understanding or following what was happening that by the end of the 8 hours or so I spent playing I just wanted it to be over. The story is told through diaries, notes, flashbacks and environmental storytelling throughout, but the puzzle pieces are so small and so confusing for so much of the game that none of it felt satisfying. In the end I feel the very amnesia that the character suffers from robs this game of an emotional or personal core that could have anchored the player through the experience. By not having enough of a character to latch onto the story just feels too fractured and it caused me as the player to not feel invested enough to wade through the confusion of the mystery.
As I said at the beginning, mysteries are hard to pull off well and the end goal should be a compelling experience that satisfies your curiosity and intrigue in the end. Amnesia just doesn’t execute these core principles well enough in my opinion. My time playing was spent struggling with controls, being confused by design choices, not understanding the plot, not being scared, and being completely frustrated with the way the story ended. I’m sad to say that it’s exactly the kind of video game that I wish I could forget.