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Amnesia: Rebirth has been a long time in the works. It is an ambitious ten-year culmination of Frictional Games' experience, effort, influences, and technical toolbox - and in its detailed environments, affective storytelling, and delectable sound design, it shows.
You play as Tasi Trianon, one member of an archaeological dig team on their way to a mining expedition in the Algerian sands. Clutching her husband's hand, the aeroplane malfunctions, falling out of the air as the world outside flashes between a murky green storm and the bright golden desert. When Tasi comes to, in the wreckage of the plane, everyone is missing, and so are her memories.
With the time that has passed between 2010's Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Rebirth, I wondered whether the game would follow its predecessor's footsteps, or if it would tread new ground with the Amnesia label slapped on the front cover. I am pleased to report that it is the former.
It starts as a slow burn, with the classic darkness and sanity mechanics returning as the protagonist explores her strange surroundings. Matches stave off her fear, but they burn quickly, and hot-footing it to the nearest torch may draw the attention of undesirables. She occasionally receives flashbacks of the events that took place here, represented through pencil sketches. The player keeps a log of any notes, lore, and reminders in her sketchbook, and Alix Wilton Regan's performance brings steely courage and warmth to Tasi's character.
Scrutinising her hazy memories and collecting letters from the people who came before their team, it becomes clear that there is a convergence of worlds. The indigenous people in this desert worship a goddess of fertility, and there are statues and paintings nestled in nooks in the rocks. Tasi is equipped with what looks like an intricate compass clamped on her wrist, and using it on humming protrusions of basalt rips open rifts to somewhere else. In this place, these likenesses are much more realistic, tiled on angular columns and walls, lit with an eerie green light. In the world(s) of Rebirth, it feels like Frictional Games has exhaled a sigh of relief.
The Dark Descent met with an amazing response when it came out ten years ago, and Frictional's next game, SOMA, received critical praise for its prolonged horror and moral questioning upon its release in 2015. The developer has mentioned, crucially, that SOMA was important for laying the foundations for this new game. And, you see it in Rebirth's quieter moments, where the player is able to take in the narrative which has been scattered in pieces and outlined in diagrams.
This calamitous meeting of worlds may have been studied academically for the first time with The Dark Descent's Alexander of Brennenberg, yet this game digs up the tragic entanglement of humanity as it attempts to tame these otherworldly forces. As such, it feels like Frictional Games has let loose, and delved into the aspects of the Amnesia world with renewed vigor, like an artist proudly presenting a particularly macabre piece.
So far, this may sound like a horror experience that you could complete at your own pace. To reference SOMA once again, the sounds of the studio's games are oftentimes much more unsettling than the events that play out. Gone are the moans of metal bowing under oceanic pressure and the clicks and blips of futuristic tech. It's the quietness, punctuated with a whisper of dust falling from the rubble, that has me scanning my surroundings to confirm I'm alone. It's the snap, crackle, pop of Tasi's boots over a corpse. It's every time I pick up and drop a miscellaneous object, the echoes ringing over the hard surfaces, sounding like a dinner bell for the things that wait in the dark. The studio knows that the imagination is the most powerful actor in a horror game, and it delights in creating a doppelganger of danger.
However, that would do a disservice to the terrifying, heart-pounding, sh*t-f*ck-f*ck-where's-the-door-oh-god-it's-right-behind-me sequences of Rebirth. Pelting it through claustrophobic corridors as red goop bursts through the ground like pustules on infected flesh, or being backed against a corner as the crooked silhouette of something cuts through the mist and dust. Seeing the still water splash upwards, and a sinking feeling seeps into your bones, dredged from a memory circa 2010. And Frictional Games' cheeky use of subversion makes for some spine-chilling moments as I'm huddled in the light that should protect me. In short, Rebirth waves your attention to a comfortable chair, then yanks it out from beneath you, but beneath that chair is a new chair, with one leg shorter than the others. It's a tough trick to pull off, but Frictional Games is confident.
Puzzles are, of course, a core element of the Amnesia series, and owing to more open and more interesting environments, Rebirth's are more ambitious than The Dark Descent's. Nevertheless, there were a number of puzzles that foxed me, and in a game where you have limited resources with which to ward off insanity, running out of matches while searching for a solution is neither scary nor fun. Additionally, Rebirth chucks a few new mechanics into the mix, but not to huge effect. These things then either had unfortunate side effects (like extinguishing a freshly struck match) or acted as a red herring for some of the environmental puzzles.
I'm being intentionally vague about the story itself, by the way. Part of that is not wanting to spoil it for new players, and part of that is... I'm not 100% sure that I know. As well as Tasi's own journey, there are several subplots, revealed to the player as the aforementioned sketches or as pictures that appear while loading new levels. There are tablets to parse, describing an alien civilisation which was devastated by its own hubris. There is correspondence which refers to The Dark Descent, which I consumed with a genial, "Oh, yeah, that guy." Reaching the culmination of the game's story, these subplots felt like magnets on a fridge: they were grouped together, definitely, but I wasn't sure where they linked, or which ones were important, or which ones had fallen off due to my own preferential interest.
One could argue that you play horror games for the horror, and those in this camp are absolutely correct. However, there's so much story tucked into the nooks and crannies of Rebirth, and the strings between these strands don't quite tie together. It's not, so to speak, a game changer; you could cut the atmosphere of this game with a knife. But, as a sequel to The Dark Descent, I expected I would be answering questions, not gaining new ones.
All in all, it's the experience of Amnesia: Rebirth that has oozed into my veins and into my memories of last week. The corrupted monsters whose wails reverberate in your skull, the hazy discovery of a world beyond our own, the pulsating vision as you step into the darkness not knowing who or what you will meet. Frictional Games has infused Rebirth with the lessons learned from SOMA and The Dark Descent, the new tools at its disposal, and its passion for this apocalyptic world. Throwing everything at the wall like this, it's understandable that some things might slide, yet its scares are something I can't shift from my mind. With Halloween approaching, maybe it's not so bad that we'll be stuck inside, if we've got Amnesia: Rebirth to send shivers up our spines.
Pros: Superb sound design; interesting and capable heroine; horror served in slow, suspenseful slices as well as panicked, gore-sodden chunks
Cons: It's difficult to track who is who and where is where in the game's story, and that's not a comment on your own memory skills
For Fans Of: Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Alien Isolation, Resident Evil 7: Biohazard
Amnesia: Rebirth was tested on PC, using code provided by the publisher. The game will be released on October 20th 2020 for PC and PlayStation 4. Read a guide to our review scores here.
Featured Image Credit: Frictional Games
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