Amnesia: Rebirth review – don’t be afraid of the dark
The first true sequel to one of the scariest of video games ever made is just in time for Halloween – if you think you can handle it.
It’s Halloween soon and that means the usual, enjoyable, arguments about what is the scariest video game ever made. For us the front-runners have always been Silent Hill (the first three are all contenders in their own way), the P.T. demo, and Project Zero 2 (aka Fatal Frame 2). There are many other viable contenders for the crown but one that often gets overlooked, probably because it was until recently PC only, is Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
If nothing else, The Dark Descent holds the record for how quickly it descends into gut-wrenching horror. We remember the first time we played it, it was mere minutes into the game and we were already too terrified to look out from our in-game hiding place, fearing for our sanity almost as much as the character we were supposed to be playing as.
Rebirth doesn’t try to repeat that trick, with a much slower build-up than the original game. However, it is a direct sequel – unlike initial follow-up A Machine For Pigs – and by original creators Frictional Games. That was one of the main reasons we were looking forward to the game, especially given their work on the excellent SOMA, but despite a number of interesting elements Rebirth is ultimately a disappointment.
The game’s story is set in the 1930s and begins with a mining expedition to colonial era Algeria, which ends in disaster before it even begins. You play as a French woman named Tasi who moments before your plane crashes sees the landscape transform into a weird Lovecraftian nightmare city, after which she wakes up with the game’s titular malady. It’s not long before memories start to remerge though, as you realise that you’ve been lost in the desert for a month – which is a particular problem as you also remember that you’re pregnant.
Despite some attempts to move the survival horror genre forward, Rebirth is in many ways a very old-fashioned video game. There is a bare minimum of hand-holding, and beyond a rough indication of your current short term goal you’re given no indication of where you should go or what you should do. However, there’s no real punishment for failure, as every time it seems you should die you wake up in a different location with no idea of how you got there – which neatly avoids the problem of having to repeat the same section over and over until you get it right.
Whether you’ve played the original game or not the basics of the gameplay are very straightforward. Tasi is unarmed and often left exploring extremely dark places. This means that locating matches and lighting candles, or ensuring your have fuel for your lantern, is essentially for not only seeing where you’re going but staving off your fear of the dark.
There’s also a stealth element where you don’t want to be creating too much light or sound or you’ll give yourself away, although, especially at the beginning of the game, this all seems rather vague. Not only do stalking monsters seem to miss you even when they’re right on top of you but if you just remember to crouch and keep out of sight you can go through whole sections without seeing them either.
Especially in the more on-the-rails set pieces you begin to realise that you’re not in as much immediate danger as you thought, which doesn’t do much for the game’s ability to scare.
We also don’t think the voiceover of Tasi is a very good idea. She often ends up talking to herself and her baby, but while the voice-acting is very good it removes a level of immersion – especially as she never seems to react to things the same way you do as a player. She’s freaked out by using interdimensional portals, which is fair enough, but barely comments on the fact that she’s constantly being stalked by an otherworldly creature.
And we’ve said this before but can video games please, in the next generation at least, stop it with all the endless letter reading. Tasi can barely turn a corner without finding another lost note from another character who, despite being subjected to horrors beyond human comprehension, still managed to jot down neatly written diary entries on a regular basis. Despite the time period there’s even what amounts to audio logs, which is such a bland, old-fashioned form of video game storytelling we got fed up of it two decades ago.
The graphics are also very disappointing when compared to SOMA, which did wonders with an indie budget. Rebirth looks impressive in the dark, with clearly a lot of time spent trying to make underground caves look realistic, but in the cold light of day the geometry is revealed to be distractingly simplistic. The sound design is superb though, as is demanded by any good horror experience, and does a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of the atmosphere and sense of dread.
The biggest problem with Rebirth is a fairly fundamental one for a horror game: it’s not scary enough. It can be at times but the pacing is peculiarly slow and unengaging, especially in the opening three or four hours, where your explorations are often interrupted by physics-based puzzles and fetch quests. These are more complex than the norm for modern video games but kill the sense of tension dead if you happen to get stuck.
The game’s obsessed with flashing static images at you without warning, which is a horribly cheap form of jump scare, but even if you ignore that the cat and mouse escapades you’re subjected to are too reminiscent of Alien Isolation to have the impact Frictional Games intend. And just like that game, Rebirth is much too long for the story it’s trying to tell, with a particularly drawn out final act.
That’s a real shame because Tasi is the best thing about the game, her motherhood being a key element of the narrative and the most original aspect of the game as a whole. But while her story is consistently interesting the supernatural plot is disappointingly transparent. And although there are multiple endings you don’t seem to have as much control over the story as the game likes to pretend.
Although the storytelling goes to some interesting, and harrowing, places Rebirth doesn’t have the existential depth or originality of SOMA. As a survival horror it’s not as scary as the other Amnesia games and by the end you realise that it’s far more in thrall to the old formula than it originally seems. Ironically enough Amnesia: Rebirth is a game that’s likely to be forgotten fairly quickly and that’s a shame given how much the developer has done for the genre in the past.
Amnesia: Rebirth review summary
In Short: A disappointing sequel to The Dark Descent, but while the horror elements can seem mundane at times the storytelling and characterisation remain impressive.
Pros: Tasi’s backstory and character is consistently engaging and the game can still offer some genuine scares at times. Superb sound design and excellent voice-acting.
Cons: The survival horror elements are overfamiliar and made less effective by poor pacing and an unnecessarily drawn out story.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed) and PC
Publisher: Frictional Games
Developer: Frictional Games
Release Date: 20th October 2020
Age Rating: 18
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