Amnesia: Rebirth delivers a mother lode of scares

Survival horror video games are improved with a dose of power fantasy. Where the Resident Evil and Silent Hill games give me the weapons to fight back against my enemies, the appeal of games like Amnesia and Outlast have long eluded me. I prefer my scares balanced with the acquisition of a powerful shotgun or flamethrower, with which to torch a roomful of zombies.

In Amnesia, your tools for survival are to run and hide, putting a door or a bright light between you and your enemy.

I quickly noped out of the original Amnesia: The Dark Descent back in 2017, when the Amnesia: Collection was available through PlayStation Plus. I gave up just hours in — my second attempt at playing the game. Before that, I did the same with the original Outlast, and a more recent playthrough of P.T. went poorly. After one twitching attack from Lisa, I was done. (I have “completed” P.T. previously, for the record.)

I’m not the breed of player who can withstand hours-long stretches feeling defenseless, so I approached Amnesia: Rebirth, Frictional Games’ sequel to the original The Dark Descent, as an opportunity to boost my immunity to horror game scares. Maybe all it takes is a work deadline to strengthen my resolve and power through. I’m happy to say I did not nope out of Rebirth, in part due to the first-person horror game’s well-crafted, though often-disorienting, story of survival. But the scares don’t feel as intense this time.

Image: Frictional Games

Rebirth scares me in new ways, not just in the unknown of the dark and of terror of skittering beasts creeping up behind you. The game’s desert setting offers new layers of fear. Plane crash survivor Tasi Trianon wakes up alone and addled after a plane crash. Rebirth initially teaches Tasi to fear the light, and take refuge in the dark. After finding refuge from the blistering desert sun, Rebirth quickly reverts to The Dark Descent’s mechanics of terrifying darkness, which can lead to insanity and death. There’s variety in the game’s environments, which span vast desert canyons, creepy caves, an abandoned fort, and otherworldly spaces. But fear of the dark, held at bay by matches and oil lanterns, persists, regardless of Tasi’s surroundings.

Tasi must piece together the memories of both her present situation and her past through hallucinatory flashbacks. Rebirth feeds me story breadcrumbs through lovingly illustrated diary entries and brief storybook memories which tell a better story than the litany of rote letters, diary pages, and notes spread throughout Rebirth’s levels. Tasi’s journey through the desert is about more than her own survival, a story choice which Frictional reinforces on loading screens and dedicated button input to remind us of what’s at stake: Tasi is pregnant, and can pause to check in on her unborn child, an action that will soothe her when in a heightened state of fear.

Survival does not feel guaranteed, and scares are not cheap. Rebirth had me frequently on edge as Tasi’s sanity chipped away in dark hallways. Every match I lit burned out too quickly, thrusting me back into the cold dark. I learned not to look at corpses or monsters, the game’s screen-blurring effects that represented Tasi’s unraveling psyche made me physically uncomfortable.

Image: Frictional Games

Rebirth stumbles when it introduces physics-based puzzles, which pair poorly with its clumsy, point-and-click-y controls. Pushing and pulling objects — doors, barrels, the numerous useless trinkets that I can inspect and rotate for seemingly no good reason — feels awkward, as if I were inhabiting Tasi’s body through a VR controller. I often felt like I was fighting the game itself, unsure if I was “playing it wrong” or simply butting up against the game’s inherent design choices. Even in a real near-death situation, I feel like I could capably carry a plank of wood normally — or that I would have the sense to pick up the candle I just lit to carry it with me through a dark tunnel.

But Frictional finds success in other aspects of Amnesia: Rebirth, including its unique horror setting of the Algerian desert, its rare-in-video-games motherly protagonist desperately searching for a way home to her child, and a slowly clarifying tale of love and loss. Amnesia: Rebirth shows an inventiveness that The Dark Descent only hinted at. And it’s certainly creepy enough to satisfy the hunger for something spooky this season.

Amnesia: Rebirth will be released Oct. 20 on Linux, Mac, PlayStation 4, and Windows PC. The game was reviewed on PS4 using a pre-release download code provided by Frictional Games. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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