What kind of self-respecting horror game kicks off in the middle of a desert under a blazing sun?
It’s a bold choice for a series so intrinsically associated with gloomy corridors and shadowy corners and flailing around in the dark. It feels intentional, too, as you trudge across the dunes, desperately hugging the shade to avoid dropping dead of dehydration before the game’s even really begun. Later, you’ll realise how foolish to have doubted Frictional’s ability to mess with you – this is an Amnesia game, after all, not Uncharted; there is no buried treasure to recover here – but revel in the sunshine while you can, my friend. It won’t last long.
There’s a lot about Amnesia: Rebirth that feels purposefully different, actually. Though it retains much of the horror series’ famed DNA, Frictional has been astonishingly audacious here, inverting many of our expectations to craft something that’s at once both familiar and utterly otherworldly, and an effective, if complex, tale that’s wildly ambitious.
It’s about now I’d drop in a little taste of Amnesia: Rebirth’s story, but everything I’d usually pop into this paragraph – the bit where I tell you about our protagonist, Tasi, and her stuffed-with-spooks adventure – is pretty much spoiler territory, which makes it surprisingly hard to write about, to be honest. Courageous and pragmatic, she’s a compelling hero, though, and I reckon you’ll like her, even if you don’t always understand her motivations. And while it feels like Tasi’s journey is unduly lengthy – particularly in the final act – her story gripped me right up until the credits rolled.
For those of you who prefer their horror to be more sedate and psychological than in-your-face, Amnesia: Rebirth chiefly shies away from modern tropes. While it does employ a number of (highly effective) jump scares, those scamps at Frictional don’t give us enough of them to allow us to get desensitised. Instead, Rebirth freaks us out with its masterful world-building, carefully ratcheting up the tension with small, almost inconsequential things; the sound of scuttling behind the door, perhaps, or a vase rolling towards you, pushed by unseen hands. It’s an incredible accomplishment, really, given the environments themselves, if striking, aren’t particularly memorable.
That doesn’t mean you won’t spend your time scouring every corner of them, though. In line with the series’ tradition, your resources are limited, and you’ll only be able to collect matches and lantern oil in limited quantities. Consequently, you’ll spend a lot of time picking through the detritus of those who’ve come before you, ripping through their tents or smashing jugs and vases in the vain hope of finding an additional match or two. While Tasi can light nearby sconces or candles to help mitigate the inky darkness, thanks to a stingy inventory cap, you’ll never feel particularly flush with resources, even when you’re fully loaded. One wrong turn and you may find yourself plunged into darkness, wasting your precious matches as you stumble around in the dark, trying to work out your next objective.
Light is absolutely critical to your progression, mind you, because without a nearby light source, Tasi’s ability to withstand the darkness is limited at best. Rebirth’s “sanity system” – invoked when she’s too close to an enemy or in the dark for too long – is a constant juggling act. Tasi’s phobia is depicted by smoky tendrils that curl around the periphery of the screen, but as you’re shrouded in darkness pretty much all the time, they’re practically omnipresent, forever impeding the corners of your screen. For the most part, I thought the resources were pretty much perfectly distributed – I frequently dropped down to just two or three matches, but rarely ran out completely – but with so little environmental lighting, it’s nigh on impossible to prevent fear getting the better of her.
The puzzling, on the other hand? This is where Amnesia: Rebirth truly excels. Neither insultingly easy nor frustratingly complex, these puzzles offer that specific kind of challenge that can simultaneously make you feel like the stupidest and the smartest person on earth. Few obstacles are straightforward but even fewer stumped me entirely, offering the perfect respite between terrifying chase sequences (and one incredibly tedious encounter in a pitch-black maze).
Though impressive in many ways, however, a lack of polish taints Amnesia: Rebirth’s shine. I’m uncertain if the problems extend to the PC version, but the PlayStation 4 build I played was a tad unstable. Twice I lost an hour’s progress, once because my save got borked – every time I loaded in, I was stuck at the bottom of a darkened stairway I’d never seen before?! – and once after Tasi was inexplicably impaled on the environment. Rebooting didn’t work, either, but thankfully, the game keeps periodic autosaves you can access from the main menu.
The 12-ish-hour playtime could’ve been trimmed down a little, too, with the final act, in particular, feeling unnecessarily drawn out. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it because I did – beyond the times where I was scratching around in the dark, anyway, I had an absolute blast – but it did seem unduly long towards the end.
And after such a lengthy lead-up, I’ll admit I felt a little cheated when the credits rolled. The ending sequences – I’ve seen two – felt abrupt to the point of rudeness and deeply unsatisfying. And while it’s intimated that your ability to control Tasi’s fear will have consequences later on, I’m not sure how – or even if – the decision she faces near the close of her story were impacted by this. Without multiple playthroughs, it’s difficult to be sure, of course, but I certainly finished the game feeling like it would’ve played out the same way regardless.
That said, despite these setbacks, I can’t deny that I enjoyed my time with Amnesia: Rebirth. The occasional uneven pacing and lack of direction weren’t quite enough to temper the genuinely chilling spooks and intriguing tale, which makes Amnesia: Rebirth a solid entry into the franchise’s canon, even if it might not terrify quite as much as its predecessors.