Despite glowing reviews, I was incredibly skeptical when Amnesia: The Dark Descent was released only three years ago. Calling a game ‘innovative’ may sound cliche, but I was glad I overcame those hesitations and played Amnesia, as it truly innovated in the horror genre. With that in mind, I was excited to try out Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, the full-fledged successor to the original that had started as a mod of Amnesia by Dear Esther developer The Chinese Room. Does A Machine for Pigs hold true to the tense horror gameplay Dark Descent carried out so well?
30 Second Review
+ Captures the creepy environmental terror of the first game
+ Piecing the story together through clues and exploration was fantastic
– Best elements of Dark Descent were not included in Machine For Pigs
– Lack of tension
– Couldn’t help but feel that the ending was a bit too vague
Awakening with Amnesia
At the start of the game you awaken as Oswald Mandus, tycoon and owner of the largest meat-packing plant in London. The setting is New Year’s Eve of 1899, and your memory is blurred with your recent return from Mexico. There are hints that the trip did not go well and that more time than you realize has passed since your return. Stumbling through your mansion, you begin finding clues, receiving strange telephone calls and take up the quest to find your twin boys. The halls are haunted; visions cloud your mind, and strange creatures will impede your path. Welcome to Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs.
This Gameplay has Amnesia
When I fired up Machine For Pigs, I was immediately greeted with a very familiar dark setting bleeding with sepia tones in the absence of light. Familiar environmental triggers are present, queuing ghosts and visions to appear at eerie times or roaring vibrations of loud machinery. Even simply getting to the title screen made the hair on the back of my neck stand up, and I knew I was in for a very scary ride.
Then something happened as I began to progress into the dark underbelly of the lavish Mandus mansion: I began to miss the elements of the first game. Mandus carries a lantern, which means you are no longer required to keep a supply of matches or interact at all with nearby lamps and torches. Sure, your lantern will attract unwanted attention from the scary monsters inhabiting the dreary halls, but there is really no strategy or requirement to use lighting to your advantage. This is because the sanity meter that made Dark Descent so incredibly tense is also gone. No longer does hiding in the dark have untoward effects on your character; you are free to stay there as long as you like to observe the walking patterns of nearby monsters. As a matter of fact, you don’t even have to hide in closets and crawl spaces to evade the monsters anymore; you simply crouch behind cover until they lumber away, and then you go about your business as if nothing happened.
I also couldn’t help but notice that the monster encounters were much less frequent and much less tense thanks to these factors. You are left a game that is just a simple exploration of a very dark and scary steampunk environment, dodging a few monster encounters and flipping switches to open deeper pathways, many times merely by the light of your lantern. To avoid story spoilers, I will not go into detail about how the story effectively removes any fear you have of the monsters. Within the first couple hours of the game the immersion evaporated like one of the spirits in Mandus’ visions, and I was left with a very dark and mysterious version of a game resembling something like Myst.
Obviously, I continued on, solving relatively easy puzzles and finishing out the story, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing. Reading a developer blog by publisher Frictional Games shed a little light on what the inspiration for these changes may have been. It states very little should detract from the narration of a game, meaning that repetition, unnecessary gameplay mechanics and overly difficult puzzles shouldn’t hinder the player’s experience. While I cannot disagree with those sentiments, I still question whether The Chinese Room went too far in its implementation of these ideas. With an honorable mention to the collaboration I had with Saving Content co-founder and editor-in-chief Scott Ellison, the focus on story seems to have left many more unanswered questions than you would think. I could have understood the trade-off of gameplay mechanics for story a bit better if the story wasn’t so confusing and didn’t hinge so heavily on finding many or all of the in-game collectible clues left around the halls. Finding a few more clues than Scott had found, we compared notes and still couldn’t make heads or tails of the plot. Open-ended story resolutions are not bothersome to me, but again, at the cost of gameplay mechanics I expected, it seemed like The Chinese Room simply cut off its nose to spite its face.
Machine For Pigs tells a very interesting story and provides a solid game experience. At the same time, I do think it suffers from changing the formula that Dark Descent made great and leaving too many story questions unanswered. I can’t help but wonder if it would have been received better if it did not have to reach the high bar set by Dark Descent.
That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the experience or have fun trying to decipher the story elements with a friend and fellow reviewer. While piecing the story together was fun, coming up short was not. I do think that the retail price of $19.99 is fair for the experience I had, but I cannot help but wonder if the game would be enjoyed more by simply waiting for a Steam sale. After much deliberation, I think that removing core elements and focusing on a story that didn’t seem to be fully delivered adds up to 5 piggies out of 10.