Amnesia: The Dark Descent is one of the PC’s best loved horror games, so this direct follow-up had enormous expectations to meet. Judging by the number of times my housemates heard me shout at it, I’d say that Amnesia: Rebirth succeeded. Navigating dark and cramped corridors with no way to directly combat the abominations pursuing you may not be as novel today as it was a decade ago, but it’s as terrifying as ever, and Rebirth takes the series to even more profoundly disturbing places. It makes The Dark Descent look downright adorable in comparison.
It’s almost impossible to say anything specific about the plot, characters, or locations without spoiling the expertly-crafted story. Here are just the basic details, then: The beleaguered protagonist Tasi Trianon, brought to life with a superb performance by Alix Wilton Regan, finds herself marooned in the Algerian desert in 1937 with, of course, amnesia. Trekking through a huge variety of dark and foreboding locales (most of which I can’t even hint at in good conscience), finding notes and photographs to piece together her past, while evading nightmare horrors using stealth and speed, all feel very familiar. But the stakes are much higher and the journey is much, much weirder. If The Dark Descent scratched the surface of the Amnesia mythos and 2013’s A Machine for Pigs gave us a glimpse below the skin, Rebirth takes us all the way into its eldritch heart.
It is a little over-eager to throw you into the deep end, though. Within the first two hours, you’ll be exposed to so much lore and pushed so far beyond the ordinary that the feeling of a gradual sinking into hell that worked so well in The Dark Descent is lost. It shows too many of its cards too early. I think some of the big reveals would have been much more effective if we didn’t get such a clear preview of them so early on. Removing or relocating just one early sequence would have improved the whole considerably.
The rush to dive into cosmic horror makes sense if you look at Amnesia as a trilogy, but not so much considering Rebirth as a standalone story. Even so, the escalation of emotional intensity is definitely intact. It’s just that you start at the bottom of the ocean and burrow to the center of the Earth, rather than dipping your toe in the shallows before the plunge.
More literally, you’ll be plunging into ancient temples, abandoned villages, and far more bizarre settings that have been crafted with fine, high-def detail and moody lighting. At least, that’s true of the interiors. Rebirth struggles with the concept of ‘outside,’ and terrestrial hills, dunes, and rock formations look blocky, half-baked, and unnatural. They don’t match up to the fidelity or believability of everything else, particularly some of the most nakedly dread-soaked later areas, which left me simply staring in gut-churning, appreciative awe (and which, again, it would be absolutely criminal to spoil even in the vaguest of terms).
This is very much a direct follow-up to The Dark Descent, both in terms of story and game mechanics. If you had unanswered questions about previous protagonist Daniel, or Alexander von Brennenburg, or the mysterious Shadow, chances are some diligent exploration will find you the answers you seek.
Rebirth also creates new questions along the way. It mainly distinguishes itself by how far it gets to run with its predecessor’s themes. In a world where inflicting anguish on others can give you actual magical powers, what would be the implications of doing so on an unthinkable scale? The allusions to real 20th Century history are a little on-the-nose, but the presentation is superb so it never comes across as preachy or groan-worthy.
Given how much bigger and more ambitious the story is, I was a little disappointed that the basic gameplay is almost entirely unchanged from The Dark Descent. The concept of “sanity” has been replaced with “fear”, reflecting a more modern and thoughtful understanding of mental illness. But it’s just a re-labelling of the idea that if you hang out in the dark or look at disturbing scenes or creatures for too long, you’ll eventually lose control of your faculties. You’ll be scrounging for matches, which can be used to light torches and candles, and eventually oil for your portable lantern. The very limited amount of each you can carry serves to build tension, but both are abundant enough that if you’re tenacious about exploration and stingy with your resources, you’ll almost never run out.
I absolutely hated the new way succumbing to these dark thoughts is handled, though. At high fear, you will be periodically afflicted by jump scare-style visions of disturbing imagery, accompanied by a horrible, screeching sound cue. It certainly motivated me to find some light, immediately. But in a series known for unsettling you by getting inside of your head, these stingers feel cheap and manipulative. It’s not scary so much as it is stressful and irritating. I found myself really wishing for a way to turn it off.
The fleshy, chittering monsters often lurking just at the edges of your sight are visually horrifying, using clever design, animation, and sound to get your hairs standing on end. But their behavior doesn’t present any new surprises and stealth still feels as clunky and random as it did in the previous Amnesia games. A lot of the more tense chases through cluttered caverns and crumbling ruins feel like trial and error. On one hand, if you never really understand how the creatures work or how to avoid them, they are much scarier than if they’re predictable. But on the other, you’re not going to feel like you came up with a clever solution to get around them. My strategy was generally limited to run, hide, and pray. Compared to the brilliant AI work and nail-biting sneaking in a game like Alien: Isolation, these baddies don’t quite make the cut.
At least getting caught is now more than a minor inconvenience. Without spoiling too much, you still can’t exactly die for good, but there are certain endings that seem to become locked off if you allow yourself to succumb to the resident monstrosities or your own fear too many times in a given playthrough. The Dark Descent lacked any real consequences for failure other than losing progress. When I realized that wasn’t the case in Rebirth, it was one of the most terrifying moments of all.
Frictional has mastered the art of building tension using imagery, music, level design, and sound mixing. Parts of the in-universe story even spell out how they do this in a way that is both openly self-referential and self-congratulatory—it comes close to breaking the fourth wall, but it feels earned. The breathtaking story payoffs are well worth putting yourself through the ordeal, too. Their ability to marry deeply personal, relatable fears with cosmic horror is nearly unparalleled in games. While mechanically rusty, Amnesia: Rebirth deserves to go down as one of the most effective and mind-bending horror games ever made, just like its predecessor. See you on the other side.