Frictional Games’ Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Soma are exceptions to a rule that defines my taste in horror. I started playing horror games when I was only 12 or 13, with the original Resident Evil on Playstation. Since then, that series and the games it inspired—Silent Hill, Dead Space, Deadly Premonition, The Evil Within, and The Last of Us, to name a few—have remained must-plays. Any game tangentially related to the concept of survival horror is a game that will inevitably end up on my radar.
Over the last decade that definition of survival horror was diluted, as the trend towards first-person scare-factory-style games began to dominate the horror game genre. Gone were concepts of inventory management, ammo conservation, puzzle solving, and visceral combat. These mechanics were replaced with stealth, scripted jump scares, and a general lack of combat and puzzles.
Games like Slender, Outlast, Layers of Fear, and P.T. strip away the gameplay meat of the survival horror genre to focus entirely on scaring you and telling a story. They take away shotgun shells, save ribbons, and zombies; leaving you to hide under beds and skulk away from deranged, mutilated men screaming biblical verses at you in a mental hospital.
Needless to say, while I play through a lot of these more modern horror games, I find their scares cheap, earned through sequences that walk a line between horrifying and annoying. The return to form of Resident Evil in the last few years (and the wildly overlooked Evil Within 2) has felt like a survival horror renaissance, a welcome return to quality gameplay while retaining the scares that make the trendiest horror games so enticing.
And then there’s Frictional Games’ Amnesia: The Dark Descent, a game that helped to ignite the frustrating trends of modern horror games. You would think this game, and their more recent masterpiece Soma (which you should play immediately if you haven’t), would be tossed in with the rest of the pile of horror games I don’t really enjoy—and yet, they’re both outliers, standing as some of the finest games the horror genre has to offer.
That’s a long-winded way of saying that their new game, Amnesia: Rebirth, once more walks that fine line that makes Frictional Games’ titles engaging and interesting. You again have the ability to grab and move objects, allowing you to rifle through drawers, pull levers, open doors, and generally engage with the world around you. This leads to clever moments of puzzle solving, and a better sense that you are in a physical place.
Like the original, it does not give you combat options, but it still retains a survival horror “ammo conservation” concept through limited access to matches and lamp oil. The darkness is another enemy here, as it increases fear (causing a variety of unpleasant effects) and makes exploration difficult.
You play as Tasi Trianon, a member of an archaeological team whose plane crashes in the middle of the African desert. You wake up confused and alone, but it becomes clear that some time has passed and events have transpired that you can’t account for.
What’s more, there seems to be a lot more going on in the caves and villages of this area than some ancient bones and pottery. Before long you are moving between this world and something much more alien, and the transitions are causing Tasi’s body to age months at a time, resulting in a shocking realization: she is pregnant.
As Tasi’s amnesia subsides and she begins to recall not only the events following the crash, but the events of her past, the importance of this baby inside her builds. The baby even has a button dedicated to her, which when held causes Tasi to rub her belly and talk to the baby, relieving some of her own fear while providing an additional storytelling avenue.
The baby is a constant presence, despite the first-person perspective. Frictional Games has gone to great effort here to remind you that you are playing as a pregnant woman, and all the challenges and fears that may entail. When a creature is pursuing you, you are trying to protect and save more than just yourself.
It’s just one of many ways the game works hard to build psychological fear in the player, rather than relying exclusively on physical scares and monsters pursuing you. Beyond that, the otherworldly environments are haunting standouts here. The places I saw in Amnesia: Rebirth will stick in my mind and likely unsettle me for years to come.
That said, your mileage may vary. Amnesia: Rebirth swings for the fences in a lot of different ways. The setting and story, the cast of characters and their motivations, and the twists and turns in the final chapters of the game are all awesomely-out-there, bridging together various themes of the game that will either come off as strange and unsettling or overwrought and hokey.
Amnesia: Rebirth feels experimental and risky, and nowhere is that more true than in how it handles those pesky fail-states that are part of every horror game. Inevitably, a monster will pursue you, but unlike so many other horror games, this one gives you ways to keep moving forward, even if you get caught.
Like the intentionally outlandish story, the failure mechanic will likely rub some people the wrong way. Without the risk of a traditional “game over” screen, there’s a chance that the tension and fear will fall away. Indeed, there were a few moments where I felt like I broke character just to see what would happen. Thankfully, there are enough new and interesting scenarios here that even when one sequence didn’t work, Rebirth eventually quickly drew me back into its haunting setting.
Even though the game is building off the same bones established in 2010’s Amnesia: The Dark Descent, it feels like a lot of thought and effort has gone into evolving the sub-genre it helped establish. You can see this game working through the frustrations of the genre and working even harder to ensure it stays scary while it sands away those rough edges. It’s an amalgamation of strong concepts that worked brilliantly for me, but may turn off those with different tastes in horror than my own.