Genre: Survival Horror
Release Date: September 10, 2013
Developer: The Chinese Room
Publisher: Frictional Games
Platform: PC, Mac OS X, Linux
Three years ago, the title Amnesia: The Dark Descent provided Swedish game producer Frictional Games with an unexpected breakout hit. Not only was Amnesia a scary and fantastically produced game, it inspired a whole generation of developers to re-evaluate what ‘horror’ really meant. Since then there’s been a ton of imitators, but a lot of these are missing that perfect blend of gameplay, story and sound design that made Amnesia so scary. In short: people have been longing for a worthy successor.
Well, the Amnesia series is finally back, with the spin-off title Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs. Now, you’ve probably heard a lot of conflicting thoughts on this game already, but I’d like to add my own conflicting thoughts to the mix.
Firstly, it’s worth pointing out that, asides from perhaps being set in the same universe, Machine for Pigs is not a continuation of the story from The Dark Descent, and has absolutely nothing to do with that game, save for the occasional nod or allusion.
Secondly: A Machine for Pigs’ story is good. No, seriously, it’s good. The quality of the storytelling is top-notch, and the voice actors are extremely convincing – far better than the somewhat hammy (heh) actors of the first game. It’s told in much the same manner as it was in Dark Descent - through optional scraps of paper, optional audio logs (from conveniently placed gramophones, this time around) and, of course, the famous ‘echoey flashback’ technique pioneered by Dark Descent. This game is brought to you by the developers of two games whose stories were told almost entirely in voiceover or flashback, so that’s no surprise – however, there is also the occasional bit of action happening onscreen.
The game’s plot is a definite improvement compared to the first game, where it felt like something of an afterthought. It’s dark, poignant, and meaningful. It taps into mankind’s uneasy relationship with nature and with industrialisation in the early 20th century. The first game’s story was about the fear of an invisible bogeyman, but Machine for Pigs is about fear of change, about fear of the modern age, the fear that the Luddites felt of being left behind, antiquated, by the march of progress. Or the fear that technology would not liberate humanity, but make us easier to exploit. It’s thoroughly engrossing from start to finish.
It’s not just a good story, however. Perhaps more importantly (at least for an Amnesia game) it is at times genuinely chilling. Whilst not immediately frightening, the strong psychological horror aspect to the story will leave many players deeply uncomfortable.
Probably the first thing you’ll notice is that the inventory is gone. It’s just gone, it is no more. You can no longer store items in your inventory or combine them with other items to solve puzzles. The game still has a number of puzzles, but the puzzles focus less on abstract inventory ideas and more on directly interacting with the game world. This is a welcome change, because, at least to me, the inventory puzzles in Amnesia often felt unwieldy and out-of-place.
However, there’s a problem – the new puzzles, for whatever reason, are far too easy. Far too easy. Normally they simply amount to finding an item and taking it to the correct place, or pulling a series of levers in the correct order. That’s not to say that all the puzzles were poor, but on the whole they felt dull and lazy, as if they were merely filling time while the narrator was catching his breath.
Healing items, oil and tinderboxes are gone, too, and that’s the first real disappointment. These items often posed players with interesting gameplay dilemmas – “how much should I conserve my oil?” “Am I desperate enough to light that candle?” or “Am I willing to venture off the beaten track to gather more items?”. And of course, running out of these items always presented players with a moment of total and utter panic. That panic is gone now.
As a whole, the game’s monster horror aspects have been dulled considerably. Sanity is gone, which means there is no penalty for looking at monsters. I think that the sanity mechanic was pivotal in making Amnesia successful where the Penumbra games had previously failed. Not only did it force the player to never actually look at the monsters – making them all the scarier, as unknown things tend to be – it made them seek out sanity-giving light even if it put them in danger. It added a glorious ebb and flow to the horror gameplay and made players more scared for longer. To contrast, Machine for Pigs has no problem with showing the monsters easily visible in brightly-lit rooms. For the most part, the game only allows the monsters to roam very small areas, and gives them a very large ‘wind up time’ before they begin to chase you. Even when they do start chasing, they’re generally quite easy to evade. They never really roam around or hunt you down, and only really appear in set places. They never interrupt puzzle solving. In fact, the game sometimes despawns them while you’re solving a puzzle, and only respawns them after you solve it.
There’s also no more ‘hiding’, in closets or in the shadows, evading monsters is now a purely running-based exercise. Unlike Amnesia’s monsters, they don’t chase you long enough distances for hiding to be worthwhile, and the levels are much more linear and corridor-like, which while not being bad in itself, massively decreases the number of potential hiding spots.
There are some good touches – for example, your lantern will flicker when there is an enemy nearby, which is a very effective way of filling the player with dread – but for the most part, the horror has been gimped. There are a few good scares in there, but this game is not the monster horror game the first Amnesia was.
Oh, one more thing: the game took me a total of 3 hours and 51 minutes to beat, and I dilly-dallied quite a bit. The Dark Descent can easily last 6 to 9 hours (plus a further 1-2 for the free ‘Justine‘ DLC). It’s a short game.
The game features a fantastic score by Jessica Curry, who also wrote Dear Esther‘s soundtrack. It varies in tone, from creepy ambiance to soaring and dramatic to pensive and melancholy. However, there’s one thing that’s missing, and that’s the trademark Amnesia ‘chase music’ – the howling, screeching sound that played as you were being pursued in the first game. Not only was it a disturbing noise in itself, it also told you how close or far away your pursuer was. In Machine for Pigs, this noise doesn’t play and there is no replacement. Chase sequences seem quite dull without it. At one point in the game, I was being chased by a monster, and I didn’t even realize!
The ambient sound design is generally fantastic. From the rumbling and droning of machines to the frenzied squealing of pigs, the machine is alive, and it hums, rumbles and breathes throughout the course of the game. The game also has a habit of playing faint sound effects – footsteps, breathing noises, doors opening and closing – in rooms adjacent to you, which is a very nice touch that adds to the tense atmosphere.
The world design in this game is really excellent. It perfectly captures the game’s oppressive, nightmarish, industrial atmosphere. There’s something deeply disturbing about the world of A Machine for Pigs, but something that I can’t quite articulate in words. It’s steampunk, but gone horribly, horribly wrong.
The rest of the visuals are a different matter. The props are largely unchanged from the first game, and run the usual boring gambit of crates, barrels, desks, ladders, levers, and valves. The monster designs are also pretty mediocre – without ruining too much, they look exactly as you’d expect them to. Perhaps they lack the shock value that the first game’s freakish monsters had – I mean, the clue is in the name, A Machine for Pigs. It doesn’t really leave a lot to the imagination. There’s only three distinct varieties of monster in the whole game, and one of them only appears in scripted sequences in the final level.
On the technical side of things, not much is different from The Dark Descent. Although, that said, the game’s environments seem more detailed this time around – there’s just more going on, there’s more stuff on the screen, there’s less identical boxy-looking corridors. There’s also a great deal of variety to the environments – asides from every conceivable part of the pig machine, there are a number of outdoor areas as well. However, it’s obvious that these things are really pushing Frictional’s aging HPL engine (on which the game is based) to its absolute limits. Among the concerns are blurry textures, strange looking water effects, and flaky AI. Nevertheless, for a relatively small indie game, you can’t really knock it.
It’s also worth noting that I was almost unable to complete the game due to a bug which caused the game to crash at the end of the ‘streets’ level. The only way to fix it was for me to play the game and beat the level on a different computer. Of all the possible causes, I think the most likely is the nVidia Optimus-enabled GPU, so if you have one of those you might want to avoid this game.
One final mention on the technology side: Linux and OSX support at the day of release is very nice to see and more games should be doing this.
When a reviewer knows a game is bad, but doesn’t want to acknowledge it, they normally say something to the tune of ‘I’d recommend this to fans of the series’.
For this game, I’d say completely the opposite. This is not a game made to please Amnesia fans. This game is a totally different style of horror, and I would, if anything, recommend it to those who disliked Dark Descent. To be brutally honest, it feels as though the Amnesia brand is going to do it more harm than good, because people are walking into this game expecting Amnesia 2 and what they’re getting is closer to Amnesia Gaiden or maybe some kind of spin-off game like Amnesia Kart Racing or Amnesia Tennis. It’s a decent story-based game with a horror theme and light puzzle aspects. It’s a good game. But it’s not a worthy successor to Amnesia. Not at all.
On the surface, this game does everything right. It’s at least competent on every level. But in three words: it’s not Amnesia. It’s not the sequel to the breakthrough horror game that everybody wanted. And that’s a real disappointment.