Monday, 16 September 2013

Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs (Video Game Review)

If you had to pick a game which blended horror and atmosphere to the point of near perfection, you could certainly do far worse than Amnesia: The Dark Descent. With creepy hallways, hauntings and Outer God incursions into reality; it took its ideas and proceeded to take them to near pitch perfection. Suffering only from largely unavoidable issues of enemies outstaying their welcome, and billions of screaming youtubers trying to make money off of it. Now we have a sequel subtitled A Machine For Pigs, with The Chinese Room partnering up to create a dark, petrifying, nightmarish experience worthy of Steven King’s bad dreams.

The results were decidedly mixed.

Set in another disturbingly dark building with another memory lapsing main character, A Machine For Pigs follows the tale of industrialist Oswald Mandus. Recovering from a fever he awakens with months of his life gone and the voices of his twin children calling him. Nothing is quite as it seems however, and as Mandus begins to encounter other figures patrolling the depths of the building it becomes clear something unnatural has been unleashed. Something unnatural, barely contained and ready to continue its machinations against the population of Earth…

Unlike the usual reviews, this is going to focus on the negatives first and then the positives. Why? Because to be clear right out of the starting gate, many of the game’s problems can easily be put down to one thing: The Chinese Room’s involvement. Anyone who has played their previous titles like Dear Esther will know they’re beautiful to look at, wonderfully atmospheric and with interesting mysteries, but lack interactivity. Often seeming more like the player is on railroad tracks with the story told to them than experiencing it for themselves. That unfortunately sums up a lot of points within Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs. A great story, great atmosphere, but not much in the way of gameplay.

Many mechanics which were crucial to making The Dark Descent such an engaging and fearful experience had unfortunately been removed. Chief among these is the necessity to hunt down fuel for your lamp and the item inventory. A great deal of the fear of the original was managing what resources you had on hand while trying not to attract the attention of the monsters, and choosing when to light an area. An act which could get you killed but was necessity for maintaining your sanity meter. Speaking of which, you can say goodbye to that as well. Far too many mechanics have been removed wholesale and as a result the game feels like it’s pulling its punches, not with you facing down a dozen threats from every direction.

The removal of such micromanaging does make the game somewhat more streamlined, but it’s not for the right reasons. Rather than tweaking something so it wasn’t so intrusive or problematic to the game’s pace, removing so many wholesale just makes the game feel less threatening. Not to mention less involved, as you have far less to do than stroll about the place doing a few things to stay alive but mostly sticking on track to follow the story. Overall it simply feels far less like a video game and more like a very well made “virtual experience” like some new version of an interactive film. Don’t get the wrong impression, you still play this game but it’s just not as involving as before.

This is the massive black mark against an otherwise spectacular game as everything else here is brilliant.
Many details and aspects of A Machine For Pigs feels like a proper extension of what came before. Improving upon graphics, atmosphere, style and story to present a familiar yet very different experience from the last game. One similar enough to be recognisable, but different enough to stand out on its own.

The big visual shift comes in two specific areas: The greater level of technology present throughout the game as you find deeper layers of insanity to confront, and the Orientalist fascination within the games themes. Both of these themes comment and reflect upon the specific year in which the game is set, 1899, and play upon the overall themes of the story right to its very core. You won’t know it until you see where the story is actually going, lending to more visual subtlety than the previous title featured.

More prominently is the step up in characterisation and voice acting. The story is much more personal than the original and driven by the inner demons of those involved, feeling much tighter and better driven than what came before. Just for starters, the protagonist feels as if he has much more of a presence within the tale beyond a silent figure for the player to project themselves into and greater involvement. This is again a detail which does diminish much of the personal scares and horror for obvious reasons, but it does lengths to make the narrative far more engaging. What definitely assists in this manner is the choice of voice acting as well. While The Dark Descent was definitely no slouch in the voice acting department, the involvement of Toby Longthworth and Mark Roper ups the quality to the next level. Both giving a level of conviction which helps to press upon the player the importance of the story.

The monsters themselves are also a well-designed and interesting addition to the title, once more serving as visual metaphors and working towards a final point. The problem is that while they’re interesting, they’re far from scary as they will likely only kill you if you’re forced into a corner.

Ultimately that’s the biggest problem of the story: It’s more interesting than it is scary. Whereas The Dark Descent was a truly terrifying experience, A Machine For Pigs evokes more a feeling of “huh, that’s interestingly disturbing.” Many parts are well made, there’s no doubt about that, but much of it simply feels toothless and empty far too much of the time. It really is a game of extremes, on the one hand so many elements truly are expertly implemented and designed, but on the other it lacks so much of what the original made great.

If you are looking purely for story or were scared away from the original Amnesia by all means take a look at A Machine For Pigs. Otherwise, if you’re actually looking for a good game with better immersion and interactive design, stick with the original. It holds up just as well now as it did upon release, perhaps even better than before now it has a sequel to compare itself with.

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