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Amnesia: Rebirth - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Return of exploration, puzzles, and inventory management
  • Pregnancy and motherhood are key to gameplay and story
  • Finale's moral and ethical conundrum
  • Scorching sun is as dangerous as the terrifying darkness

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • Finnicky physics engine and puzzles
  • Getting stuck on the environment
  • Lovecraftian otherworld is revealed too early
  • Lacks the atmosphere and ambiance of Dark Descent
  • Monsters are uninteresting
  • Monster encounters often feel like cheap "gotchas!"

Overall Impression : C-
A worthier sequel than A Machine For Pigs,
but doesn't live up to original Amnesia

Amnesia: Rebirth - cover

Developer:
Frictional Games

Platforms:
PC < and Mac (via Steam or Epic Game Store),
PlayStation 4 (via retail disc or PSN digital download),
(< indicates platform I played for review)

MSRP: $30 USD

Original release date:
20 October 2020

Genre:
first-person horror

ESRB Rating: M (for Mature 17+) for:
Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Nudity, Strong Language

Player(s):
single player

Official site:
amnesiarebirth.com

The first few minutes of Amnesia: Rebirth had me expecting much more from the game. The first game, The Dark Descent revolutionized and resurrected the horror genre after major publishers basically gave up on horror altogether, and it provided innovative new ideas that have been iterated upon by almost every horror game since. Dark Descent has the player waking up in a decrepit gothic castle and then descending into dark, atmospheric corridors in which every moving shadow, every creaking floorboard, and every gust of wind ratchets up the tension.

The oppressive light of the sun can be as threatening as the dark.

Rebirth begins with a plane crash that strands the player in the middle of the Sahara desert and prompts the player to find shade from the oppressive heat. The player knows a bit about the protagonist and the situation, it's bright and saturated in color, and is totally the opposite of how Dark Descent begins. It made me think that Rebith might further innovate the horror genre by establishing new tropes, such as using sunlight as a tool for horror instead of cliché darkness. Dark Descent had you cowering in candlelight to restore your sanity after a trek through the darkness. Maybe Rebirth would invert that mechanic and have you seeking the dark, cool corners of the map to escape the parching heat of the sun?

Well, that idea kind of goes out the window when you take shelter in a dark cave about two minutes into the game. After this introductory chapter, it's mostly just back to the same tricks as the first game, except without the expert pacing and subtle atmospheric tension and mystery.

Five minutes after wandering into that cave, I travel through a glowing portal in the walls and step into a hellish Lovecraftian otherworld. There's no build-up to it. No anticipation. Just BAM! portal to alien landscape! Explore for a few minutes, then back to the dark caves. Rebirth kind of blows its load right here at the start by introducing the player to this otherworld right away. I guess you could say that visiting the Lovecraftian otherworld is a natural progression from the first game, which only hinted at such a world's existence, but geez, let us wonder about it for a bit before you show it to us.

Five minutes into the game, and Amnesia: Rebirth blows its load with a Lovecraftian otherworld.

Showing off the goods too much and too soon then becomes a recurring theme throughout the game. My first encounter with the monster had it grab me and hold me up in front of its face for a good 5 or 10 seconds, giving me a good, long look at its well-lit, un-inspired visage. The monster from the original game was usually glimpsed through fog or darkness, and its unnatural proportions and distorted face and jaw made me wonder if I was looking at a person or not. And when I finally did start to get better looks at it much later in the game, it revealed itself to be an instantly-identifiable, iconic monster wholly unique to Amnesia. It wasn't just some generic-looking ghoul, which is sadly the case with Rebirth's monster.

Heck, even A Machine For Pigs had me wondering if I was looking at a dude in a pig costume or some supernatural anthropomorphized pig monster. Sure it may have just been a pig, but at least it maintained its uncanny character for a bit longer than Rebirth's monster.

Even though you do eventually escape the caves back out into the sweltering sun and sands of the desert, the idea of having to stick to the shade and avoid the light doesn't really come into play. Just like the first game, you use your limited supply of lantern oil and matches to light the darkness and prevent the character from giving into her fear. Matches are a rare, precious resource in the beginning of the game, but only because sudden wind gusts keep blowing them out, forcing you to spend another match to re-light the candle or torch, or bumble around in the spooky dark. But that never once happened throughout the rest of the game after finding the oil lantern, and so I was left with an abundance of matches.

The idea from then on out was apparently supposed to be that the matches quickly burn out, but can be used to permanently ignite light fixtures; while the lantern can be used for navigating a dark space, but is only temporary. So you're supposed to be exploring with the lantern, then lighting candles and sconces for permanent lighting. The problem is that the placement of candles and sconces started to become very predictable. I could enter a room and quickly light at least 2 or 3 light sources, eliminating the need for the lantern for most of the game. I then had the lantern available for the few set pieces later that require it, without ever fearing running out of oil. And as the game goes on, it offered a generous supply of matches, such that I never once ran out after finding the lantern.

Torch locations become predictable, and matches become abundant as the game progresses.

Also like the first game, the threat of the monsters quickly dissipates as you realize that there is no consequence for death. There's a brief cutscene, then you wake up almost exactly where you were, with the monster having despawned and your path ahead now perfectly clear and safe. Why bother hiding when you can just throw yourself at the monster and actually make more progress?

It doesn't help that most of the monster encounters felt (to me anyway) like cheap "gotcha!" encounters in which the monster appears, pinned me in a corner, and left me with nowhere to hide. There are no cupboards to hide in or desks to crawl under in this game. You have to break line of sight by crouching behind a wall or on the other side of a pillar or crate. If you bother to run and hide at all, you just kind of have to hope that the monster won't turn in your direction.

You aren't catching a glimpse of the monster through the fog and shadows, then tread carefully around an open-ended, exploratory map with the knowledge that the creature is stalking you and could find you at any moment. Here, they just kind of appear in a jump scare, accompanied by a flash of light and loud audio cue. Then you just run to the nearest door or tunnel, and you're scott-free. No fumbling around in the dark while being stalked, and the only mad-dashes to the exit of a maze are in scripted set-pieces that feel too cliche to be effective.

But heck, at least all this exploration, hide-and-seek, inventory-management, and puzzle-solving is here. This isn't just a guided walking tour like A Machine For Pigs. There's an actual game here, for all of you who use "walking sim" as a derogatory. The puzzles are fine, even if a few of them feel a bit esoteric. It can sometimes be a bit confusing, since some puzzle items will go into your inventory, and others just have to be picked up and carried to the puzzle location. Some puzzles require dealing with the game's clunky physics (which turn the simple act of opening a door or shelf into a tedious chore), while others simply require putting the inventory item in the correct-shaped hole.

The physics puzzles can be a real pain in the ass.

One early puzzle required picking up three wooden boards to create a floor for an elevator. I had to carry each board across the maze-like level, struggling to rotate and hold it in such a way that it won't get stuck against random obstacles of the environment or in doorways. Maybe that's realistic. Carrying a six-foot long wooden plank is similarly a pain in the ass in real life, but it's not the kind of thing that I really want simulated in my video games. Worse yet, the boards have to be perfectly aligned along the gap, otherwise they fall through when the elevator moves. The third board fell off, and then fell through the floor and out of the game world. Thankfully, the two other boards gave me just enough room to stand and allowed me to use the elevator. I was worried I would have to restart almost the entire level due to a fluke of the game's physics engine.

Thankfully, there are only a few puzzles that even have the potential to be this finnicky. But boy, when the physics decides not to behave, it is really aggravating. It isn't just puzzles either. Sometimes the character gets stuck on things in the environment. On more than a few occasions, a small rock on the floor blocked me from moving down a hallway or up some stairs, and required me to crouch down to pick up the offending object and toss it off to the side. Having to push aside large barrels or mine carts is fine, but pebbles should not be this much of an obstacle, especially in a game that occasionally expects the player to be running for your life in the dark.

A mother's nightmare

Rebirth makes up for its weaknesses a bit with its novel conceit of putting the player in the shoes of a pregnant woman as the protagonist. It implies that the protagonist's fear is more harmful to the fetus than it is to the protagonist herself. At any time, you can press a button to stop and cradle your belly and talk to the fetus to calm her. Doing so reduces your fear / stress and removes the penalties associated with having high fear or stress.

The pregnancy also acts as a handicap as the game progresses. The character's stamina is limited, as she's carrying the extra weight of the baby. She can only run for shorter and shorter distances as the game progresses. She's also very slow about climbing ladders and certain other more physically-demanding tasks. Sadly, there's rarely (if ever) a time pressure that makes this lack of stamina feel meaningful. It mostly just prevents you from sprinting through the entire game. The pregnancy, thus, is both a burden to the player, but also a source of comfort and joy.

The pregnancy is both a burden and a source of comfort.

Without trying to get too deep into spoilers, the pregnancy becomes a major part of the story, as the game's narrative deals with the ethical and moral conundrum of a mother's desire to put her baby's well-being ahead of the well-being of other individuals, or of society at large. The idea of taking care of one's self and one's kin is also used to tell a little allegory about colonialism and the exploitation of "lesser beings". It should come as no surprise that, to the Eldritch antagonists, we humans are the "lesser beings" being colonized.

Sadly, it isn't until very late in the game that these elements of the story start to manifest in the puzzles and the decisions that the player has to make. The player isn't given any real choices of whether to put the child's well-being ahead of another's well-being until a couple instances very late in the game. I really liked these late-game puzzles, and the fact that the game gives the player the space and freedom to ponder the implications of different solutions. The earlier puzzles and set pieces, on the other hand, don't really explore these ideas at all (except maybe superficially, like creating gunpowder to use a British tank to blow up an Algerian fort wall). They're just basic progress gates unlocked by pretty typical adventure game logic. It all ends up feeling like unnecessary filler content. You know, gotta have a sewer level in the middle of a horror game, right?

We are the victims of the horrors of colonialism this time around.

Rebirth tries to thread the needle between the visceral terror of the The Dark Descent and the more heady, existential dread of Soma. Frictional ends up landing right in the middle between The Dark Descent and Soma in terms of the story it's trying to tell, and the manner that it tries to tell that story. But it sadly doesn't hit the high notes of either.

Dark Descent used ambient tension and a seemingly legitimate threat to make moving forward into the darkness require an act of courageous willpower from the player. Choosing to explore a side path felt risky, and the razor-thin margins of your lantern and tinder supplies made you feel constantly vulnerable. Not so in Rebirth, as lantern oil and matches are in abundant supply, and the monsters pose virtually no threat anyway.

Soma, on the other hand, downplayed the threat to the point that it was barely present at all, but it made up for it by turning each puzzle and each encounter into a metaphysical and ethical thought experiment, ensuring that the player is constantly interacting with and applying the mind-bending sci-fi ideas of its story. Rebirth attempts to do this, but only for 2 late-game set pieces. Rebirth lacks the terror of Dark Descent that made its moment-to-moment gameplay so good, and it lacks the clever puzzle design that made Soma such a consistently thought-provoking experience.

The end result is that, outside of the novelty of playing as a pregnant woman, Rebirth is a more middling, formulaic horror game than its predecessors. It has more substance than some of the "walking sim" horror games like A Machine For Pigs or Layers of Fear, but it's definitely the weaker of Frictional's catalogue. I expected better.

Rebirth tries to thread the needle between Dark Descent and Soma, but isn't as successful as either.

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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