Amnesia: The Dark Descent is without a doubt the scariest game I have ever played.
This honour used to belong to the second Silent Hill, but Frictional Games' latest and greatest makes that touchstone of terror look like clowning around by comparison.
You are Daniel, and that's all you know at the start of this unforgettable six- to eight-hour experience.
When you awaken in the dark somewhere in the underbelly of Brennenburg Castle, for some reason, you have amnesia. What else to do but follow the strange trail of bleeding red petals that leads from your position into the indefinable distance?
This is easier said than done. Most of the castle's heavy oak doors are shut tight, meanwhile many of its corridors have collapsed, so for the moment there's only one way to go... but it's so incredibly dark that you can hardly see one foot to put in front of the other. Almost immediately, Daniel's fear begins to get the better of him, and we are with him every tentative step of the way: after all, almost anything could be biding its time in the next room, and lacking illumination, we wouldn't know till it was too late.
To make matters worse, it becomes clear that there is someone, or something, hot on our heels. A shadow of some sort. An embodiment of the darkness which seems to mean Daniel harm.
So we grab all the tinderboxes we see, light all the candles that there are, and every wall sconce we come upon. This does little to brighten the castle's horrid halls, but at least it calms Daniel down. Failing this, he simply faints away.
It is not far from The Dark Descent's starting point to Daniel's first destination, but the going is slow - progress through these oppressive spaces is excruciatingly incremental - so it takes some time to find the first piece of the puzzle: on a writing desk surrounded by glowing roses, a note addressed to you, and signed by the same. In it, you command yourself to forgo your fears, the better to descend to the Inner Sanctum in the castle's deepest reaches, where we are instructed to kill the Baron, Alexander.
Next to this letter, a lantern.
For the duration of The Dark Descent, oil for this delightful device and the aforementioned tinderboxes are our only defense against the darkness, and all that lives within it. We cannot fight back. We can only hide. Thus, it seems sensible to hoard such supplies — to push yourself through ill-lit areas without wasting the contents of your meager inventory. For a few hours, this attitude adds to the unbearable sense of tension that is The Dark Descent's most remarkable aspect, but by then I had such a surplus that I wondered where Daniel was stashing all my items. Heck, by the end of the game, I could have opened a small store!
Scarcity, then, is only an issue in The Dark Descent if you're too afraid to scrounge for supplies, or insist on lighting every candle you come across. Still, this speaks to the game's biggest issue: as it goes on - as one gets a sense of the story, and with it the various systems in play - we come, in kind, to know the unknown. It dawns on us that the monsters roam in preset patterns, and are easily avoided. That Daniel's sanity can be managed with a few simple tricks.
All that's left of The Dark Descent then is a physics-based adventure game, or perhaps a first-person puzzler.
Luckily, the puzzles are involving, and the solutions not so obscure that they beggar belief in the mode of most point and click candidates. To get to the Baron you often need some needful thing: an explosive mixture, for instance. To make it, you must explore a number of new areas to find its component parts, then combine these items using the proper apparatus. It's all very satisfying.
All the more so because the developers have little interest in holding our hands. Somewhat counter-intuitively, that's to the good, because the more we know, the less there is be fearful of; the firmer our footing, the less terrifying The Dark Descent. And terror is this game's stock in trade.
Ultimately, the first in the Amnesia series - soon to be succeeded by A Machine For Pigs, which Frictional Games are co-creating with thechineseroom, who updated Dear Esther earlier this year - The Dark Descent is undoubtedly at its most effective at the outset, which is sure to reduce even the hardiest stalwarts of horror to a bundle of bloody nerves. Even after this sustained state ebbs away it remains a game worth playing, but I have never known such fear as I experienced in the beginning.
Thank the dark ones for that!