Frictional Games' Amnesia: The Dark Descent redefined survival horror upon its 2010 release. Its haunting atmosphere was unrelenting and its refusal to provide the player with any means to fight back against the creatures lurking in its many shadows was a bold design decision that paid off remarkably well. After making what is often hailed as the scariest game to date, Frictional has made the decision to hand sequel duties off to Dear Esther creators, The Chinese Room. The resulting game, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, is a strange beast — a great game in certain respects and a purely functional one in others.
The Chinese Room's take on Amnesia is less focused on maintaining a barrage of terrifying events than it is on telling a fascinating story. Just the same, the premise is an undeniably spooky one. At the very end of 1899 Oswald Mandus, an extraordinarily rich Englishman, wakes in his home to find his children gone, his memory incomplete, and an odd man calling him on the telephone. He begins to search for his lost sons, following the phone's directions, and eventually descends into a sprawling factory running underneath the house and surrounding streets.
Mandus' exploration of these environments is immediately unsettling. Blood and viscera streak the walls, his returning memory begins hinting at the grotesque purpose of the underground complex, and, most immediately worrisome, the sound of porcine snuffling comes from unexpected places as he moves further downward. All of these details create a palpable level of tension that frequently makes entering yet another dim corridor an act of immense courage on the player's part. Midway through, though, A Machine for Pigs loses some effect when the game shifts focus from maintaining a sense of danger and begins to offer something much more akin to a walk through a carnival haunted house instead. Descending into the bowels of the game's industrial hell quickly takes on the tone of a gross-out theme park rather than the kind of psychological endurance test that being hounded by unseen threats entails.
This decision to strip away the first Amnesia's vision-blurring "sanity effects," time-consuming puzzles, and limited light sources for a more direct progression path and never-ending lamp may make A Machine for Pigs more approachable, but it also cuts away some of the fear of its predecessor. But what the sequel takes away in terms of terror it makes up for in narrative strength. The Chinese Room is obviously concerned with telling an excellent story, first and foremost, and this is reflected in the game's weighty tale of unchecked capitalism and the human capacity for cruelty. The plot unfolds at a marvellous pace, seemingly nonsensical details becoming increasingly clear as Mandus discovers both more of the factory and of his own memory. Without giving too much away, the level of fear that A Machine for Pigs accomplishes stretches far beyond bump-in-the-night panic and into the kind of existential horror that only a deep, cynical examination of human progress can inspire.
A Machine for Pigs is a quality game in its own right, but as a sequel to The Dark Descent it will no doubt fall a little short for many players. A fantastic story told very well is sure to please those who go into The Chinese Room's entry to the series without preconceived notions of what to expect. Those who simply want a repeat (or escalation) of the unbridled terror that the first Amnesia offered are more likely to be disappointed. Audiences are sure to have polarizing opinions on whether or not Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs is worth playing and, in many ways, this could end up being one of the biggest compliments to give any sequel. Rather than remain content with sticking to formula, Frictional Games and The Chinese Room have made risky choices on how to go forward with the horror series. Considering that a willingness to try something new made the first Amnesia as impactful as it was, A Machine for Pigs' continuation of that trend is only fitting.