Amnesia: Rebirth Review

November 17, 2020
Also on: PC
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Amnesia: Rebirth is an oppressive, upsetting, outrageous, and conflicted sci-fi/horror hybrid first-person puzzler that consistently intrigued me from beginning to end. While Rebirth is the third in the series spawning from horror classic, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, it’s a self-contained, sprawling story with its own identity that doesn’t require any knowledge of previous entries in the series. It exists in the same universe as the other two games, and a glance at the series’ Wiki as a reminder will reveal connected narrative threads; a first-time player won’t need to have any previous knowledge whatsoever. I say that as someone who skipped the second entry entirely and had only vague memories of the now the-year-old original game.

I've always been someone who keeps people at arm's length. 

At the outset, the game tells the player to not focus on winning the game and instead immerse themselves in the game’s environment, signalling that Rebirth will be more focussed on narrative than terror. You play as Tasi, a mother who recently lost a child and is now trapped in the desert after crashing on a plane with her husband and mining crew. The opening bits are quite open and laissez-faire, allowing the player room to completely screw up and be pursued by monsters.  As such, these parts of the game actually require the player to keep track of one of two of the game’s valuable and finite resources: matches. You need to keep your protagonist in well-lit areas to keep their fear from rising too high, ultimately killing you. You do this by finding lighting sources like candles and lanterns to ignite. If you run out of matches, dark areas become lit up in a blue haze and your heartbeat thumps over the game’s speakers. I always found this mechanic rather vague, and I can’t recall ever actually succumbing to fear, so it was more of a nuisance than anything. Of course, if you’re someone who is bothered by the intensity of the experience, you’re going to want to keep to brighter areas.

There was also something goofy and immersion breaking about being able to light these items but not being able to carry them with me, even though my character was fearing for their life. In any case, hunting down matches in rooms eventually becomes obsolete as you obtain a lantern — which requires oil to refill it, but between that and the matches it becomes increasingly more difficult to run out of light sources — and as the game moves into brighter lit areas. The whole set of mechanics feels like a compromise aimed at fans of survival horror who want to feel more challenged by needing to accrue precious resources and a developer that wants to bombard the player with story and a more thrill-ride experience. 

There can't possibly be a good reason to have one of those hanging around, can there?

Likewise, stealth portions also feel limited, and I made my way through many of these segments by just panic running through or past monsters. I’m still not sure if that’s good or bad design that I was basically able to skip them, but it worked. Sneaking and stealth don’t feel great because you don’t have any sort of radar, so even if you make it past an enemy, it’s possible they turn around when they’re out of view and spot you from behind, and you won’t realise it until it’s too late and the music cue and sound effects change. Until the later portions of the game, the challenge is quite lenient, and it’s difficult to outright die. Checkpoints are also frequent and extremely close to one another. If you do die, you have to sit through a tediously long animation to respawn. On one hand, you do feel helpless, but on the other, you likely won’t have your progress hindered by these. There is an enemy near the end of the that has a particularly nonsensical — within the context of the story — ability to fly around and perceive you with a spotlight, but again, I just powered forward a couple times and made it past these fiends. The most challenging segment in the game is a pitch black labyrinth where floor sensors open and close gates that you can go through, all while you’re being chased by monsters who will find you if you make any noise. I failed this a couple of times, and then I spawned right next to the exit of the sequence when I died. I honestly wasn’t sure if this was the game’s way of telling me, “We’ll help you out, buddy,” or if some mistake was made in the game’s checkpointing system,  because the game was buggy in other areas. 

The puzzles range from physics-based — an object is blocking a door and you have to move it — to platforming and navigation, to more thoughtful sequences where you have to analyze the environment around you and deduce how an alien machine or ancient technology fits into it. I quite liked these and it reminded me of PlayDead’s Inside or Limbo mixed with a bit of Half-Life 2. There’s nothing show-stoppingly new here, but it all works beautifully and there’s a tactical feel to many of the machines and items you’ll be operating. There’s a particularly memorable one involving a tank. Unfortunately, the game’s physics system can be fussy and there is a lack of polish that kept me from moving on in a couple of situations. There’s one puzzle involving rotating pillars while pressing buttons on a console, and I was stuck on it for about an hour. It wasn’t until I gave up and looked at a solution online that I realized that I had figured out the puzzle, but the game just had some sort of bug where the cutscene wasn’t triggering; I restarted from an earlier checkpoint and it worked just fine. A similar thing happened near the end of the game where I had to switch a big, floppy, plug from one socket to another. Only when I removed the plug from one socket, it flew right into the inside of a nearby wall and I wasn’t able to work with it any more. Again, I restarted from a checkpoint and was able to proceed. The game is absolutely littered with items you can pick up or move or throw, but whenever you walk or run into clutter on the floor your character comes to a halt. This can be especially annoying if you’re making a mad dash away from a ghoul. 

Well, at least it has hospitality. 

On a moment to moment level, Amnesia: Rebirth in invigorating and tense. It feels inspired by a wealth of great horror — from The Descent to the Exorcist series to H.R. Giger — and takes a kitchen sink approach by throwing in a ton of scenarios and themes. It starts and ends with a bang, and has a surprising amount of thrilling set pieces. Yet for all of its ambitions, there are some issues holding its story back significantly from greatly. For starters, many of the game’s major twists are heavily telegraphed far ahead of when they’re finally revealed in the story, which wouldn’t be an issue if it didn’t dole out specific bits of information so slowly. 

Without spoiling too much, Amnesia is juggling three stories — Tasi’s life before traveling to Africa, the trials and tribulations of the mining team once trapped, and the cataclysmic destruction of a once great alternative civilization. The Amnesia — take a shot each time Tasi mentions not remembering something — part of the game is remembering all that happened to you with your team. These memories are unremarkable and filled with annoying, archetypal characters. Yet, we spend a great deal of the game flashing back to them. Meanwhile, there’s an entire other society we’re learning about, which is far stranger and more interesting. I would have preferred to spend more of the narrative heft on those moments and stories and how they’re analogous to Tasi’s life than with the mining crew. Tasi herself has little personality other than shrieking, worrying, and being a mother. It’s enough for a horror game in which the main character is constantly in harrowing danger, and the voice acting is great, but it feels like more could have been wrought out of her in the quieter, more exploratory moments of the game. There is also a narrative trick the game repeats over and over. Whenever you’re close to the next point of interest on your journey, you tumble down through the ground. The game also goes so far in one direction towards the end that when you think about the story as a whole, less and less of it starts to make sense. Ultimately, I was fine with this, as I was excited by the rabbit hole Amnesia: Rebirth took me down, and I admire just how much transpires in the game. 

We've all had hangovers like this. 

The endings are all quite different and painful in their own way, and I found myself emotionally drained by the end of the game, as it had a strong effect on me. In spite of some irritations with the physics system and the inconsistent narrative, I found myself playing through Amnesia: Rebirth in just a couple of addictive sittings. The game breathlessly propels you forward through myriad levels and environments and always keeps you on your toes. It may be a victim of its own ambition, but it’s an exciting and unforgettable victim, nonetheless.

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Amnesia: Rebirth is a horror roller coaster that flies by, even if parts of the narrative and the game’s stealth and physics system aren’t always up to task. It has a lot on its mind and is never afraid to give the player a new encounter and eschew a previous idea entirely. Chances are that by the end of the game, you’ll have plenty to remember.