(PC Review) Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs

Developer: The Chinese Room
Publisher: Frictional Games
Genre: Adventure / Horror
Players: 1
ESRB: Mature
Reviewer: Nick Stewart

Overall: 9 = Must Buy

Minimum Requirements:
High-end Intel Core i3 / AMD A6 CPU, 2 GB RAM, Mid-range Nvidia GeForce 200 / AMD Radeon HD 5000, 5 GB Hard Drive space

As one of the best examples of true horror in modern gaming, Amnesia: the Dark Descent was a real genre classic as it understood extremely well that the scariest things are often those you can’t exactly see.  Its terrifying triumph only worsened the news that its sequel, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, was being handled by a curious choice of outside developer: The Chinese Room, of Dear Esther fame. The transition from the artful, leisurely exploration on which it made its fame to a game supposedly centered on incredible fear might seem a strange one for this particular team, but what’s most shocking is how well suited their talents prove to be in carrying forward the spirit of Amnesia.  As it turns out, A Machine for Pigs is a grimy puzzlebox containing no end of high-minded horror—in other words, a fine addition to the Amnesia canon.

Mere moments. That’s how long it takes from first booting up the game until the time that your bones are filled with a sense of pervasive unease, as the game opens with fever-dream imagery of an insidiously nasty sort. It’s to its credit that this doesn’t feel like a cheap gut-punch of an opener, because even though the volume is turned down as you take your first few steps, the dull hum of unsettling dread is omnipresent and continues to climb as you move on.  As Oswald Mandus, a wealthy British industrialist in the late 1800s, you snap awake from your nightmare in the middle of a stormy night (of course) to discover your terror is becoming real: your young children have gone missing, and you must explore your mansion and impossibly massive factory complex to see where they may have gone. This means descending, lantern in hand, into the bowels of a great and terrible machine as you—the player—slowly come to grips with the things that Oswald may or may not have wrought over the previous years.

Indeed, exploration is the driving factor here, both literal and figurative. Not only are you wandering through some surprisingly and mind-rendingly large environments in pursuit of your missing children, but you also spend the vast majority of that time combing through drawers and crevices for hints as to what brought you to this point. Suggestions of the past are scattered quite liberally throughout this brutish and dark series of environments, as you glean your clues from written notes, Victrola-style voice recordings, and even phone calls from mysterious individuals you instinctively know are not to be trusted. It’s a kind of gradual construction but easily the best way of finding real narrative satisfaction as the gameplay lends itself very rarely to these kinds of revelations.

Some might argue that this exploration is in fact the entirety of gameplay, as there is little else to occupy the player beyond some profoundly rudimentary puzzles. As you wander through the steampunk, industrial horrors amidst the rust and the whistles and the creaks, groans, and screams, your focus will remain on that wandering. Gone is any kind of inventory, leaving you with nothing but the ability of carrying the occasional large-ish object across the room or from one room to another, in your hands, in front of you. The physics system comes into play here, but often in superficial ways that don’t typically feel essential to the experience. This is no criticism: this simplification helps to focus the player’s attention on the pervasive nastiness that emerges in bits and pieces in the upper rooms of your mansion before exploding into full view as you tumble down the industrial rabbit hole.

Also absent from this game is its predecessor’s infamous insanity meter, which will likely cause fans of the original to chafe and wonder just what The Chinese Room is up to. Ultimately, though, it’s a good move: although it’s an interesting gaming concept, it was less fun in actual practice than in, say, Eternal Darkness. While it reinforced the idea of refusing to gaze directly at monstrous abominations, it largely forced the player to figure out their own in-game workarounds that were rarely fun; with that out of the way, a Machine for Pigs gets around rather efficiently to quite simply terrifying you, the player, with real fear rather than a simulated digital response.

What has remained, however, is the reality that you are supremely ill equipped to fight any monsters that may arise, and arise they eventually will. Armed only with a lantern, you are squarely in “run and hide” mode, and although there is no longer a limit to the amount of light you can shine, you are well advised to use it sparingly to avoid attracting violent attention. It’s a stripped-down take on Amnesia‘s primary approach, and one that works incredibly well.

It’s worth pointing out that every single second of A Machine for Pigs is infused with gritty, in-your-bones unpleasantness. Even the act of wandering through the world is a pervasive sliver in your soul, as the visuals themselves appear as though someone slathered a thin layer of Vaseline on your eyes, as the world often has trouble coming into focus. This sounds more unappealing than it is; the effect is slight but crucial, and combined with its all-too-effective audio, makes for a game well worth the nightmares.

This is an incredibly well-written tale, and the sheer strength of its writing is not to be ignored. Although the underlying metaphor is incredibly obvious and blunt—industry is the machine and people are the pigs—it surprisingly doesn’t take away from the great horror it builds around that idea. There is a lot going on here beyond the initial “house of horrors” motif, and those who find actual ideas every bit as unnerving as jump-scares and murderous beasts will appreciate the uncanny intellect lurking beneath the surface here.

This isn’t to say that the game is perfect, which it most certainly isn’t. Its length might be a bit too brief for some, and although later stages are quite linear, the earlier ones are a bit too much so as they can leave players wandering aimlessly throughout relatively large spaces in search of the next story trigger. Similarly, the use of the physics engine can be rather flawed at times, as it is unnervingly easy to accidentally lodge a piece of furniture or crate in the environment so completely that you actually prevent yourself from being able to move forward. These are all frustrating moments that scratch at the otherwise brilliant veneer, as they pull you from the atmosphere of Oswald’s frantic struggle and into a far less-entertaining struggle with the mechanics of the game itself. Still, these are exceptions rather than the rule, leaving a Machine for Pigs as a rather fantastic and thoroughly brutish experience.

Writing about horror-based games is always a challenge, as the enjoyment in playing them is often in the discovery of what it has in store, making it difficult to describe why those experiences are worthwhile. Luckily, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs is laden with laudable moments, as a bone-rattling exploration game filled with an atmosphere so pervasively unsettling that it can be nearly unbearable. The idea of industrial terror and evil is nothing new, and in fact should border on cliche, but it doesn’t: it’s a truly effective bit of nastiness that will best reward those who prize exploration and story above all else. There’s no combat here, as all its violence is strictly one way; this leaves only fear, and flight, and the darkness at the heart of one man.

(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)

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