This review was originally printed in The Oakland Press.
I snuff out my lantern and huddle behind a cart full of pig carcasses, struggling to quiet my erratic breathing as I watch the door in anticipation. I can hear the sound of him squealing in anger, and that horrible snorting announcing his presence. I have no way to fight him off if he finds me, but I hope against my reason that he didn’t see me come in here.
For a moment, there’s silence. Then the sound of splintering wood as he begins breaking down the door.
So why am I not particularly frightened?
“Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs” is the sequel to 2010’s outstanding “Amnesia: The Dark Descent.” The one is developed by The Chinese Room in collaboration with Frictional Games, and makes many changes to the successful formula, not all of which come to fruition.
Players control Oswald Mundus, a London industrialist from the turn of the 20th century who suffers from the titular condition, and knows only that his two sons are lost somewhere in his massive factory, and he has to rescue them from the nightmarish pig men patrolling the halls of the facility.
The original game, The Dark Descent, was ingenious in its mechanics; it built tension by forcing players to balance their resources, a constant tug of war between staying safe and staying sane. The longer you spent in the darkness, the more your grip on reality ebbed away and made it more difficult to navigate. But the longer you stayed in the light, the more precious lantern oil and tinderboxes you’d use to light your way.
Worse yet, the more you stood in the light, the easier it was for monsters to find you. And while your instinct would be to look at your pursuers, looking directly at the hideous monsters chasing you would erode your mental well being even faster. The sanity system was particularly well-executed, because it frequently resulted in players crouching in dark corners, staring directly at a wall or floor, hoping the terrors stalking them wouldn’t hear their panicked breathing. It hit every high note of survival horror games from the last 15 years.
Well, “A Machine For Pigs” does away with all that. Many of the first Amnesia’s cornerstones have been altered or removed completely. Players no longer have an inventory of any kind, health recharges over time, and the sanity system is completely gone, at least as a function of gameplay. Instead of an oil lantern, players have an electric lantern that only flickers out when enemies are nearby, which actually gives the monsters away more than it creates foreboding. While these changes might be attractive to less action-centric players, it also sucks away much of the tension and fear of the original.
It also doesn’t help that the beginning of the game is a very slow burn. It was over an hour and a half before I had any need of my electric lantern or came face to face with the grotesque pig men trying to hunt Mundus down. While you still have no means of fighting the beasts, I felt less scared by the pig men than I did when I was anticipating them, jumping at shadows. When I finally did get cornered by one, I found them surprisingly ineffective at killing me. Even after a few seconds of being gored by the boars, I was able to escape to a dark place and hide until I had my full health back. Realizing this really takes some of the punch out of the pursuit.
The story is told through voice-overs and found diaries, and while it is very elegantly written, it ultimately falls a bit flat, as you’re given little reason to sympathize with the Mundus or understand his connection to his children.
As a horror game, “A Machine For Pigs” is not very scary, certainly in comparison to the previous game in the series. But neither does it work as a adventure game with tones of terror; most of the puzzles placed in your path amount to little more than “find fuse A and insert it into slot B.” Admittedly, some of the jump scares did get me, and the music does a great job of setting an atmosphere, but it’s hard not to be disappointed when the original Amnesia had players jumping out of their seats in fright.
The Chinese Room was the developer that gave us the interactive fiction “Dear Esther,” but their wheelhouse has always been more in storytelling and less in making actual game mechanics, and it really shows here. It’s admirable that Frictional Games gave another developer an opportunity to give their take on Amnesia rather than just rehashing the first title, it ultimately fails to recapture the magic of the original.
While it doesn’t hold up its legacy, “A Machine For Pigs” is still a solid, enjoyable experience. If you’re a fan of the original, you’ll enjoy it as an expansion of the story set out in The Dark Descent, but those looking for a real edge-out-your-seat experience for the upcoming Halloween season would do better to check out the other first-person horror game out this month: “Outlast.” Or if you’re unfamiliar with the series, check out the original “Amnesia.”
“Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs” is available on PC and Mac and is downloadable on Steam. Frictional Games provided a review code for the purposes of this article.