Review by Crono09

Reviewed: 04/04/14

A pleasantly unsettling experience driven by story rather than gameplay

One of the most legitimately frightening experiences that I’ve ever had in gaming was playing Amnesia: The Dark Descent. The spooky atmosphere was spotted with just enough excitement and scares to keep my heartbeat up throughout the entire game. I wasn’t sure if there would be a sequel, but when I heard about it, there was no question that I would get Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs when it came out. As odd as the name may be, I knew that it would be a pleasantly unsettling experience no matter what.

A Machine for Pigs takes place in the same universe as The Dark Descent but makes only passing references to its predecessor. The events occur in the industrial district of London on New Year’s Eve 1899 and features a new protagonist named Oswald Mandus. He wakes up in a caged bed in his mansion with no memory of the previous few months. He soon learns that his two sons are missing, and an anonymous phone call tells him that they are trapped in the depths of a massive underground machine that Mandus had built to process pigs. The machine is damaged due to sabotage, and Mandus must undo the damage if he is to rescue his children. Of course, there are horrors in the machine’s inner working that go beyond simple mechanical malfunctions.

The basic gameplay of A Machine for Pigs is the same as its predecessor. Mandus is a simple man who is feeble after spending weeks in a coma. He has no weapons, nor can he fight. His only options to avoid death are to use his wits to avoid enemies, and failing that, to run or hide. Much of the tension in the game comes from his defenselessness. If you see an enemy, it may already be too late. Therefore, you have to progress slowly enough to ensure that you can react if an enemy is in the area. This makes every room potentially frightening, even if there is nothing of danger in it.

Unlike Daniel in the previous game, Mandus does not suffer from nyctophobia, so he will not go insane from the darkness. In fact, the madness mechanic is completely lacking in the game. This allows you to explore dark crannies without having to worry about being paralyzed with fear or alerting enemies. Also lacking in this game is an inventory system. Mandus quickly gains an electric lantern, and unlike the oil lantern in The Dark Descent, there is no limit to its use. The only downside to it is that it alerts enemies to your presence if they see it. However, it also flickers if there are creatures nearby. This eliminates the need to scour every nook and cranny for resources to light up the area or to conserve the lantern’s use for when you absolutely need it.

While the freedom of exploration was no longer hindered by darkness or resources, it removed much of the tension that contributed to the horror of the previous game. In The Dark Descent, the darkness itself was an enemy. Creature encounters were relatively rare, but if you didn’t have a light source, you were still in danger. This isn’t present in A Machine for Pigs, where you were always safe unless enemies were in the area, and while you always had to be careful about enemies, there really aren’t that many. While I enjoyed the freedom of being able to look at the grandeur of the machine without hindrance, the game still lost something when you weren’t constantly put on edge.

Development of the game was given over to The Chinese Room, the same studio known for creating the story-driven experience Dear Esther. Its influence can be seen in A Machine for Pigs, which is likewise driven more by story than by gameplay. Sure, there are puzzles to solve and creatures to avoid, but you’ll spend most of the game exploring the machine while finding out what you need to do to advance. The game is almost completely linear, and any branching paths will either circle back to the same location or have you reach a quick dead end until you discover what you need to do to proceed. This can be annoying for anyone hoping for more complex gameplay. While The Dark Descent had a linear storyline, most of the areas to explore at least allowed an option to take multiple paths in any order.

The lack of gameplay may be a concern for many people, but I don’t want to diminish the quality of the storyline or the game’s horror. The story is told through progression in the game, either by observations in the environment, notes and journal entries that you find, phone calls from the anonymous helper, recorded conversations, and auditory flashbacks. Through these records, Mandus learns more about the purpose of the machine and the role he had in it. This is really the core of the game, and the obstacles that stop your progression exist to make the next part of the story more rewarding.

The story flows organically, and while you will need to stop occasionally to read a journal entry, most of the story comes out through the gameplay as you really would expect to discover it yourself. Unfortunately, a couple of the major plot twists are transparent from the beginning of the game, and anyone familiar with common horror tropes should be able to see them coming. In spite of this, the game has a way of creating excitement and making them climactic even if you already know the revelation. Mandus himself adds to the experience with excellent voice acting that really lets you see how much of a tortured character he is. This culminates in a major event near the end of the game that even surprised me, and it showed how the stakes were much higher than anything that happened in The Dark Descent.

Likewise, the visual experience of the game is not to be underestimated. The inner workings of the machine are marvelous, and you get to see much of it in detail. While I have no doubts that such a machine could not exist in real life, I didn’t care since it was so amazing to look at. On the other hand, certain visual elements were just as disturbing as they were astounding. As you learn more about the machine and its purpose, it becomes disconcerting to imagine its actual use. And yes, you do see much of it in use by the end of the game, and the game is not shy about depicting the gory aspect of it. The creatures themselves were a little disappointing. While they fit perfectly with the story and setting, they were not nearly as fearsome as the monstrosities in The Dark Descent. Also, progression through most of the game was logical, making use of staircases, elevators, and chutes that you might expect in a machine of that size. However, as you approach the end, the game inexplicably teleports you between levels without explanation, which takes away from the immersion.

As a game, I have to say that Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs is mediocre at best. The gameplay is simple and doesn’t present much of a challenge. For a horror game, it does have some scares and disturbing visuals, but nothing that compares to its predecessor. However, A Machine for Pigs is more of a horrific storytelling experience than a game. The purpose for playing it comes from seeing the plot unfold and living through the terrors that come from the machine. In this sense, it is more of an artistic work of horror than a game. I personally found it to be a great one to experience. Others may disagree depending on what you expect from a game. If you enjoyed Dear Esther, To the Moon, or similar story-based games with less focus on gameplay, you’ll likely see A Machine for Pigs to be a comparable work on the horror end of the spectrum.

Rating:   3.5 - Good

Product Release: Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs (US, 09/10/13)

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