Back to Basics

HIGH The leanness and meanness of the overall experience.

LOW Some slightly awkward combat/stealth encounters in the back half.

WTF Some of the meanest rats I’ve ever encountered.

After playing Soma recently, I had begun to suspect that Frictional Games was becoming a tragic victim of inertia — an overcommitment to what they perceive as their strengths, rather than what their true strengths are.

Shockingly – and wonderfully! – Amnesia: The Bunker demonstrates that Frictional is capable of completely rethinking their approach to game design. Eschewing the intrusive narratives and suffocating linearity of their last few titles, The Bunker is a minimalist, intelligently-designed experience that puts story in the back seat as it pursues its true goal of sustaining pure, hypnotic dread. 

The player assumes the role of Henri Clement, a French soldier in the trenches of World War I. After getting severely wounded while rescuing a comrade, Henri was knocked out for what seems to have been quite a long time – long enough that almost all of the other personnel have either fled or died, fearful of a seemingly-invincible creature that stalks the bunker. 

…And that’s it, as far as the setup goes, save for the goal of Henri finding some dynamite and escaping the bunker, while taking care not to get brutally murdered by the Big Beasty. Simple and effective! Of course, written logs scattered around the bunker fill in the blanks somewhat, expanding on character backgrounds and motivations, but the central story maintains a clarity of purpose that perfectly feeds into the minimal, yet expressive gameplay systems. 

The player quickly arrives at a central hub room, which (for the most part) is the only place they’re able to save. There’s a map which suggests possible courses of action as the player begins to explore, but the player is free to explore at their leisure.

Adjacent to this hub room is the generator, which can be supplied with gasoline found throughout the bunker in order to keep the lights running. Much in the same way that light helps the player avoid insanity buildup in earlier Frictional entries, in Amnesia: the Bunker, the Beast is averse to light. One can venture out into the depths of the bunker while the lights aren’t powered, of course, but this is always a risk, especially if the player gets turned around and isn’t sure how to make it back to the hub. 

Thus, in a curious sort of way, Amnesia: The Bunker turns into a sort of ‘pseudo-roguelike.’ The player will often die while exploring or run out of power and scurry back to the save room, and immediately begin to plan a new route of exploration that allows them to achieve their goals more efficiently — some necessary resources, or opening a certain door.

They can defend themselves through wit (throwing a bottle to distract the Beast or stealthily sneaking past him, for instance) or through force, which mainly takes the form of a revolver the player obtains near the start. This isn’t Resident Evil 4, though — the player can only find one bullet at a time, and needs to manually load each one into the chamber, a laborious process which completely undercuts any of the fetishistic appeal the realistic gun might otherwise have. Rather than a tool of destruction, it feels like a ‘get out of jail free card’ — an extremely limited, mostly reliable method of scaring off the Beast when all other methods of evasion have failed. 

In my opinion, had Frictional Games stuck to its usual linear, narrative-first formula, the presence of the Beast as the sole enemy would have quickly become nothing more than a frustration — a repetitive, scripted-feeling intrusion into the cutscenes and visual exposition. But when the player can go more or less wherever they like in a massive underground bunker, knowing that at any point the Beast could approach their position with no real predictability, the entire experience feels like one long chase sequence – or perhaps, one long nightmare. 

It must also said that there’s one last twist to The Bunker, and it’s the way the Beast can appear without notice, reinforcing the idea that both it and the player’s behavior are equally unpredictable.

For example, the Beast is typically averse to light, but one time I tried baiting him out and running back into the well-lit hub room, only for him to chase me in there and kill me anyways. Other times he seemed to appear out of nowhere in a bright room, or, if I’d successfully hid from him, he’d often take an ungodly time to leave the area. But the player an also change things up. They can blow doors open with grenades to clear paths, or they can block holes in a wall that the Beast might try to emerge from. Whatever works in the moment is what works, and this freeform improvisation lends the entire affair a dangerous edge of what if?

The cat-and-mouse dynamic between player and adversary, so familiar by the end of the campaign yet so aggressively unpredictable every time, really does possess the texture of a bad dream, or an endless cycle that the player can never wake up from. Thankfully, the narrative’s willingness to step aside is what really brings the nightmare to life. The Beast is not used as a vehicle for philosophical musings, he is not an expression of Henri’s subconscious mind or his hidden traumas. He is brutality personified, as senseless and blood-soaked as The Bunker’s setting.

Final Score: 8/10

Disclosures: This game is developed and published by Frictional Games. It is currently available on XBO, XBX/S, PS4, and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC.  Approximately 8 hours of play was devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed.  There are no multiplayer modes. 

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated M and contains Blood and Gore, Partial Nudity, Strong Language, and Violence. The game contains a high amount of both realistic and fantasy violence (in the realistic WWI sections and the more supernatural sections), with the player character often being wounded to the point of bleeding heavily. There is a decent amount of strong language in the audio/text logs, but (as far as I can tell) the ‘partial nudity’ is quite minor — this must be referring to some of the posters placed around the bunker.

Colorblind modes: There are no colorblind modes available. 

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: The game offers subtitles. The subtitles can be altered and resized. The hints, letters, found tools/objects, and other elements that fuel the player’s progression can all be found and interacted with without sound, meaning that the game could theoretically be played without sound. However, it might be difficult to detect the Beast’s presence without audio cues. The game offers a ‘closed captioning’ feature, which is meant to display noises that would otherwise not be displayed by the regular subtitles, but this didn’t seem to work for me. At this point, it’s not fully accessible. 

Remappable controls: yes, this game offers fully remappable controls. 

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