Circling In The Dark

HIGH A played childbirth sequence is a bold choice.

LOW Oh, the rug is being pulled out at the last second again! Color me surprised.

WTF So many matches and oilcans in these ancient Roman ruins!


I confess that I find it difficult to judge Amnesia: Rebirth on its own merits.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent set the standard in survival horror for the ensuing decade and Frictional Games’ follow-up, SOMA, was a signal achievement in philosophical horror. Any game would be hard-pressed to stack up against this lineage, and to be clear, Rebirth doesn’t. Still, as a game of pure scares, Amnesia: Rebirth mostly satisfies.

Rebirth largely follows the template set by its predecessor. Protagonist Tasi — played from a first-person perspective — will lose her mind if she stays in the dark for too long, but creating light attracts the attention of the numerous monsters inhabiting the places through which Tasi moves. This sets up repeated cycles of tension and relief as Tasi uses up finite resources for creating light to move between small islands of mental and physical safety.

One interesting aspect of this balance is that it doesn’t hinge on vulnerability or Game Over screens. Rebirth doesn’t “kill” Tasi when she’s caught by monsters. Instead she returns to a previous point — or in some cases moves forward, past the monster. Explaining exactly why this is so might give away too much of the story, but what’s notable is that for the bulk of the adventure, this does not relieve the tension. Rebirth effectively uses narrative elements (particularly Tasi’s examination of herself after each of these episodes) to sell the idea that each failure is dangerous, even though she does not “die” when she’s caught or goes mad in the darkness.

As effective as Rebirth is at managing tension on the micro level, it falters at the narrative level. Part of this is due to a repeated structure in which Tasi survives a risky exploration or puzzle-solving segment and then is met with inexplicable disaster at the last moment. This hits home the first time, but it’s a trick with diminishing returns. It’s only effective so long as the player believes that success is possible, and Rebirth’s overuse of it drained it of all impact long before the end of Tasi’s journey.

Rebirth also has an awkward relationship with the resources Tasi needs. The inventory limits are strange — Tasi can seemingly carry several liters of lamp oil, but only 10 matches. Even that much lamp oil burns out very quickly, so these limits force Rebirth to incorporate levels strewn with matches and oil. This feels mostly sensible and natural in a recently abandoned fort Tasi explores, but much less so when she’s wandering through empty caves, ancient cisterns, or unearthly landscapes.

Tasi is forced to explore these places because she is stranded. Her woes begin when the plane carrying her, her husband, and their coworkers over the Algerian desert crashes, seemingly at a great distance from anything like civilization. She awakens in the wreckage sometime later, and as the title suggests, cannot remember what happened in the intervening time. A great deal of her journey is devoted to filling in the blanks of her memory.

Her memories of the past come in the form of charcoal drawings with dialogue playing over them, and some of these are terribly effective. Unfortunately, they set up the characteristic defect of backward-looking narrative: the events of the past are more interesting and affecting than anything Tasi is doing while under the player’s control.

It takes quite a long time for Rebirth to start telling an immediate story with as much punch as the memories. That’s too bad, because when it gets to that point, Rebirth manages some compelling depictions of Tasi’s impending motherhood and the attending emotions.

The uneven storytelling is a shame, because if Amnesia: Rebirth had a narrative as unsettling as its play loop, it might be an all-time great. Frictional’s ability to generate tension and moment-to-moment fear is unparalleled, and SOMA showed that an equally powerful story is within their abilities. Unfortunately, Rebirth doesn’t reach those heights, though it remains a tremendously effective vehicle for scares.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed and published by Frictional Games. It is currently available on PS4 and PC.This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on a home-built Windows X PC equipped with an AMD Ryzen 2700X processor, an ASRock X470 motherboard, 32 GB RAM, and a single GeForce GTX 1080 graphics card (driver version 456.71). Approximately 17 hours of play were 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 for Blood and Gore, Nudity, Strong Language, and Violence. There are dead bodies and pieces thereof strewn liberally through several levels, and of course, many monsters will attack. At one point the player character is asked (and encouraged by circumstances) to torture a captive. Rebirth is, by design, stressful and frightening to play. I would not recommend parents allow anyone short of their mid-teens to play this.

Colorblind Modes: No colorblind modes are available in the options.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: All dialogue is subtitled and Rebirth has a robust set of options for adjusting subtitles to maximize readability. Sound cues often announce the presence of a monster and in some instances help to pinpoint important locations. In general there are also visual cues but the game may be more difficult for hard of hearing players. The sound mix cannot be adjusted to emphasize important cues or dialogue over music and background noise.

Epilepsy Warning: This game does have some sequences involving flashing images or flashing lights and bears an epilepsy warning.

Remappable Controls: This game offers fully remappable controls for keyboard and mouse. Control lists are shown below; on PC this game uses standard WASD mapping with Q and E used for leaning. Mouse gestures (generally involving holding a button while moving the mouse in an arc or a circle) are necessary to open doors and move items. On PC there is no option to remap a gamepad.

Sparky Clarkson

Sparky Clarkson

Sparky Clarkson grew up in the hot lands of Alabama, where he was regularly mooned by a cast iron statue. He played his first games on a Texas Instruments 99/4A computer, although he was not an early adopter. He eventually left Alpiner behind, cultivating a love of games that grew along with the processing power of the home computer. Eventually, however, the PC upgrade cycle exhausted him, and by the time he received his doctorate from the University of North Carolina he had retreated almost entirely to console gaming.

Currently Sparky works as a scientist in Rhode Island, and works gaming in between experiments and literature reviews. As a writer, he hopes to develop a critical voice that contributes to a more sophisticated and interesting culture of discourse about games. He is still waiting for a console port of Betrayal at Krondor.
Sparky Clarkson

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