[Originally posted to my PC gaming column at Examiner.com]
Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs delivers creepy, taut horror but doesn’t quite manage to emerge from the long shadow of its predecessor Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
A Machine for Pigs still delivers a satisfying horror experience, but suffers from Déjà vu. It uses too many—almost all really—of the same mechanics and elements of its predecessor.
Good horror is based upon tension and, most importantly—the unknown. Familiarity dampens the tension. A Machine for Pigs relies too much upon the good (but now familiar) elements that made its predecessor Amnesia: The Dark Descent so good. We’ve been here before, and the first time was a better experience.
That isn’t to say A Machine for Pigs isn’t good. If you were a fan of The Dark Descent or just the genre in general, then A Machine for Pigs is still well-worth playing (ideally with the lights off). It just never quite recaptures the magic of The Dark Descent.
Amnesia all over again
You awaken in a lovely in a soft bed surrounded by beautiful woodwork, soft light, and an iron cage. Aside from the cage, the room otherwise appears to be a pleasant bedroom. Thankfully, it’s unlocked.
Arising from bed, you hear the voices of two young boys beckoning you. Your memory is muddled, but you still know that those are the voices of your children. Being the loving father that you are, you go to find them.
And so begins your journey through the dark, mysterious, and terrifying halls of your own home—now a mystery to you in the absence of your memory. Your only companion is a simple lantern to light the way—and a mysterious caller who rings you on the odd telephone now and again.
And that’s the last of the story I’ll reveal here. As with virtually all horror games, the mysteries are best left to be discovered amid the panicked running and screaming, punctuated by sighs of relief when you barely escape something that was going to tear off your face. The rest of the story is skillfully revealed through familiar mechanics: written notes and audio recordings (on Gramophones) scattered throughout the mansion, along with snippets of your own memory that return in voice-overs at key points through the game.
Creepy horror at its (almost) finest
A Machine for Pigs, like its predecessor, is basically a first person horror adventure game. It’s a dark and stormy night, and with only a lantern to light your way and voices of creepy, ghostly children to guide you, you must traverse the halls of a 19th century mansion, complete with freaky Renaissance art, poor illumination, and more creaky doors than any home has a right to have.
Any sensible person waking up inside this nightmare would probably go back to bed and the safety of the cold iron cage surrounding it—or just pack a bag and leave immediately.
But you’re not sensible. And the voices of your children beckon you. Never mind the fact that creepy, ethereal voices of children pretty much square the value of the creepiness. (At least they’re not creepyclown kids, which would at least cube the value.)
The puzzles in Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs are generally based upon solving reasonably realistic challenges and not the contrived, sense-defying lunacy that often defines hunt-and-click adventure games.
For the most part, you’ll do things like fix machines, collect items, pull levers, and other fairly mundane tasks. Observation is also important, although sufficient hints can usually be found in the notes and books you’ll find scattered throughout your home to give you an idea of what needs to be done.
The puzzles aren’t particularly complex, but solving them in a house riddled with Things Going Bump in the Dark that must be avoided adds to the challenge. Sometimes just finding where to go or the objects you need is difficult in itself because after you’ve just spend the last 30 seconds running and screaming into the darkness.
This happens more frequently after you reach the bowels of your home, where you must avoid the sinister creatures lurking there. Something pounds angrily on a door to the room you’re exploring. You want to know what it is, but you don’t want it to find you. Eventually you’ll see the creature, but you won’t get much more than a darting glance over your shoulder as scramble away through dark halls looking for a hiding place.
Sequel? Homage? Derivative? Mod?
On the whole, A Machine for Pigs is still terrifically fun, but it never quite manages to step out of the considerable shadow of its predecessor. A Machine for Pigs is well written and the voice acting is superb, but the narrative they reveal becomes a bit muddy in the late game.
Again, I won’t go into detail for fear of ruining the story, but I found the motivations for the main character (i.e. you) and his ultimate conclusions that form the basis of everything a bit hard to believe. In addition, relatively late in the game a series of notes reveals some elements/ideas that quite frankly sound out of place—perhaps from an earlier draft of the story that were still half-baked into the narrative for some reason—or perhaps something added as an afterthought but never given adequate attention to fully develop within the game’s larger story.
Overall: 4/5 Stars
Narrative missteps aside however, A Machine for Pigs still delivers a good horror experience punctuated by puzzle solving and exploration. A Machine for Pigs is a solid horror game, and well worth playing if you were a fan of the original. It’s just not quite as good as its predecessor.