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Amnesia: Rebirth is an elegant sequel to a horror classic

Amnesia: Rebirth is an elegant sequel to a horror classic


A darker descent

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Amnesia: The Dark Descent cave
Frictional Games

When is a society — or a life — past saving? The reassuring answer is never. But Amnesia: Rebirth, the latest game from Swedish studio Frictional, isn’t designed to be reassuring.

Rebirth is a successor to Amnesia: The Dark Descent, a 2010 horror classic defined by its shameless jump scares; grotesque monsters; and chilling story about guilt, cruelty, and memory. Frictional has gone back to Amnesia a couple of times. First with a short 2011 add-on called Justine, and again by publishing Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, a separate game developed by The Chinese Room. But Rebirth, which will be released tomorrow, is the first new, full-length game in the series.

Amnesia: Rebirth has an immediately familiar cadence. Like The Dark Descent, it’s a game that torments players by delivering stretches of tense, dread-inducing exploration; frantic chases; and moments of revelation before they’re pushed back into the dark. For me, it was a nine-hour-long cycle of dread, panic, and recovery, a loop so well-honed that it’s all but explicitly referenced in the plot. But Rebirth tweaks the original game’s design and themes in compelling ways.

An endless cycle of dread, panic, and recovery

Rebirth is an oblique sequel to The Dark Descent. It uses the same first-person design and gives players the deliberately awkward point-and-click interface that Frictional has used for over a decade. It also has narrative links to the first game. But it’s set in 1937, several decades after the original, and it’s focused on a different protagonist: Anastasie “Tasi” Trianon, a French draftswoman joining an archaeological expedition to Algeria. After surviving a desert plane crash, Tasi wakes among the wreckage with gaps in her memory, a mysterious amulet around her wrist, and a trail of notes that her husband Sahim has left to mark a path.

Like The Dark Descent, Rebirth sends players to retrace a story that its protagonist has forgotten at least partly to save their own sanity. The game is less lonely and quiet than Frictional’s earlier work, which sent players into almost entirely abandoned worlds. But it’s still an emphatically isolating experience. The setting of Rebirth feels awe-inspiring in a way that The Dark Descent’s setting didn’t allow — not just horrifying or hostile, but grand and strangely beautiful. Its chapters shift between desert sandscapes, underground ruins, and, in one of the game’s rare nods to its period setting, a French colonial outpost.

Not a monster, but a monstrous world

It also spends a lot of time in a different world altogether, thanks to Tasi’s amulet. Though Amnesia is often described as Lovecraftian, Rebirth owes as much to the eerie, decaying grandeur evoked by Lovecraft’s weird fiction contemporary William Hope Hodgson, author of foundational dying Earth novel The Night Land. It’s a story not about an individual monster — although you’ll meet plenty of them — but about an entire civilization that’s made itself monstrous by accepting pain as the price of normalcy. The game’s story delves into places and concepts that the first game only hinted at, and it mostly makes them creepier than they originally sounded.

Frictional’s last project Soma downplayed puzzles and other mechanical elements, even offering a feature that removed its monsters. Rebirth swings back toward an earlier, more explicitly game-like style. Its puzzles are simpler and a bit more organic than those of the first game, designed to get players poking around the edges of a level trying to figure out what they’re supposed to do. But they still follow recognizable point-and-click adventure conventions. There’s also a version of The Dark Descent’s trademark sanity meter, which drains in darkness and messes with players’ perception when it’s low but can be boosted by lighting candles or using a lantern with limited power.

Amnesia’s horror has always been a complex sleight of hand, as the games evoke a palpable threat of failure without actually stalling or frustrating players too badly. In The Dark Descent, this meant that sanity slippage was ultimately cosmetic — it produced creepy visual effects but, except in a “hardcore mode” that was added after launch, it couldn’t permanently damage you. 

Without revealing too much detail, this is not true in Rebirth. Its oppressive darkness is tangibly dangerous, and rationing matches and oil — a system that felt a little perfunctory in The Dark Descent — is a far more satisfying part of the game. Meanwhile, instead of giving players a game-over screen, Rebirth (sort of) lets you fail forward if you die but at a subtle narrative cost. The whole system is framed around something more original and less reductive than “sanity,” and it’s become more elegant and interesting with the change. There’s even a Death Stranding-esque mechanic that I can’t describe without spoiling a major plot element, but that works surprisingly well.

Rebirth’s story doesn’t require knowing anything about The Dark Descent, and it might actually be more compelling to discover certain elements for the first time. But — to be somewhat vague — the series cleverly recontextualizes its original protagonist’s greatest enemy.

Frictional games are fascinated with the morality of gods

Frictional has a long-standing fascination with humanity’s moral relationship to godlike beings. Its early, deeply underrated Penumbra series is about an ancient civilization (known as the Tuurngait) that prizes extraordinary mercy and collective good, and a man who ultimately chooses to destroy them out of fear. Rebirth inverts the relationship: it’s about discovering powerful, super-intelligent beings with distinctly human motivations for terrible atrocities.

Very little of this, it’s worth noting, has much to do with the game’s historical period or its setting in Algeria. Similar to Penumbra, which used a name from Inuit mythology for a basically unrelated entity, Rebirth nods very lightly to Arabic folklore by way of H.P. Lovecraft. But it’s focused on Tasi’s own personal tragedies and their connection to a strange and ancient world, touching only glancingly on real events like the violence of French colonialism. There’s a game to be made about that kind of horror, but its omission here feels like Frictional understanding where its interests and its limitations lie — and avoiding shallowly exploiting territory that would require a far deeper and more nuanced exploration.

Amnesia: Rebirth doesn’t reinvent horror games the way The Dark Descent does. But it refines one of the genre’s greatest entries into something more awe-inspiring and deftly designed, without abandoning its highest goal: making you shiver as you take your first step down a pitch-black tunnel.

Amnesia: Rebirth launches October 20th on PC and PlayStation 4.

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