Amnesia: The Bunker is an anxiety-inducing ride filled with plenty of adrenaline-filled moments. But is sadly let down by a forgettable story and lack of innovation.
There's a war raging on, I'm stuck inside of a bunker with nothing but a revolver, and there's something clearly inhuman tracking me down. As I make my way through this grim labyrinth of corridors - rubble collapsing around me with each passing step - I brace myself to fend off a monstrous beast in the coming minutes. But the minutes continued to pass with no sight of this creature, and I suddenly remember the famous quote by Alfred Hitchcock: "there is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it."
It was never the beast itself that filled me with anxiety, it was when exactly he was going to appear.
Amnesia: The Bunker's setting made for an experience I'd never encountered in a video game before. You play as a French soldier, stranded in a desolate WW1 bunker as you avoid the impending wrath of German soldiers. But the soldiers are the least of your concerns. Not only does the setting of an underground bunker in the middle of a world war perfectly fit the suspenseful horror that Frictional Games is best known for, but it also provides the perfect labyrinth of tunnels to sprint through with a heart rate of well over 100 beats per minute.
The overall objective is simple: evade the beast, complete some puzzles, get the hell out of that bunker...and try not to cry whilst you do it.
When it comes to building suspense and inciting true fear, one of the Amnesia series' tenets has always been that the player can't fight back. But this time, Frictional Games has opted for a different - dare I say, more controversial - approach. Before I even set foot in the bunker, I was already armed with a revolver. To some, this is a big no-no, but during my playthrough I found that the use of weapons was largely optional, aside from the odd occasion here and there.
There's certainly far less fear when you know that you can fight back, but Amnesia's revolver isn't exactly Alien: Isolation's flamethrower, it's actually pretty well-balanced. More often than not, I was so focused on completing a puzzle and avoiding detection from the beast that I forgot I even had it.
Does it reduce some of the fear just knowing that you're able to defend yourself? Definitely. But, there's more than meets the eye with the addition of weapons. Ammo is fairly scarce, which means you need to pick your shots carefully. Then there's the fact that you actually have to physically check the chamber of the revolver to see how many bullets you've got loaded. Doing this can be a little tricky, as the controls aren't what you'd find in your traditional first-person shooter. On the rare occasion that I actually used the revolver, reloading it meant holding 'R' and then left-clicking to insert a bullet into the chamber.
As is customary for the series, opening doors, moving crates, and unlocking wall-mounted boxes are among the things that require you to click-and-drag your mouse. These things may seem like small details, but the idea is to add to the overall immersion, thus adding even more suspense. The control scheme is a great idea, but no number of adjustments to how a weapon would traditionally be implemented can take away from the psychological factor of simply feeling safer with a revolver at your disposal.
I also started to feel a lot safer when I worked out that it's also pretty easy to just run away from the beast. It may have caused some balancing issues, but a stamina bar could have allowed for more strategic plays. Instead, whenever the beast appeared, I'd just haul ass back to the safe room and lock the doors until it went away, which kind of ruined the pacing when I realized how simple it was to escape.
a more in-depth story, some more thought-provoking puzzles, and refined visuals could have made for one of the most horrifying experiences in gaming.
As you approach the later stages of the game, the beast becomes a bit less of a factor. Once you learn your way around the bunker, get to grips with the controls, inventory management, and most importantly, what actually brings the beast out to play, everything starts to become a little less daunting.
As with previous Amnesia games, light is your best friend. Shortly after you enter the bunker, you'll discover a generator inside the safe room. If you don't keep this bad boy topped up with fuel, the lights are going to go out and things are going to get a lot more difficult. The beast thrives in the darkness and likes to come out more frequently when the generator is out of fuel. Not only does this make things a heck of a lot scarier, but it also becomes increasingly difficult to complete the puzzles, both due to incredibly decreased visibility and the more frequent visits from our friend.
Beyond being able to see things, the generator requires power to complete some puzzles, so keeping it topped up plays a crucial role in escaping. This could've become a tedious back-and-forth task, but Frictional Games struck a good balance here; I wasn't constantly running around searching for fuel, but it also wasn't so readily available that it became pointless.
Then there's the second element: sound. Almost anything and everything in the game makes a sound, from powering up your pull-start flashlight (which, I guess, was a thing during the Great War?) to breaking down doors or moving crates along the floor. Anytime I started to make too much sound, I heard the growls of the beast approaching, and I knew that he was getting ready to pounce any moment.
In fact, the first time the beast appeared was probably one of the scariest moments I've had in a game. Although Amnesia: The Bunker doesn't really rely on jumpscares, I inadvertently created one, which was both hilarious and petrifying. Scattered around the bunker are small holes in the wall at floor level; this is where both the beast and rats emerge from. In the opening hour of the game, I'd heard growls as I walked past these holes, and even at one point saw a giant claw poke through, eerily reminiscent of a Dementor's hand from Harry Potter.
As I placed a lockdown wheel into a pipe on the wall, I had no idea I was standing right next to one of these holes. Oblivious and just concentrating on getting this wheel into the wall, I failed to acknowledge the grumblings of the emerging beast. Instead, I placed the wheel, turned it, and unlocked a new part of the bunker... success! Until I turn around and the beast is staring me dead in the eyes because I'm right on top of one of his rat holes. I scream like the 12-year-old child that I truly am and enter into a blind panic as I try to escape. These sorts of moments were so sparse that the suspense of them happening was where most of Amnesia: The Bunker's horror actually came from.
Then there's the lack of auto-save or checkpoints. Each time you want to save your game, you need to head to the safe room and click the candle hanging from the ceiling. More often than not, I would fill up the generator with all the fuel I had, organize my inventory, mentally prepare myself for the next puzzle, then save the game. This way, I knew that if I died shortly after, I didn't have to scurry around in the dark looking for fuel and supplies all over again. It might seem obvious, but it's another important factor that, if forgotten, is just going to leave you frustrated each time you die. Initially, this frustrated me too, before making me appreciate how I needed to be strategic about when I was saving my game.
The puzzles themselves aren't particularly difficult to solve, and the real difficulty comes from the sheer lack of guidance on what you're supposed to be doing. Accompanied by the fact that the map is stuck firmly to the wall of the safe room, Amnesia: The Bunker can often feel like a lot of running around blind (which is a bit of a running theme in games of late).
Coupled with a pretty basic story with no real setup or expansion during my playthrough, Amnesia: The Bunker throws all its chips into suspense and horror. Frictional Games clearly has the know-how when it comes to making an exceptional horror game, but the studio's latest outing is let down by a few basic elements.
Sure, its lackluster story is made up for by its perfectly built tension and horrifying atmosphere, but a more in-depth story, some more thought-provoking puzzles, and refined visuals could have made for one of the most horrifying experiences in gaming.