You wake up in a castle with a note you have written yourself. You cannot remember who or where you are, but your former self is not surprised. The note tells you that you have purposefully forgotten recent events, and that you now have one goal: find and kill a man named Alexander. You don’t know who Alexander is or why you wanted to kill him, but your note warns that you are being chased by a dark shadow that alters reality and that time will be short.
The dark shadow is a persistent threat that is never directly seen but its presence can always be felt. Earthquakes are tearing the castle apart, and odd noises can be heard coming from outside. However, these are the least of your worries as strange creatures walk the halls of the castle. The castle is impressive – a massive maze of twisting rooms and corridors. The earthquakes are causing parts of the roof to collapse, blocking off passages and creating new ones as you play.
Light is in limited supply, as candles provide your only means of illuminating the darkness. Tinderboxes are scattered all over the castle, but you never seem to have enough. You also have a lantern that runs on oil, but even that is in limited supply. Staying in the darkness slowly drains your sanity, which is something that could easily be lost in a place like this. You need to treat light like a limited resource, otherwise you could lose your mind.
You have to stay focused and keep your wits about you. Keeping the darkness at bay is only part of the challenge, as every odd event you witness chews on your soul. Looking too long at the foul creatures could cause you to panic and reveal your position, forfeiting your only advantage: stealth. You will find no weapons to use against the creatures in the castle. Your only choice when faced with one of them is to run or hide. You can close doors and barricade yourself in rooms, but that will only slow them down. Running fast and far away or hiding in closets or other dark corners will be your best bet for survival.
As you lose your sanity your vision becomes blurred. You might start seeing and hearing things that are not actually there. Depending on how far gone you are there might even be a delay between mouse inputs and you performing the action. Keeping your mind on the tasks at hand is the only way to preserve what little sanity you have left, as solving a puzzle completely restores your sanity.
Solving these puzzles is how you will spend a majority of your time. The castle is in very bad shape with areas that you need to get to currently inaccessible. Many of the puzzles work like classic point and click adventure games. You have to find the items that you need, combine them to create something useful, and then use the item on the environment. This might include mixing chemicals to produce an explosive to clear your path, or to fix a broken steam generator by properly setting levers and replacing gears and other broken parts. The puzzles are well designed and often make good use of the physics engine. They will require you to think things through, but are never so complicated that you will be stuck on any one for too long.
The physics engine makes interacting with the world feel pretty real. Using the mouse you actually grab on to items and move them around. Opening doors requires more than just a click, as you have to push or pull your mouse to swing the door open. Similarly, turning valves requires you to move the mouse in the correct circular motion. It creates a unique physical connection between you and the game that really helps to immerse you in its world. It also helps increase the tension a lot, especially when running from enemies where you actually have to stop and swing a door open in order to get away.
The presentation of the game is pretty solid, especially for an indie game. The graphics engine won’t necessarily impress if you have been playing a lot of big budget games, but by no means does the game look bad. The actual art in the game is pretty good. Objects have a good amount of detail, and feel authentic for the time period. The lighting engine works well, creating believable shadows and the use of ambient occlusion adds depth to the scenes. However, the most impressive part of the presentation has to be the audio design. The audio designers clearly understand that what you cannot see is often scarier then what you can, and they provide you with some truly terrifying sounds to get your imagination working against you. The graphics and audio combine to create a game that is really rich in atmosphere.
True horror games are rare these days, but Amnesia The Dark Descent really pulls it off. This might just be the creepiest game ever made.