Back in 2010, developer Frictional Games set the tone for PC indie horror games with Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Focused heavily on story, it created its scares through an intensity of atmosphere and an emphasis on powerlessness. With Amnesia: Rebirth, it feels like Frictional has fully refined its particular approach to horror. You’re trapped in a deadly, smothering world, struggling against your character’s limitations and even her perceptions. Rebirth is Frictional’s best game yet, marrying a deep, mysterious story to the signature mechanics the developer has been refining over the course of 13 years of horror games.
Amnesia: Rebirth continues Frictional’s specific approach to story and horror, which emphasizes avoiding conflict, hiding, and mastering your character’s own fear. It also adds to the story told in The Dark Descent, although you don’t need to know that game well to follow this narrative of this one. (The narrative doesn’t link to Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, the 2013 follow-up to The Dark Descent.) You play Tasi Trianon, a French woman who joins a mining expedition to Algeria in 1937. In the opening moments of the game, the expedition’s plane experiences some supernatural shenanigans that cause it to crash in the desert. Tasi wakes up soon after, alone in the plane, with few memories of what has happened and strange black tendrils creeping into her vision. As she goes searching for survivors, she discovers that the strange bracelet she wakes up wearing can open portals to a dark, ruined parallel world. Tasi goes searching through caves and tunnels for her friends, and the story often pulls her into the alternate dimension as she tries to find her way forward.
Rebirth brings back the main mechanics from The Dark Descent, and really, all of Frictional’s games deal in similar sets of ideas. You trace the survivors’ path, gathering notes and uncovering clues as to what happened. As you explore the caves, you’re quickly plunged into darkness, and as in The Dark Descent, the dark increases Tasi’s fear and has palpable effects on her psyche. You’re not dealing with a loss of sanity that changes how you perceive the world like in that game, however. Instead, Tasi’s increasing fear causes the black tendrils to reappear and her heart to start pounding, and if she gets too afraid, the blackness overtakes her entirely, causing her to lose herself and wake up somewhere else with no memory of how she got there.
The darkness plays on Tasi’s fears as a mechanic, while playing on yours by driving most of the game’s scares. The more frightened Tasi becomes, the less reliable her senses. You’ll start to see frightening flashes across the screen as she becomes more terrified, and Rebirth plays off your inability to see much around you with sound design that emphasizes the echoing, oppressive nature of the places you work through. As in past games, the game works to escalate your fear by messing with your perception as the protagonist sees more and more creepy stuff is an effective vehicle for scares. As things are getting spooky or dangerous, images start to flash in your vision to create jump scares, and the addition of sounds and movement in your periphery make it tougher to trust your senses. You’re constantly hearing things that might be lurking just outside of your vision, and Rebirth works on you by making it difficult to tell if those things are hallucinations, ambient noise, or actual dangers waiting in the dark.
Your primary goal is to push forward, driving back the darkness with whatever light sources you can scrounge up, in order to keep Tasi’s fear under control and assess which threats are real and which are imagined. Scattered everywhere are books of matches you can find by exploring the environment, usually by checking under or inside objects. Matches quickly burn out if you light them and try to move around, but you can use them to ignite torches, candles, sconces, and other light sources as you explore. You’ll spend a lot of your time lighting every flammable thing you can find, but this has the drawback of leaving you with fewer places to hide from whatever is making those upsetting chewing sounds somewhere beyond your vision.
Like in Frictional’s other games, you can interact with most everything you see in Rebirth, and in fact, you have to simulate real-world motions with either your mouse or a controller in order to perform basic actions like opening a door or moving an object out of your way. Other than managing lighting, the major mechanical thrust of Rebirth is using these physical interactions to solve puzzles that block your progress, which are often unraveled by paying careful attention to the environment around you for clues. While none of the puzzles are especially difficult, it’s definitely possible to get stalled here and there as you search for a solution that’s not immediately intuitive. For the most part, though, the obstacles Rebirth throws in your path are inventive without being annoying, asking you to do things like locate the chemicals you need to improvise an explosive or find a smart way to pass a short cable through a wall.
While you’re exploring, reading notes, solving puzzles, and managing Tasi’s terror, you’ll also have to contend with actual terrors hiding in the shadows. Like the other aspects of Rebirth, your encounters with the game’s threats feel like refined versions of similar experiences in The Dark Descent and Frictional’s last spooky title, Soma. You can’t fight the monsters skittering in the dark; you can only hide or flee from them. That mandate leads to a variety of frightening chases through tight confines and stealthy moments as you sneak past something horrifying while it hunts you, balancing using shadows to hide yourself and keeping Tasi’s fears from overwhelming her.
It’s in these brushes with supernatural horrors that Rebirth represents the biggest step forward for Frictional Games. Your only measure of how Tasi is faring is her increasing heartbeat and the black encroaching across her vision as her fear rises; there’s no health to deal with in Rebirth and so no items needed to maintain it. If a creature catches you, it doesn’t kill you, forcing you to reload a checkpoint and pretend nothing happened. Instead, if things get bad enough, the black tendrils overtake Tasi and you find yourself somewhere else. You’ll sometimes have to try to complete a task, run through a set piece, or solve a puzzle a second time if you’re caught while in the middle of it, but by and large, Rebirth doesn’t create a bunch of failure points that force you to replay a section of the game over and over. It goes back to the message that opens Rebirth: “This game should not be played to win.” It’s also not designed to beat you, but to keep you engaged with Tasi’s story.
It might sound like Rebirth’s lack of enemies that can kill you means it lacks stakes, but the game still does a good job of creating frightening moments. What it removes, however, is the frustration that some players have felt in Frictional’s past games. The developer responded to criticisms of Soma by adding a story-focused difficulty mode after its release, which kept the game’s monsters but removed the risk of getting killed and returning to a previous checkpoint. Rebirth works that conceit straight into its design, and it feels like a natural evolution. This is a game about a spooky story, and while horror games work to create moments of fear and tension, a lot of what makes them frightening gets eliminated in the repetition of playing the same section of the game over and over.
Storytelling is Rebirth’s real focus, although the intricate tale it tells is undercut somewhat by the limitations of small games and the trappings of first-person horror. Most of the game is about Tasi finding her way alone, reading notes, and remembering tidbits of stories that happened off-screen. Those flashbacks are largely presented as dialogue over Tasi’s still drawings, and that can make it tough to understand or connect with the many characters mentioned along the way. Things pick up in the second half of the game as Tasi starts to actually catch up to some of those characters in the present, but the flashback presentation means that you’re often left going, “…who?” when Tasi mentions a name, remembers an interaction, or delves into a conversation.
Much better realized is Tasi’s personal story, which focuses on her experiences as a mother. Tasi’s relationship with her daughter Alys, her husband Salim, and the traumas of her past inform a lot of her actions as Rebirth progresses, although it’s not until late in the game that you really start to understand Tasi as a character (mostly due to the whole “she has amnesia” thing). Rebirth is unabashedly a “mom game,” and it is at its best when Tasi’s personal journey intersects with the supernatural goings-on as it explores the responsibilities of motherhood. Like Frictional’s other titles, it also occasionally puts you in unsettling situations and asks you to make tough decisions about who Tasi is and what she should do to survive. Those moments conjure up a different, uncomfortable sort of horror, although the game delivers the illusion of more agency than it actually offers–there are only a couple of big choices along the way and it’s not clear they actually make much difference in terms of how the story unfolds.
Though sneaking past or fleeing from monsters is often harrowing, there are moments when encounters won’t quite terrify. Like in the developer’s other games, the creatures are sometimes easy enough to slip past that they seem kind of dumb, and one or two chases move fairly slowly through the environment, making it apparent you’re not really in as much danger as the game would like you to believe. The limitation that you can’t actually look at enemies because it drives up Tasi’s fear can also seem a bit arbitrary, and Rebirth has a couple of big moments that feel like they’d be trivial if you could actually see what you were avoiding.
Still, Amnesia: Rebirth feels like the culmination of Frictional Games horror titles up to this point. It refines the ideas and mechanics that have been central to the developer’s games since Penumbra: Overture in 2007, it hones in on effective scares while avoiding the frustrations of failure, and it tightens the focus on character-driven storytelling. Rebirth is an unsettling, strange, tragic story that deepens the Amnesia mythos in a lot of cool ways, while managing to be just as creepy and frightening as its beloved predecessor.