Horror isn’t easy. Anyone can throw together enough blood, guts and gore to make a butcher green at the gills, but proper, unsettling terror is a rare thing indeed. There are countless films, books and TV shows out there that claim to conjure blood-curdling chills, but very few of them really stay with you, like a splinter burrowing beneath the skin. Amnesia: The Dark Descent is one of those games; part of a very select club that not only redefined the genre in video game form, but established a template that many would imitate (and most would fail to surpass).
It’s the game that helped put the ‘Let’s Play’ format on the map, and while the series has long been showing its age – the original game is almost a decade old, and you can really tell – it’s still one of the most unsettling franchises you can play. And with so many great (and a fair few not so great) horror games on Nintendo Switch, it’s fitting a game that was siloed away on PC for so long should join the ranks of portable fear. It might have been made on a budget for an old generation of hardware, but time hasn’t dulled the potency of its scares.
Collecting together The Dark Descent, its Justine DLC and its sequel-of-sorts A Machine for Pigs, Amnesia: Collection is still one of the best examples of how to freak out a player with shadows, a perpetual sense of vulnerability and a growing air of dread. Many of its most recognisable attributes have been reused countless times in the last decade – specifically that first-person view with a focus on running, hiding and uncontrollable sobbing – but as familiar as it might seem, it’s how Amnesia rarely over-complicates itself that really makes it a winner. You awaken with a bout of – you guessed it, the forgetsies – in a spooky old castle, where creatures made of flesh and shadow are relentlessly hunting you.
There’s no means to fight back, and your only means of preservation is hiding and hoping that the ‘thing’ that keeps following you goes away, or simply turning tail and praying you escape with your life. Oh, and if you look at what’s chasing you for too long, you start to lose your sanity, the screen warping as you slowly lose your grip on reality. And if you spend too long in darkness, you’ll start to lose your marbles that way, too. That’s the simple way The Dark Descent forces you to progress: to survive, you need to delve deeper into the nightmare in search of tinderboxes to create new sources of light, and collect mementos and diary entries that slowly reveal who you are why your memories have gone walkies.
When you’re not desperately searching for new ways to conjure light or avoiding the horrors that are constantly pursuing you, you’ll spend your time either exploring the castle or solving environmental puzzles that aren’t afraid to boggle the mind with their obtuse solutions. You can grip any item in the castle with ‘ZR’, and while the physics system is as fiddly and unpredictable as it was on PC, being able to physically open a door slowly and peek inside to see one of the Shadow’s grotesque minions trotting towards you really adds to that spooky vibe. Light also plays an important part in puzzle solving, something that was frustratingly removed for its sequel.
The original entry in the series runs pretty well on Nintendo’s current-gen hardware. Considering how much emphasis is placed on playing with the right level of gamma – so everything is mostly veiled in shadows until you finally grant yourself some illumination – it does a decent job of hiding the game’s visual rough edges. Sure, the voice acting is as cheesy as ever, but it’s part of the charm that made it such a seminal entry in the genre. And, as is custom with these collections on Switch, you get all the follow-up content that was released in the years that have passed since launch.
The Justine expansion follows a different character and takes a more gruesome approach to its horror. Invoking a vibe somewhere between BioShock and Saw, you’ll have to follow your own audio diary entries and complete puzzles that require you to decide between killing prisoners (granting you an easier route to the next room) or letting them live (forcing you to find a new way to pass). Of course, this is a follow-up to Amnesia so there are nightmares you’ll need to evade and hide from, but it’s the threat of being forced to restart your run from the beginning if you die that sits as the biggest threat. Its Portal-esque tests and impossible choices made it something of an odd addition to The Dark Descent and A Machine for Pigs, but its distinction from the rest of the series makes the Justine DLC a real hidden gem you shouldn’t sleep on.
A Machine for Pigs, developed by a different studio than the first two entries (The Chinese Room to be exact, who had already made a version of Dear Esther and would go on to make the hauntingly beautiful Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture), takes the same horror template but simplifies its systems in favour of larger environments and a more immersive storyline. It’s a more enjoyable (albeit grisly) world to explore, but the removal of light as a puzzle-solving mechanic renders its conundrums a little stale, and the loss of the sanity meter really affects how vulnerable you feel as a player. However, it’s still a very effective horror game that also looks far less janky than its predecessors.
Despite being a set that includes three entries in the same series, the Amnesia: Collection actually offers three very distinct experiences. The Dark Descent is a milestone for the genre that belies its own mechanical issues by offering some good, old-fashioned scares. Justine is a brief but experimental foray into gruesome puzzle-solving that’s well worth the detour, and A Machine for Pigs takes a more stripped-down approach to the original’s systems, but introduces a much more immersive story as a result. It’s a proper little time capsule that’s perfect for those who’ve already exhausted their fear glands with Outlast and Layers of Fear and want another means to chill their blood in the run-up to Halloween.