Rating : 6/10
This review is a long time coming; the main reason for that is that for the longest time I struggled to gather my thoughts on this game. I couldn’t figure out where I stood with it. I am a huge fan of the previous Amnesia games, having streamed both of them on the GameGrin twitch channel in 2018 and even enjoying the rather polarising A Machine for Pigs. When I heard of the launch of Rebirth, I was more than excited to get my hands on it, but the experience left an indescribable feeling in my mouth that even after this much consideration I am struggling to portray.
Set almost a century after the events of The Dark Descent, Amnesia: Rebirth follows the Amnesia recipe by making the protagonist either a well-spoken British bloke, or an equally eloquent French woman; in this case opting for the latter with Tasi Trianon, a French architectural artist who goes on an expedition to Algeria when her plane, along with the crew, go down in the desert. Par for the course, Tasi then wakes up alone among the wreckage of the plane, having no recollection of what happened since then.
From here, it is the player’s job to retrace the steps of Tasi’s crewmates, to determine what happened to them and if any of them still live. It becomes apparent early on that Tasi initially left with her crew, but somehow remembers none of this and awoke among the plane alone. This is the first of many mysteries that the player gets confronted with as they progress through the game.
Fans of the first game will recognise Algeria as the location where Daniel, the protagonist of The Dark Descent, first uncovered the mysterious orbs. Unlike A Machine For Pigs, which mostly sat as a standalone title wearing the skin of an Amnesia game, Rebirth offers responses to some (but definitely not all) unanswered questions that The Dark Descent left regarding its world. With this in mind, it becomes clear as you progress through the gameplay that Frictional Games opted to make Amnesia: Rebirth more about the story and less about the horror, to the point where the game opens up with a disclaimer that states that Rebirth isn’t a game you ‘play to win’, but rather one you play to immerse yourself in the world and story.
Outside of this, Rebirth goes back to its roots with the reintroduction of the inventory system – a feature that wasn’t present in A Machine For Pigs, to much disapproval. The puzzles in Rebirth return and strike a perfect balance of being difficult enough to kick your brain into gear, but not so difficult that you have to fight the urge to look up a guide every five minutes; a balancing act that the previous two iterations would sometimes struggle with. The mouse-based environment interaction system is still in place, where you have to move your mouse in accordance with what you’re trying to do, such as swinging the mouse towards you to open a door or rotating the mouse to simulate the turning of a crank. It works just as well in Rebirth as it does in Frictional’s earlier games, and reminds the player that despite the genre shift, you’re still playing an Amnesia game.
An important part of almost any story-driven game is the characters, and in a game where we see very few of them at all, this is where it starts to fall flat. Tasi herself is likable, and when she discovers early on that she is actually pregnant, her internal (and external) monologuing throughout the game gives us an insight into her emotions and her past. As of writing, I am not a pregnant woman, and nor is such a thing on my bucket list, but the voice acting for Tasi (performed by VA veteran Alix Wilton Regan) does such a fantastic job of sharing her state of mind with the player that it’s easy to put ourselves into her shoes.
As for her crewmates, flashback sequences and stray letters found lying around give us an insight to their thoughts. The problem with this is we just can’t get any kind of rapport with them through this alone. Even the ones that do show up, some more worse for wear than others, it’s hard to really empathise with the other characters. A major motivation for Tasi at the start of the game is searching for her husband, Salim, but we aren’t shown enough about their relationship to really care about it. When we do eventually find him, it isn’t as much of a gratifying moment that it feels it was supposed to be. Flashbacks that come after this reunion shed more light on both the struggles and joys they had as a couple back in Paris but personally, it lessens the emotional effect that their relationship has in the early game, made even more so by Tasi’s unborn child taking center stage regarding her motivations in the mid-game.
This above is just one of the clearest examples of an issue with the game’s characters – it’s hard to empathise with someone we can’t see. Especially given that so many characters are thrown at us so quickly, the flashbacks and letters alone don’t do enough justice and it’s this awkward disconnect between how invested we are in Tasi, versus how invested we are with everyone and everything else, that can make the game go at an awkward pace. I wouldn’t be able to tell you what went wrong, and seeing as Frictional have clearly pulled this sort of character dynamic off previously, with the Penumbra saga offering two such cases in the form of Red, and Dr Amabel Swanson, it feels like they lost the magic those characters had. Red and Swanson act as your guiding voice in the first and second Penumbra game respectively, and although we never see them, we get to see enough of their personalities to be invested in their tale as much as Philips’. Rebirth offers no such thing. Maybe it’s because Tasi just dwarfs the other characters (and maybe this is an intentional design choice), or maybe Frictional just missed their mark this time, but it creates an awkward game that can make playing it feel like a drag at times when we’re constantly overloaded with information about forgettable characters.
When I say the story is definitely front and center here, I mean it most sincerely. Outside of flashing images representing a drop in sanity that act as jumpscares when you stay in the dark too long, there’s very little horror to be found. There’s no adjustable difficulty mode and it’s impossible to ‘die’ in the natural sense. In the very few instances where monsters do turn up and try to use your bodily fluids to smooth out the cracks in the walls, you don’t actually get a game over screen, rather your screen goes fuzzy and black, akin to the effect of standing in darkness too long, and various horrific images flash up on the screen until you regain consciousness, having scrambled to a ‘safe’ location. It feeds into the engaging narrative that Frictional were aiming for, but it can cause the stakes to be quite low and removes a lot of the dangers the monsters bring. Once I realised the monsters don’t actually kill you, I started to take the encounters less seriously.
Fans of The Dark Descent that are looking to soil their undergarments will likely walk away from Rebirth with a bad taste in the mouth. People looking for a character-driven story game will likely walk away feeling similar, as the story gets more and more convoluted as time goes on. Rebirth plays more like a character study of Tasi and acts as a narrative for her reactions as she navigates the Lovecraftian hellscape. If the idea of that doesn’t sound very inviting to you, you might want to give this a pass.
An issue that Frictional Games will likely face forever is that anything they release will get compared to Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and going into this game expecting as much will result in disappointment. Rebirth takes the best parts of the past two games and puts them together into one package, yet somehow it feels like the delivery fell short in some areas. But to call Amnesia: Rebirth a bad, or even an average game, is uncalled for. Frictional set out to create a story-driven experience with minor puzzle and horror elements, and on that intention, they succeeded. The voice acting in the game is totally a winning feature – the VA for a particular crewmate called Leon clearly had a blast detailing his mental decline, and it makes for one of the more memorable characters in a game full of mostly boring ones. Of course, Tasi’s character is absolutely a showstopper for the game, but also a double-edged sword. She’s so overbearingly easy to invest in, it makes it difficult to care about other plot elements that we probably should be caring about. Amnesia: Rebirth won’t have you screaming in fear, but if the idea of becoming a seemingly immortal pregnant French lady and witnessing her psychological downfall from running through nightmare caves and Lovecraftian dimensions is appealing, Rebirth might just be the game for you.
Fitting my thoughts on Amnesia: Rebirth in a single paragraph feels like an impossible task. It’s an effective character-driven narrative with forgettable characters; a tense horror game with a distinct lack of horror. Rebirth is exactly what the developers set out to create, which was not the Dark Descent clone that some people were hoping for.
Just a guy that loves to write 🙂