I just can't play horror games, especially not survival horror. I know, I'm a horror fanatic, I read horror stories, I watch horror movies, I write some horror stories. But I can't do horror games.

I always identify too strongly with the lead character, and that makes it easy to freak me right out. I get too jittery, can't make my shots, forget which buttons let me run away. I die fast, often to the first or second wave of scrawny cannon-fodder zombies.

So I haven't played this game. And I never will play this game. But it sounds awesome, and here are the reasons why.

"Amnesia: The Dark Descent" is a first-person survival horror game released in September 2010 by Frictional Games, the small Swedish studio behind the "Penumbra" game series. As of this date, you can download the game for just $20 from the company's website, from Steam, or from other online sellers.

The game has a physics-based engine and an interesting way of interacting with objects. You've got an invisible crosshair in the middle of your screen -- when it crosses over something you can interact with, it will turn into a hand. You pull something to you by clicking on an object and moving the mouse toward you; you push something away or throw it by pushing the mouse away from you. This makes interactivity feel a lot more natural. Want to open a door? Click to grab the door handle, push (or pull) to open it.

Here's your backstory. Your name is Daniel. You awaken in spooky old Castle Brennenburg, and you can't remember anything but your name. So far, so predictable, right? You soon find a note you wrote to yourself -- you gave yourself amnesia on purpose, you have to kill Baron Alexander deep inside the castle, and monsters are hunting you.

And you have no weapons. None at all. Ever.

No weapons? How are you supposed to fight back? How are you supposed to survive?

You survive by running. You survive by hiding. You survive by avoiding all the monsters you can. Hopefully, you can find a cupboard, jump inside, and close the door. If worse comes to worse, find a dark corner, turn your face to the wall, hunker down, and pray the thing passes you by.

Here's the big thing about Daniel -- he's a coward. If he hears a scary noise, he instinctively gasps and cries out. If he sees a monster, he cries out and his vision goes blurry as he starts to lose his sanity -- so you have to avoid looking at the monsters at all costs, because when Daniel cries out, they can see him, and when his vision's blurry from fear and madness, he has more trouble getting away.

All that, plus he's afraid of the dark. He can hide in the darkness for a few minutes, but then his vision starts going blurry again and he starts hallucinating -- walls ripple, bugs start crawling on you, you may get dizzy and fall down. Daniel has to go out where there's light, or he needs to fire up his tinderbox or oil lamp (both very limited, and running out of fuel fast) to get light. And where there's light, the monsters can see him.

You don't even have the option of finding a well-lit safe room and hunkering down for a few hours 'til you can build up enough courage to go down the next dark hallway. A corrupting influence is inside the castle -- if you stay in one place for too long, the walls start to change into pulsating flesh, and then there are more monsters.

You can recover some of your sanity by solving puzzles, completing your objectives, and advancing the storyline, which has a few shocks in store for you, too.

Just from watching videos of gameplay, this is all pretty heartstoppingly terrifying. You can't pause and rest -- you have to go forward. You have to divide your game time between light, where the monsters can see you, and darkness, where you start to go crazy. You have to avoid looking at the things chasing you. And Daniel's terrified gasps will soon have you gasping in sympathetic panic.

What is generally considered one of the scariest monsters you encounter is one that actually goes against all the expectations you've derived from the game. You run into it while you're on a level covered with a couple of feet of water. It's invisible, so you can't see it -- but it also can't see you. But it can hear you when you step into the water, and you can see where it is from the ripples around its legs. You have to get through the level by jumping onto crates to stay out of the water -- but the crates aren't always nearby. You have to throw objects to distract the monster, then hope you can make it to the next crate before it comes back. And for the rest of the game, your heart will beat a little faster every time you're near a large amount of water.

Reviews tend to be glowing, even awed. More than one reviewer has called it the scariest game ever made. Graphics, gameplay, audio effects, and the entire concept have all been praised. Frequently-mentioned downsides tend to focus on the weakness of the ending, on the less-than-impressive voice acting -- and sometimes, on the possibility that the game may actually be too frightening for many players.

If you'd like to see how the game looks, you can watch a playthrough of the game, accompanied by a player's frequently stone-terrified narration.

"Amnesia: The Dark Descent" is currently available online at the Frictional game store, Steam, and many other sellers. It is not yet available at retail outlets. It can be played on PCs, Macs, or Linux boxes.

Developers: Frictional Games.
Engine: Frictional's HPL Engine 2.
ESRB Rating: Pending, but almost certainly gonna be M for Mature.
Released on: September 8, 2010


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