Amnesia: The Dark Descent breathed new life into the survival-horror genre with its simple, yet terrifying first-person adventure style. Forgone were the third-person view and an arsenal of weapons that detracted from the survival-horror and created more of an action feel. The formula proved to be wildly successful and equally frightening, yet it wasn’t until developer The China Room (of Dear Esther fame) came together with Amnesia’s Frictional Games that a sequel began to take root. Now, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs aims for a repeated success while forever changing your outlook on the cuteness of swine. Oink, oink.
It’s apparent rather early on that A Machine for Pigs focuses heavily on the narrative that concerns our new amnesiac hero Oswald Mandus. The year is 1899, about 60 years after The Dark Descent, and it is New Year’s Eve. Mandus groggily awakes in his bedchambers after feverish dreams of some menacing machine creaking, grinding, and booming under his vast mansion. Oswald beings his exploration with no memory of the last few months and with one fundamental responsibility pulsing within him: the safety and well-being of his two children, Edwin and Enoch. Mandus’ children, however, are nowhere to be found. His only chance at finding them is to follow the orders given to him by an ominously familiar voice over telephones scattered throughout the mansion and the immense depths of its underground factory to get the machine operating once more and save his children who are trapped within. Yet, fever dreams are never simple undertakings, and The China Room takes full advantage of this.
A Machine for Pigs is a mysterious journey right from the first step out of your bedchambers. Past, present, and future intertwine through journal entries made by Mandus, documents scattered about the mansion, factory, and parts of London, foreboding phone calls, recorded conversations on phonograph players and audible and visual hallucinations. While laden with scares and moments where you’ll push away from the keyboard or lay down the gamepad and simply say “Nope,” the narrative is much more than a tool to frighten the player. It delves in the subconscious of man and their capacity for evil under the auspices “for the greater good,” it personifies madness and grief, it suggests widespread acts of torture and violence, it questions society as a whole and who the true swine are.
While every bit comes together to create a superbly unnerving story, you’ll most likely predict some of the more fear inducing twists and turns as you uncover documents that detail the horrors of the factory. This may cause some to cry foul, and though it doesn’t quite have the same petrifying effect as The Dark Descent, A Machine for Pigs combines exceptional writing with themes embedded in the Victorian and Industrial era, and a well-crafted and rightly eerie atmosphere to form a powerfully unsettling tale. It’s a thought-provoking and subconscious terror that will resonate within you for some time, and leaves many open-ended questions that will most certainly lead to interesting discussions and debates.
Still, as disconcerting as the story is, A Machine for Pigs falters at becoming truly disturbing due to the streamlined gameplay and lackluster enemies. Controls continue in the same vain as The Dark Descent, where Mandus will need to grab objects and use the mouse or gamepad to move, tilt, pull, or turn to progress through the factory, retaining the emersion and fear of fumbling with a door or valve while the chase is on. In spite of that, the rest of the game is overly simplified. At the beginning of the game, you’ll be given a lantern that requires no power source, as well as no oil or tinder, with the inventory system from The Dark Descent being left by the wayside. Sanity is also gone, and with the absence of the inventory system, makes exploring the enormous machine less terrifying. No longer must you hold on to precious tinder or oil, or strategically use light sources to control your sanity. It detracts heavily from the survival aspect of the game, and in turn the games’ fear-factor.
The game’s monsters - humanoid, grotesque pigs that lurk around the factory - are disgustingly beautiful. They’re a hodgepodge of flesh, skulking about with disproportionate limbs, scarred torsos and mangled faces. They squeal and grunt off in the distance; sounds that discomfortingly echo off the pipes and hallways of the giant machine. They move with a realistic awkwardness and clumsiness that any four-legged animal walking on two legs would exhibit. Yet, as well designed as the pig-monsters are, their movements are entirely too predictable. The first couple of instances are intense encounters, where movements seem sporadic and random. After a little observation, however, a pattern emerges, and it becomes a much less scary version of cat-and-mouse.
While The China Room still manages some scares, there are times you’ll need to head directly for one of the monsters or need to run with earnest in the opposite direction, and the 'fear effect' is diminished when every time a monster is in the vicinity your lantern and other lights begin to flicker uncontrollably, completely destroying that powerful fear of the unknown. Having no sanity meter also detracts from the monsters' effects, as you can easily run and hide in a dark corner without having to worry about any consequences for sitting in the darkness.
Although the pig-monsters aren’t quite up to snuff in terms of causing fear, A Machine for Pigs utilizes the game’s namesake – the machine – to help fill in the cracks. Trepidation sets in with the first step into the underground factory, as the machine convulses and groans at your arrival. A mix of tight corridors and expansive areas wait in the darkness to bewilder and confuse you, especially with only the dim light of your lantern guiding your way. Every section is greatly detailed and strengthens the creepiness of the machine, with oxidized pipes, blistering steam vents, canvased, barred pens and heavy metallic doors blocking your way. Even the short amount of time spent in London isn’t an escape from the effects of the machine, as the streets are dark and foggy, and littered with the victims of the pig-monsters. The machine seems to have a life of it’s own, as hallways and doors disappear as you walk through them and entire areas change in the blink of an eye. It’s excellently disorienting and discomforting, and even when you know you’re out of harms way, you never feel completely safe with tons of shuddering machinery surrounding you.
Much like its predecessor, A Machine for Pigs features top-notch sound and voice work and music composition. Pipes clanking and pinging mix with the squeals of pig-monsters gorging themselves in the distance, unseen children giggle and call for their daddy, steam vents burst, and the factory’s machinery bellows through the darkness, bolstering the tense and frightening atmosphere. Voice actors deliver their lines with great effect – the urgency of Mandus’ telephone conversations with the unknown voice, Oswald’s disdain for the Victorian and Industrial society as heard through phonograph recordings, the musings of a man stricken with grief and madness – it’s all richly authentic and thoroughly entertaining. The soundtrack features a great mix of orchestral instruments that enhance the tense atmosphere by mixing the deep tones of violins and other string instruments with the shuddering machinery and squealing pig-monsters.
Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs may not hold the same style of terror as The Dark Descent, but it’s a frightening adventure nonetheless. While oversimplified gameplay mechanics and predictable enemy movements diminish the intense fear advanced by its predecessor, the fantastically eerie and unsettling narrative somewhat helps to remedy this over the course of about six or eight hours. It’s hard to replicate the success and absolute terror of such an original game like Amnesia: The Dark Descent. While A Machine for Pigs tries its best through a wonderfully chilling story and atmosphere, it just doesn’t quite achieve the same effect due to a number of shortcomings.
This review is based on a digital copy of Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs for the PC, provided by the publisher.