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Oswald Mandus, the meat-processing tycoon at the center of Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, is a terrible father. He wakes up on New Year’s Eve 1899 – wracked by fever, with no memory of the past several months – to find that his two sons have disappeared. And rightly so: Mandus is an alcoholic and a violent pervert, and his London manse is littered with grimy, blood-slick hammers, calipers, hacksaws, and other instruments of whatever gruesome work happens underneath the abattoir and processing plant that bears his name. Nevertheless, the search for his children sets the game in motion.
After the release of the first Amnesia game, subtitled "The Dark Descent," development for the series was handed to The Chinese Room. As a result, the unrelated sequel is more explicitly narrative-driven than its predecessor, dispensing with many of the original's puzzles and mechanics. Survival horror staples like sanity, inventory, or resource management have been stripped away, leaving a series of straightforward puzzles and tightly scripted suspense. At its fleshy, porcine heart, A Machine for Pigs is more point-and-click adventure than survival horror, a game driven more by players' resolve than their wits.
Where most games simply have an "interaction" button, Amnesia takes a more tactile approach: opening a door requires a left-click to grab the doorknob, and then a physical downward motion to swing it wide. It may sound a bit clumsy, but having some unseen horror pull back against the door as you try to open it is terrifying. Using slightly cumbersome controls to disempower players is a long-running survival horror tactic, and it's used judiciously here to great effect.
A Machine for Pigs' writing and gameplay pull from various lineages: the game's amnesiac plot touches on creepy lullabies, grisly experiments, and a healthy Victorian distrust of industrialization, buttressed by a mix of stealth, puzzle solving, and exploration. These various elements don’t always combine to produce the best results, though. The layout of Mandus’ various properties is, for example, unpredictable as doors or passageways can unlock for no reason. These antics are certainly unsettling, but they also leave you feeling disoriented, using Mandus’ troubled psyche as an excuse for screwy level design. At other times, your options are too obviously governed by the game's puzzles, impeding otherwise enjoyable exploration.
At its best, A Machine for Pigs moves lithely between atmospheric tension and disgusting bodily horror. At its worst, it feels unrelenting and overwhelming. Different players have different thresholds for terror, but there are times when lurking beasts, throaty snarls, and flickering lights hinder progress instead of encouraging it. Being constantly scared can be tiring, especially when it gets in the way of learning the next bit of A Machine for Pigs' macabre story.
The bottom line. Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs is engrossing, repulsive, and taut. The Chinese Room takes a different approach to the series, but the tone, themes, and scares are all there.
Mac OS X 10.6.8 or newer, Intel Core i3 processor or better, 2GB RAM, NVIDIA GeForce 200/AMD Radeon HD 5000
New developer brings a fresh focus on tight pacing and storytelling to series. Sound design, creepy ambiance, and disgusting enemies combine to keep the tension high without resorting to cheap scares.
The narrative focus comes at a price: the game lacks some of its predecessor's more complicated mechanics and relies on simple puzzles and scripted events.