Ten years after the acclaimed Amnesia: Dark Descent, and five years after the incredible SOMA, Frictional Games is back at it again with the release of Amnesia: Rebirth! While they also released Justine, and A Machine for Pigs in that time, SOMA and Dark Descent need to be singled out here, as Rebirth hits a sweet spot in between both.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say I went into Rebirth with a weighted bias; I absolutely love Dark Descent. I’ve played through it in its entirety at least 4 times in the last few months. It is, to me, the pinnacle of horror games. So while I was absolutely over the moon to hear its follow up would be released this year, I did worry that it could never live up to the original in my eyes.
Truth be told, it doesn’t, but it’s not that simple.
With Rebirth, Frictional Games does a wonderful job of making a game that both feels very much like Amnesia and SOMA, while simultaneously feeling nothing like either. Its triumphs and failings are its own, independent from how I may have felt about Frictional’s other entries. Rebirth is the story of Tasi Trianon, an engineering drafter whose plane crashes in Algeria and separates her from her husband, Salim, and the rest of their expedition crew. Tasi emerges from the wreckage into the sweltering desert heat, and must find her way back to a nearby cave where other survivors went to be attended to.
Her memories of both the crash and the events that followed are hazy at best but she begins to piece it all back together as she navigates her surroundings, finding clues (and a lot of dead bodies) along the way.
One of the first things Tasi remembers is that she is, in fact, pregnant. This adds to her desperate urgency to find her way back to the safety, as she is very concerned for her unborn child’s well being. Tasi and Salim already have another child, Alys, whose story is explored through flashbacks Tasi experiences while running through the dark desert caves.
Because this is an Amnesia game, the caves’ darkness has a heavy impact on Tasi’s fear and mental state, compounded by witnessing unsettling events in the dim light she does manage to find. While the sound of your deteriorating sanity is the same as previous entries, Rebirth’s sanity gauge somewhat distinguishes itself from past Amnesia games insofar as the protagonist now also experiences a series of visual flashes when her sanity falls below a certain threshold. I know some people were fans of this addition, but I personally found it unnecessarily annoying. Tasi can be temporarily redeemed from the effects of the darkness by holding her pregnant belly, and following on-screen prompts but neither solution is particularly effective, and probably added to my frustration more than anything else.
Rebirth also replaces Amnesia’s trademark tinderboxes with matches. This particular change, I was quite a big fan of, as the game allows you to ignite more than one light source on a single match, making it much easier to light up most of any particular room without depleting your stocks. That feature is especially useful in a lot of puzzle-solving areas, as Tasi’s sanity seems to deplete itself much faster than Daniel’s did in Dark Descent.
While the settings in Rebirth are much more varied than the halls of Brennenburg Castle, it all admittedly feels a little disjointed. Without spoiling key plot points, Tasi eventually comes across an amulet that seemingly allows her to travel between realms within the caves. While the amulet was an interesting artifact when introduced, I have to say I found myself questioning its purpose in the overarching narrative by the game’s end.
Rebirth also failed to wholly immerse me in its settings by having Tasi’s running commentary throughout. As she talks to herself, to Salim, to Alys, and to their unborn child, it is admittedly difficult to achieve the same level of fear that came from Daniel wandering about Brennenburg, occasionally being haunted by Alexander’s booming voice echoing throughout its halls and Daniel’s head.
In terms of actual gameplay, Rebirth is almost identical to past Frictional entries, making it very easy for players who’ve tackled those games to dive right in. Even for newcomers to the series, there isn’t much of a learning curve, as the mechanics are fairly straightforward.
The game’s puzzles are also not overly convoluted, and your biggest obstacle will likely only be to solve them before Tasi runs out of sanity. The game’s monsters, which you won’t actively encounter for at least a few hours into gameplay, are typical of other Amnesia games but are used more effectively. Where Dark Descent uses them for aggressive terror (i.e jump scares), Rebirth largely uses them for passive terror. In more than one instance, the monsters you will encounter do not move or attack unless provoked.
The psychological horror behind swinging a door open and unexpectedly encountering dozens of sleeping monsters you have to quietly and successfully navigate in order to move ahead is brilliant. Every unexplained noise or shadow from the corner of your eye will have you swinging around wildly (as wildly as can be allowed without provoking the monsters) to ensure that you haven’t woken any of them up. That being said, the most terrifying part of the game involves a maze and a monster that already very much knows you are in it. Good luck. Bring a change of underwear.
Aside from the monsters, the game’s main antagonist is the Empress, an otherworldly presence who seeks Tasi out and guides her through multiple parts of the game, helping her to clear her shrouded mind and recall the events that led the crew of the Cassandra to the Empress’ lair. While I won’t spoil any of the possible endings, the Empress’ fate, as well as that of Tasi’s, her unborn child, and her expedition crew are dependent on the choices Tasi makes when challenged by her during the game’s climax.
Like SOMA before it, Rebirth forces the player to make a decision beyond simple right and wrong. It will attempt to have you confront your own morality and consider what sacrifices you are or aren’t willing to make for the greater good. While I can appreciate that from a narrative standpoint, I personally didn’t find myself invested enough in Tasi as a character to really ponder my choice in the way Frictional likely intended.
I didn’t hate Rebirth, but I also wish I’d liked it more than I did.
While I do recognize that my own bias likely played a part in that, I also recognize that the characters, the story, and the settings were just, quite frankly, not that interesting to me in general. I felt that parts of Rebirth overstayed their welcome, and that parts of it felt shoehorned in as an attempt to diversify and distance itself from its predecessors.