Amnesia Rebirth has a lot to live up to, if not just for the fact that it is a sequel to one of Horror’s most loved games, but also that its predecessor Soma was such a stellar title, almost acting as a sequel to The Dark Descent, at least in spirit anyway. Frictional Games created a masterpiece in horror with The Dark Descent, fusing atmospheric storytelling with an exploratory, run and hide game design which kept players terrified of what was round each corner, yet eager to take a peak nonetheless. It’s something which started off with the fantastic Penumbra titles, but was streamlined with Amnesia. So does Rebirth meet those heady expectation? Perhaps not, unfortunately for those who literally wanted The Dark Descent 2, however it gives it a great try, and actually in doing so creates something that replicates some of the best of previous titles while pursuing its own unique direction.

An Amnesia game wouldn’t be very ‘on concept’ if you knew much about the story from the get go, but in brief, in Rebirth you play as Tasi – a French lady who is involved in a serious plane crash in the desert of Algeria – and upon starting the game you simply must search for your missing companions, all while receiving flashes of memories. It’s not that Tasi has no memory at all, but there is something important that she has forgotten, and something about the place they have crash-landed that is sinister, yet familiar. All Tasi’s companions are missing or dead, Tasi is pregnant, there’s some sort of creature/s lurking in the caves and ruins of the desert, and to top it all off she is afflicted by some disease or condition which is slowly turning her into a monster herself.

Gameplay will of course be very familiar to anyone who has played Amnesia or Soma; your time is spent walking or running in first person through caves, open areas and buildings searching for ways to progress and stay out of danger. There are items to find hidden in drawers and behind things such as resources to fight the darkness like matches and oil for your lantern, and items to use in the game’s various puzzles. Most things in Rebirth are manipulatable, be that with a purpose or not. By this I mean that you can play about with objects – turning wheels, throwing rocks, opening chests; and some of these concepts are worked into the puzzles. If you find an energy source, you must carry it and place it in its compartment to open the door, pick up a rock to break something, so on and so forth – you get the drill. But you can also find items to combine, such as in the first area [SPOILER ALERT] where you must collect the ingredients to make a shell to fire out of a tank to blast open the door to the exit of a fort. Things rarely get more complicated than this, and in some ways I found Rebirth to be easier to ‘figure out’ than The Dark Descent, although some areas do at first seem daunting until you put two and two together.

The layout of the levels will also be familiar to fans of the series, and this is particularly nostalgic early on in the game. There are a few hub areas which act as lulls in your progression where you need to figure out some way to open the way forward. Think of the fountain in The Dark Descent – this room is safe, but on each side is a door leading to another area where you must solve a puzzle or find an item, which of course runs with the possibility of encountering the game’s monster/s, before coming back to the main room/area.

Rebirth however is a little more linear overall than The Dark Descent, and in this way reminds me of a mix between Frictional’s much earlier titles with the Penumbra series and the less well liked Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs. I don’t mean this quite as a criticism, but as I said at the beginning, if you were expecting a like for like sequel to the original Dark Descent, you will be disappointed. These more linear areas still involve exploration and puzzle solving, though there’s much less toing and froing, and more pushing through rooms, corridors and caves.

Rebirth still maintains the tense and mysterious atmosphere you would expect from one of these games though, and while the dynamic between the player and the monster is also different to that of The Dark Descent, Rebirth creates some delightfully dreadful encounters that are sure to give you a kick. The monsters in Rebirth are much more ‘real’ than in The Dark Descent, and in this way I didn’t feel as though they could turn up at any moment, but there is a well-paced build up to your first encounter and things only get more sinister from there. I won’t talk too much about the enemies as they are very closely related to the story, but you’ll find yourself pursued via tense chase sequences and also have to sneak your way through areas which contain these sleeping creatures (one of the best horror moments I’ve had recently was moving through a room packed with these monstrosities).

But of course, there’s not just the monsters to worry about, and it wouldn’t be an Amnesia game without its trademark insanity system. Tasi is not simply afraid of the dark, but something related to this affliction of hers is triggered by stress, anxiety and rage. Interestingly, when you are overcome with this you will lose control of Tasi and she will run around in a crazy state before waking up around about the same area you ‘lost the plot’. It’s not a game over, but with each instance of ‘losing it’ Tasi becomes more covered in mysterious dark veins. There are a few ways to manage this. Firstly and most prevalently you are supposed to keep yourself in lit areas. When you go into a dark room you can use matches to light candles, etc, and find oil to replenish your lantern. The resources for these are not too difficult to come by, but neither the match nor a full lantern lasts particularly long, and of course both run the risk of waking or attracting enemies.

The second and most classic way is by taking Laudanum. Unlike in The Dark Descent, Laudanum is highly rare in Rebirth, and in fact I managed to go through the entire game without really using them (I used one at the end just to test its effect). But more interestingly you can use your unborn baby to quell your panic. In times of stress you can hold X (or other attributed button) to focus on your belly, whispering to it in an attempt to calm yourself down. This seemed like a bit of a gimmick at first, but as the story progresses it makes much more sense, and in some of the more tense moments I was definitely glad for it as a mechanic. Your baby also kicks on occasion, prompting you to focus on it and Tasi will say a few lines of dialogue.

The story of Rebirth I feel is a strong point for it but also a contentious one. I really like the aesthetic that Rebirth offers, it is much more relatable to Frictional Game’s non Amnesia title Soma, and brings with it a sort of otherworldly existential dread that is beyond gore and jump scares, however it is also all a bit complex and not suitably paced for the player to really take it all in. I’m going to explain something that could fall into spoiler territory for those that don’t want to know of any twist – though also be assured that this is revealed earlier on in the game anyway. Tasi holds on to a device which is able to open portals into an unknown world. Once there she cannot come back via the same root and must find other portal locations to do this. The world she enters is clearly alien and reveals some kind of twisted power and society that is dreadful to comprehend, but all relates eventually in some way to what is going on in the desert back in the ‘normal’ world.

Exploring this alien environment is great, revealing ‘Ancient Aliens’ sorts of technologies which only become more disturbing as you look further into them. The mystery is gripping as you are unsure of how any of it initially relates – what do the monsters have to do with this other world, what happened in the desert, and why does Tasi have this device yet remembers nothing of using it. They’re all great questions to explore and discover as the game progresses, however from the slow build up from the beginning of the game, somewhere in the middle all this ‘extra stuff’ starts happening so quickly, and before you know it you’re at the end of the game with an explanation which is more told to you than discovered. It feels a little bit rushed, and while the main story was technically answered by the end, there’s still a number of questions about the world left unanswered. I feel like an easy way to have dealt with this would have been to provide more notes to read through, but ideally the game could have been a couple of hours longer.

There’s also an issue with scene transitioning in the game. There’s far too much falling into holes or being chased in a specific direction which makes some of your efforts feel a tad pointless. Technically it is progression as far as the game is concerned, but there’s a bit of deus ex machina going on, which is a phenomenon I’ve never found particularly satisfying. I wonder as well if the actual ending of the game really made a lot of sense. I’m not going to reveal what happens, but while it fits with certain threads of the story the ultimate concept we end up at seemed a little bizarre to me.

Some other minor criticisms include handling of doors. This is a problem that I feel is inherent with the style of gameplay games like this use. It’s not a problem generally speaking, but in tense moments like when being chased, trying to close a door quickly can be frustrating. I really don’t consider this a big deal, and as far as I’m concerned the game plays as well as anyone should expect. The insanity mechanic this time though is less predictable, and this can be a problem. The times at which Tasi ‘turned’ for me always felt more of an annoyance. You can apparently resist her going crazy by mashing buttons, but up until the very end of the game I failed each and every one of these. I don’t know if these end up affecting the game come the end, because it seems you make a distinct choice as opposed to one being made for you. Speaking of the ending, there are two endings that I am aware of. Neither of these offer any replay value as you can simply reload the end save and complete the ending in a different way.

But I suppose the main question to ask is if the journey was enjoyable, and in a way only a good horror game can provide, the answer is a somewhat masochistic “yes”. I really enjoyed my time with Rebirth and I think the direction they took with the story and its world was brave, considering the expectations of the series. The other world was really interesting to see, with some pretty grand (if dark) vistas that give you a sense of perspective and place in Tasi’s journey. It all adds to another kind of horror – not that of just running away from things or being made to jump, but contemplating the situation you are in and the ultimate ramifications of your character’s actions.

If I had to rate this beside the two more recent games from Frictional, this isn’t as good as either The Dark Descent or Soma, but it comes fairly close. The Dark Descent is a better paced story with more consistently engaging gameplay, and Soma has such a stellar aesthetic and unique environment for a horror game that even with this other planet or dimension, Rebirth doesn’t quite match up. The quality of horror game that Frictional make remains high though, and I think Rebirth is essential if you are a fan of their game design.