Contrast is a period puzzle-platformer set in the roaring 20s. Back when jazz clubs were all the hype, people gambled on risky business ventures, women…
I must say after playing Outlast, with its refusal to ease up on the tension, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs provides a strikingly different alternative to generating fear. This is the follow up to 2010’s Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Developers Frictional Games and The Chinese Room are careful not to label this a sequel, as while it’s done in the spirit of Dark Descent, it does not follow the same character or story. The dreadful feeling you get while exploring is still prevalent, but gone are some of the features that made Dark Descent unique; namely the sanity meter. Also missing is the need to manage resources like tinderboxes and lamp oil. And in their place is an everlasting lamp, and some deadly puzzles – which are only deadly in the sense that they kill any enjoyment from a gameplay perspective. However, like a well-oiled machine, the components of the story work together, and present a generally foreboding psychological experience.
Like its predecessor, A Machine for Pigs follows an amnesiac who has to wade through a horrifying setting to understand what got him into his situation in the first place. In turn-of-the-century England, Oswald Mandus, awakens in a fever sweat (it’s a FPS so I’m guessing!) to the disembodied voices of his two sons. Their ghostly voices beckon Oswald to find them, but the closer he gets to them, the more out of reach they become. His search soon leads him into the depths of his Silent Hill-like compound, which is built upon a machine that’s seems to have a never-ending supply of inter-connected parts. Exploring his Victorian mansion raises some perplexing questions about the Mandus household. There’s intricate locks on nearly every door, two-way mirrors in the bathrooms, multiple hidden passage ways, and steel cages on top the beds. Who is Oswald, and why does his home seem more like nefarious contraption than something suitable to raise a family? Well, you soon find out.
In the game there’s a saboteur that hinders Oswald’s attempt to reach his kids; his sabotage is why you have to complete puzzles. Oswald says of his saboteur, “The Fellow is thorough in his sabotage, if somewhat repetitive”. I couldn’t agree with you more, Ozzie. The puzzles aren’t bad, just uninspired, and sometimes cryptic. Aside from the puzzles, you can do two other things: find documents, and read Oswald’s journal entries. The entries provide some hints to the puzzles as well as Oswald’s thoughts, and they’re extremely well-written. Reading them is like reading the mind of a main character in an Edgar Allan Poe story. In addition to journal entries and documents, you receive phone calls from an anonymous, somewhat familiar-sounding source who supports Oswald in his efforts, and when you progress, you trigger voice-over fragments stemming his memory. You have to read everything and listen closely to the dialogue in order to piece together what’s going on. What’s inferred from reading is that Oswald is an industrial despot who’s fascinated with pigs so much that he draws strong parallels between them and humans, putting George Orwell to shame in the process. He’s however humbled by his predicament, and sees how foolish and idiotic he ramblings were. There’s a lot more to the story, but certain elements are best left unsaid.
While completing puzzles, scripted events play out like you’re in an amusement park’s haunted house attraction. The screen shakes, objects move around randomly, and lights flicker on and off; such events act more like window dressing to the psychological horror. The music and use of sound work well to intensify those events until you realize there’s nothing tangible behind them. The trick of the game, however, is that no matter how many times an event fails to pay off, you’re never quite sure if the next event is when you should really be scared or not. And that’s a feeling that doesn’t subside; you never get the sense that you’re ever safe. I credit this feeling to the overall atmosphere and high production values. In this department, the game outdoes itself from Dark Descent.
The setting and locations are reminiscent of old British haunted house movies. The plodding pace crescendos into something far more engaging than initially experienced. And while hauntingly beautiful to explore, the game will try your patience until about half way through when you’re introduced to a piggish monstrosity. When you pick up the lantern early in the game, you’re told using it can attract unwanted attention. But this mechanic doesn’t come into play until your stalker makes his introduction. It’s fairly easy to bypass him, and while he’s never too much of a threat, his inclusion is a welcome change of pace. Though, because the sanity meter mechanic is missing, encounters with him don’t carry the same weight as they did in Dark Descent, meaning at times his presence can become more irritating than terrifying.
The Chinese Room’s last game was Dear Esther, and A Machine for Pigs, like Dear Esther, puts the focus purely on atmospheric storytelling. It’s a dark story, backed by stellar voice-acting, haunting music, and a fantastic setting. It all works together to create something I can only describe as “Victorian steampunk horror”. But it’s marred by mundane puzzles and long bouts of nothingness. Still, it’s amazing how A Machine For Pigs manages to create a tense atmosphere, despite the mostly fruitless gameplay. It’s hard not to compare this to Dark Descent due to their similar namesake, and because of that, people may go into the game expecting a similar experience (in some ways it is). The scares are effective, however because of their scripted nature, they only work the first time around. So expect diminishing returns in subsequent playthroughs.
Fear Factor 8.0
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