Frictional Games are one of my favourite developers and it’s been 5 years since Soma, it goes without saying I was eager to play their latest game, Amnesia Rebirth. Despite not being particularly invested in the Amnesia franchise, I did think the new setting was an interesting and potentially exciting way to mix up the shlocky original.
Soma is, by far, frictional’s best game to date. Leaning away from the overt horror and into more philosophical sci-fi with light horror elements was a winning formula. It’s clear a lot of the lessons from Soma have carried over to Amnesia Rebirth, they don’t spend too much time leaning on the stealth evasion horror mechanics they helped define.
However where the plot of Soma was exceptionally well delivered, Rebirth’s was sparse and difficult to understand, largely down to the fact that your character spends so much time in the dark, both figuratively and literally. The darkness mechanic means it rarely feels like you are free to explore the world and the plot and the sickness the character is experiencing often means there’s a sense of urgency that precludes exploration. This differs greatly from Soma wherein there are clear parts of the game where you are not in peril and are free to explore and absorb the story.
The other areas it falls short narratively is in character interactions, most of the plot is delivered retroactively and most of the game takes place during a journey long after all the main players are gone, you very rarely talk to other people and this contrasts with Soma where the main character, Simon, can talk about his predicament with Catherine and that gives you more reason to care about what is happening to him. In Rebirth there aren’t really any character arcs, the exposition is sparse and mechanical, it fills in the gaps but it doesn’t really give you a reason to care about what has happened and what will, at least not as much.
The Alien in the room
When Soma came out in 2015, Alien Isolation had only been out for less than a year and Soma didn’t really use the stealth evasion horror mechanics at all and so Frictional didn’t need to withstand comparison in the stealth evasion mechanics. With Rebirth however, they have failed completely.
Their first failing is in environment design, the environments are frequently dark, difficult to read and difficult to mentally map. There’s often no clear goal and the evasion horror sequence is often the first time you’ve entered the space so mapping it takes priority over evading. On top of this there’s almost always nowhere to hide so once an enemy is upon you, there are no options available to you.
Secondly, the enemies are incredibly difficult to predict, primarily because you are punished for looking at them, I understand frictional consider this a feature but it makes for frustrating gameplay. Two key mechanics of Alien are that you can observe the Alien both on the radar and within a restricted field of view from areas of relative safety and also that the Alien makes a show of backing off, refusing to engage in tropey patrols and importantly allowing the player to make progress in apparent, relative safety. The knowledge in Alien that there is only ever one antagonist is key to maintaining a reasonable mental load, tracking multiple antagonists was simply too much for me and knowing that there was no real penalty for failure sometimes lead me to give up and run for the door, I usually failed but it didn’t matter.
Finally the Darkness mechanic is probably the games biggest failure, it’s antithetical to hiding to want to be in a well lit space and trying to balance being lit with not being seen was infuriating, it compounds with the issues listed above to make the evasion gameplay unsatisfying, most encounters for me ended in me being caught and “skipped” past the encounter. I don’t think this was the intention.
It’s clear that frictional’s engine is showing it’s age their ambitions are clearly being frustrated by it, it’s often but not always ugly and this detracts from so much of what they are trying to achieve, it feels like many of the game mechanics are designed to work around flaws in the engine rather than satisfy the desired player experience.
I’m a big advocate of rolling your own tech and it would pain me to see frictional switch to an off the shelve engine but game engines have come a long way since 2015 and this engine was starting to show it’s age then. There’s been no meaningful improvements in that time and If you are going to roll your own tech, you need to invest time in it to keep it up to date. I’d much rather see frictional realise their vision in a more modern engine than see them compromise it so deeply in their own tech.