Since the dawn of time, humanity has a primal fear of the dark. The creatures within are as mysterious as they are horrifying, but the unknown feeds into our fears as our minds conjure up the various ways they may take hold. While fire and lighting have served humanity as a means to push back against the darkness, it is ever prevalent and, at times, overwhelming. This is something that Frictional Games’ Amnesia series has understood very well.
Their core plots often focus on the loss of memories, piecing together clues and uncovering some horrendous acts that the protagonists have instigated. However, they all understand the usage of darkness for creating tension and crafting horror that’s more psychological. In that regard, Amnesia: The Bunker is perhaps the developer’s most successful endeavor since the first game, even as it opts for a much more non-linear affair.
"You can also manipulate various objects in the environment, like explosive barrels, which can be shot to destroy doors or take down smaller enemies like rats, and bricks to break locks and wooden doors."
Taking place during World War 1, the story is about French soldier Henri Clément. Starting on the battlefield, desperately navigating trenches to stay alive, he’s soon knocked out and awakens inside a bunker’s infirmary. Memories are hazy, and Henri can’t remember exactly how he got there. However, it becomes clear that there’s no escape since the exit has been bombed. If that weren’t enough, a monster roams the bunker, emerging when it’s dark (with some exceptions) to feast on its hapless prey.
To survive, Henri must locate a detonator handle and some dynamite to clear the rubble around the exit. Starting at Administration, he explores the various sub-sections of the bunker, discovering items like rags, grenades, and bullets to use to his advantage. There are also different key tools to access other areas or increase your inventory, but you need to find various dog tags with codes and access lockers to get them (while others are less straightforward and require both stealth and ingenuity).
From the outset, you’re introduced to the generator. It keeps the lights on in the bunker – good for keeping the monster at bay (most of the time, anyway), but it requires fuel, which doesn’t last forever. Once you’re in the dark, you only have a dynamo flashlight which generates noise to see where you’re going. You can also manipulate various objects in the environment, like explosive barrels, which can be shot to destroy doors or take down smaller enemies like rats, and bricks to break locks and wooden doors.
"This is the kind of horror I live for – where you’re introduced to rules, only to have expectations subverted in various terrifying ways."
Though it follows a somewhat scripted pattern until the first early encounter, the monster will freely pursue and react to your presence. Make too much noise, say from your flashlight or an explosion, and it will appear, prowling through an area in search of you. To add to the stress, some areas of the bunker have flickering lights, which the monster can seemingly traverse. Others aren’t lit, so even if you’ve filled the generator enough, it will ruin your day.
If this wasn’t oppressive enough, you only save progress via a special lamp. One is available at Administration (with others unlocked later), but it only tracks your last three saves. On the one hand, you’ll want to save progress as much as possible – because dying can set you back a bit. On the other hand, you want to experiment and explore as much as possible within the specified time limit afforded by the generator. However, if you do achieve a decent amount of progress, it’s still a run back to the lamp to save, which is risky.
Knowledge is power in many circumstances, but don’t always expect the monster to behave accordingly. For instance, at one point, it lingered just outside of Administration. I thought the light from the lamp would keep me safe… and was horrified to discover it got inside the Administration room.
This is the kind of horror I live for – where you’re introduced to rules, only to have expectations subverted in various terrifying ways. I also enjoyed mechanics like using a stopwatch to time how long the generator would run or manually reloading each bullet. The controls can feel clunky at first but are easier to manage when you’re sneaking through halls, trying to remain unseen.
"Even with its sandbox-like design, Amnesia: The Bunker is much more compact than its predecessors, both in environmental scale and gameplay length."
Amnesia: The Bunker’s levels are more free-flowing than in previous games. After clearing the lockdown on areas like the Arsenal, Communications and so on, you can tackle them in any order. Each has unique challenges, like the prison with the captured soldier or the barracks with the rats. Along with manipulating objects, you can craft different items, like combining rags to make bandages (which you’ll need for healing, lest your blood attracts certain creatures).
It’s also possible to experiment with items in different ways. Instead of pouring fuel into the generator, pour it on the ground and set it ablaze. Is it practical? Probably not, but it can be a decent last resort against the monster (while the fire lasts, that is). You’re probably better off dying and respawning than wasting a precious resource.
While hiding a corner and waiting for the monster to pass is a strategy, there isn’t too much counterplay when cornered, aside from accepting your fate. It leads to trial and error as you revisit previous areas where things went wrong, which can be frustrating.
Even with its sandbox-like design, Amnesia: The Bunker is much more compact than its predecessors, both in environmental scale and gameplay length. After finishing the game once, there isn’t much narrative reason to return. Don’t get me wrong – finding various documents and photos while learning more about the events that transpired is compelling. It’s a testament to the writing that these add to the horror while creating an effective mystery. The voice-acting is well done, Henri’s, in particular, standing out when recounting terrible things he’s done.
"While it doesn’t rewrite the book on horror, Amnesia: The Bunker is good at what it does, presenting a unique scenario for players to overcome and the tools to incentivize experimentation."
There is randomization in place to incentivize replay value, with changes to the placement of dog tags (and their codes), items and traps. I can see this being appealing if you want to go back in after a playthrough and try different things or test a higher difficulty.
Visually, Amnesia: The Bunker isn’t going to blow you away. However, the griminess of the underground, combined with the minimal lighting and shadows, creates a distinct look and immerses you effectively. While the darkness itself is terrifying enough, the sheer claustrophobia of the bunker can also prove stressful. Little details – like dust falling from the ceiling as the monster passes overhead – are well done. Combined with the strong sound design, whether it’s the booming of a battle above ground or the monster’s snarling, Frictional Games is still very good at building dread.
While it doesn’t rewrite the book on horror, Amnesia: The Bunker is good at what it does, presenting a unique scenario for players to overcome and the tools to incentivize experimentation. Something narratively meatier would have been nice, but it doesn’t overstay its welcome and delivers on its compelling premise.
This game was reviewed on PC.
Whether you're winding up the dynamo flashlight or carefully investigating, the atmosphere is tense and terrifying. Non-linear exploration and sandbox gameplay lead to interesting ways to overcome obstacles, while the monster is frighteningly intelligent. Compelling mystery accompanied by a suitably haunting aesthetic and sharp sound design.
Controls can feel a bit clunky at first. Some situations necessitate trial and error, which can lead to some frustration. Not very long, and not much narrative incentive to replay aside from attempting a harder difficulty.