Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs encourages sneaking but it's not a stealth game. There are puzzles as well but it's not a puzzle game. So, what exactly is it? Really goddamn scary.
I usually start reviews with a detailed overview of the story but that feels inappropriate for Machine for Pigs. Figuring out the story is the game. You wake up in a mansion and find out what the hell is going on over the course of five hours. Slowly discovering the tale through texts, flashbacks and audio logs is the crux of the experience. It's a gripping tale of greed, hubris and cruelty with enough subtlety and emotional heft that I'll be puzzling it over long after I've finished this review.
If I had to place the story into a genre, it would be horror. The game tried - and succeeded - on a regular basis at freaking me out. The developers recommend playing in the dark with headphones and they're right. So many of the scares, especially in the opening hours, are simple sights and sounds. You hear footsteps on the floor above. A statue unexpectedly appears in a place you visited before. You need to have your eyes and ears glued to the game to appreciate the slow building of tension.
Eventually, there are some enemies (again, not going to spoil anything) for you to contend with. Like Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Machine doesn't give you any weapons. Your only choices are to run from enemies or sneak past them. This is a smaller part of Machine than Descent, though. You won't have to build barricades or worry about your sanity level here. There's only one type of enemy to contend with and there really aren't that many of them throughout the campaign.
Still, the enemies's few appearances make a strong impression on you. I was constantly looking over my shoulder throughout the campaign. You can sneak, walk or run through the game but I found myself sneaking about 90% of the time. Was it necessary? Did I actually avoid unseen mortal danger by doing it? I have no idea. The game throws just enough danger at you to keep your spine chilled without overusing their bag of tricks and making you numb to the experience. Opening each door made me cringe.
It's interesting how the game handles death. If an enemy jumps out at you in a scripted moment and kills you, you'll respawn at a nearby checkpoint. You'll carefully approach the place of your death only to find that the enemy hasn't respawned. This was a bit confusing and was probably a way for developers to cover up some dodgy scripting with these encounters. Still, it was effective in maintaining the story's forward momentum. It's almost as though the game's satisfied that you fell for its trap, so it wants you to move onto the next one.
The puzzles, like the stealth, have been simplified from Dark Descent. The inventory system from Descent is gone, so you can only hold one item at a time. This means you have to put away your lantern in order to carry puzzle items or to open doors. This is equal parts scary and inconvenient. I took great pains to carry around an Erlenmeyer flask for about 15 minutes before realizing it was completely worthless. Red herrings like this are rare, though. Generally speaking, you'll find the cog or tube or whatever necessary to complete a puzzle a few feet from where you need to bring it. There are no real brain-teasers here; if anything, you'll probably over-think most puzzles presented to you.
Stripping away stealth and puzzle elements sounds bad but The Chinese Room is actually adding by subtracting. The lack of actual challenge in the game means that the player is free to just take in every detail of this frightening world. You see every blood splatter and hear every footstep. It's an intense, nerve-wracking experience even without a monster chasing you down every corridor.
The horror genre is in sorry shape these days, with developers adulterating it with action and co-op in order to sell more copies. What The Chinese Room has done with Machine for Pigs is deliver a pure horror story. The game aims to do one thing and one thing only: frighten you. It does it well, too.
Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs was reviewed using a free digital version provided by the publisher.
Platforms: PC (reviewed), Mac, Linux
Developer: The Chinese Room
Publisher: Frictional Games