What is the plot of Amnesia: Rebirth? If memory serves, it concerns a plane crash, an archaeological expedition, and a desert. The setting is the 1930s, and the plane is a twin-prop, called the Cassandra. In its cabin sits Tasi, a young French woman, who comforts her husband, Salim. He is a nervous flier, fretting through squalls of turbulence. Outside the windows is the blazing sea of the Algerian Desert, but, here and there, Tasi catches glimpses of something else—an oil-dark hellscape of rock, racked with bolts of lightning and screams of wind. It resembles the planet on which the crew of the Nostromo landed, looking for signs of life. The Cassandra, however, doesn’t get the luxury of a landing; after a fiery plummet, Tasi wakes in the wreckage, alone, and wades into the sand in search of answers.

So, what gives? Why the nightmare realm, blinking in and out like a television whose aerial is sucking up the dregs of a signal? Where are Tasi’s colleagues? How come she seems to remember doing all of this before? And just what are those grey shapes rustling in the periphery? In truth, trying to unknot the narrative of an Amnesia game is only half the point; the rest is about being scared witless, and the two halves are often at odds. As connoisseurs of horror will tell you, the swiftest way to expel a boogeyman is with backstory. The strategy of the first game in the series, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, was to provide answers that made as little sense as possible, so that, as you looked back on the game, you felt enfolded in the condition of its title, and what stuck in your mind were the scares.

Things aren’t quite the same with Rebirth. True, you reel from it with a headful of fevered images, rather than firm ideas, but that’s more in keeping with the sunstruck tone than it is with the haze of narrative imprecision. The developer, Frictional Games, has taken its cue from the sand, stirring up waves of shifting texture. Amid the dunes, Tasi avoids the heat, hastening between patches of cooling shade. It’s both a neat inversion of the series’ signature mechanic, whereby we avoid the shadows, and a perfect picture of those who crave scary video games: even in the harsh light of day, we chase the murk, thirsting for fear like water in a desert. Fortunately, Tasi soon makes a dark descent into a nearby network of caves.

Here, we fall back on familiar habits: scrabbling through dim recesses and scouring for discarded matchbooks, so to light torches and dangling lanterns. The reason that matches are brilliant—better, by a mile, than the tinderboxes of the earlier games—is the romance of the unreliable. The first developer to strike at this notion was OSome Studio, who made White Night. That game, which gazed longingly back to film noir, was cast in stark black-and-white, blotting out any shades of ambiguity; when you lit a match, you released a puddle of purest white, dreadfully distinct against the dark. But they would occasionally fail to ignite, other times they would splutter out as you ran. In Rebirth, they aren’t randomly prone to cruel failure so much as constant frailty. They burn quicker the faster you move—notice the way the wood blackens and curls, with a rasp, as time runs out—and in their unsteady glow they make a perfect stand-in for Tasi, whose determination flickers and leaps.

And for good reason. You can hardly blame her for losing heart, set upon, as she is, not only by ghouls but by pained visions of Paris—of her life back home, which may be doomed to the permanent status of a mirage. But wait. Hang on, what’s this? Soon after finding a crumbling fortress, with high walls the colour of biscuit, she notices that her belly has swelled. She is pregnant. Whether this counts as recollection or discovery we aren’t sure, but, either way, she is emboldened by it, and decides to go with a bump into the night. It’s a surreal moment, and one that cuts to the heart of Frictional’s conviction: that people are willing to sift through an unstable story for a sharp jolt of emotion, whether it be fear or—in a first for the series—joy.

After the earlier, naturally swirled formations, the fortress is the closest we get to classic Amnesia. It houses a radio, with which Tasi can contact her friends, seeking comfort through the crackling static. Of course, abiding with genre tradition, this crucial item is fenced off—first by monsters, to be cowered from by clicking the left stick, and second by a fine sequence of puzzles, made better by the game’s tactile mechanics. The best contribution that Frictional has made to survival horror, in my estimation, isn’t its complete banishment of combat but, rather, its smart extension of the point-and-click. The objects of the world are there to be touched, with the tug of a shoulder button, and moved—pencils rolled, handles turned, doors swung wide or rattled in vain. If we were to grant these games their own sub-genre, we might call it the grip-and-heave—which has a vomit-like ring that befits some of the grislier sights on offer.

The puzzles require a hardscrabble effort: ingredients to be ground and glued together, planks to be held, spun, and set down to forge makeshift floors. Solving them makes you feel smart, but, more important, the methods of their solving—the scrapes and creaks of your interaction—root you in these rooms; progress is gained with the tangible mustiness of context. As such, when you’re interrupted by the pale creatures that come scratching out the gloom towards you, the sense of violation is heightened. You can practically smell their breath. I won’t soon shake the experience of pressing Tasi’s nose against a table leg, in a twilit study, her sanity on the wane—as signified by the black brambles encroaching at the edges of her vision.

Thankfully, these encounters are rare enough that they don’t lose their rusty edge, and Frictional avoids the fate that befalls many horror games—as their chills give way to the chafes of frustration. If only such tight rein were applied to the game’s scope. I can handle the desert stronghold and the dank cistern beneath, but, by the time we’ve taken in a Roman ruin and a jaunt to the wrought-iron structures of an otherworldly plain, things started to become crammed. Add to that the abandoned tents of older expeditions and the layering of political history—the region is raw with bloodshed, riven by French conquest, which we read about in scattered papers—and I started to miss the focus of the first game. There, you were bolted into Castle Brennenburg for the duration, with nothing but the company of monsters and the notes of gothic suggestion—the groaning gusts and steady drips that drove the heroes of Stoker and Walpole quietly mad.

At least, that’s how I remember it. Who knows? Perhaps I will look back on Amnesia: Rebirth as a brow-dampening exercise in restraint. Right now, though, it smacks of appetite, and a blurry creative restlessness. It’s as if the artists at Frictional, after plunging into the sea of Soma—the studio’s last outing—came to the new game dripping; hence the strange chambers, later on, submerged in blue-green light. In the earlier, sandy hours, that restlessness is a boon—the work of a developer surveying the drier sweeps of a genre and divining a bright pool of ideas. It’s essential playing for horror buffs. What about everyone else? If you’re hungry for frights, this will do the job, and much else besides. But if you want a story that stays grounded, and a mood that hones and hangs around? Forget it.

Developer: Frictional Games

Publisher: Frictional Games

Available on: PlayStation 4 [reviewed on], PC

Release date: October 20, 2020

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