Amnesia: The Bunker
Released: June 6, 2023
Developer: Frictional Games
Publisher: Frictional Games
Systems: PC, PS4, Xbox One, Xbox X/S (reviewed)
On paper, a roaming monster stalking horror game environments in real time is a great idea. Many have tried offering a persistent threat that vulnerable players can only hope to temporarily deter at best, and occasionally they’ve succeeded, with Alien: Isolation serving as perhaps the most acclaimed example. Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to get the concept wrong and create a monster that serves only to aggravate and hassle rather than terrify.
Amnesia: The Bunker’s particular aggressor, known only as The Beast, starts off with promise before suffering the same fate of so many other videogame stalkers - familiarity breeds contempt, and with enough exposure to a once intimidating foe, the scare factor can wear off and you’re left with more of an inconvenient interruption than a scary disruption. While The Bunker's certainly not as bad as something like Slender: Eight Pages - the antagonist of which engaged in so much fucking harassment it detonated any mystique the Slenderman character had - by the final act, I was very much over The Beast’s bullshit.
The Bunker continues Amnesia's commitment as a series to changing concepts with every sequel. From the prototypical “YouTube Spooker” that was Dark Descent, to the story-driven exploration of A Machine for Pigs, to the larger scale (and more boring) adventure offered by Rebirth, every Amnesia has put its own little spin on first-person horror with a fresh narrative conceit each time. Conceptually, The Bunker may be the most simple, but as a result it’s easily the strongest.
Set during World War One, players awaken in the titular bunker after a brief introductory sequence in which a rescue attempt among the trenches proves injurious. Naturally, the player character recovers to find that shit's gone down - blood is everywhere, bodies are numerous, and there's an obligatory littering of conveniently placed diary entries to fill in the spooky backstory. It’s not long at all before The Beast makes itself known, a creature that - in typical Amnesia fashion - walks the aesthetic line between ghoulish and goofy.
Taking clear cues from games like Alien: Isolation, this Beast is forever haunting the player’s movements, scrabbling in the walls and ready to emerge from one of its many scuttlin' holes should too much noise be made. Running, pushing heavy objectives, using explosives, and recharging the World’s Worst Flashlight (which we’ll get to) are all likely to draw the creature’s attention, forcing players to run away or hide while it stalks the corridors in active pursuit. The Beast can’t simply be killed off, only slowed down or briefly scared away with gunfire or traps.
Using one’s revolver for directly aggressive purposes isn’t recommended since the incredibly rare bullets are best saved for more mundane tasks like shooting locks. Any combat scenario is a waste of precious resources at best, especially because the game’s environment is structured in such a way that reloading a save the moment you're spotted is sometimes far more efficient than either fight or flight.
We could best describe said structure as an incredibly light take on the Metroidvania concept. The bunker itself spins several locations off from a central “safe” room in which players can save progress, store items in the World’s Worst Box, and use the World’s Worst Fuel Containers to refill the World’s Worst Generator. From this hub, the bunker tunnels lead to various places full of items and traps that are randomly generated for each new game, and a fairly simple explorative loop sees players striking out from the center to investigate the other areas, gathering resources and obtaining key items to open up previously inaccessible locations. Most key items are actually found in a single room filled with lockers that require access codes found on scattered dog tags. Progress, therefore, is primarily based around finding these tags and scurrying back to open lockers containing stuff that lets them explore further. The ultimate aim is to acquire both dynamite and a detonator to blow open the exit.
It’s a nice loop that would have been truly engrossing in a deeper, more complex game. The Bunker contents itself with a straightforward environment and a handful of simple goals, taking less advantage of its own design than it could have. Since the overall map is fairly small and features neither interconnectivity nor many unlockable new areas, the whole thing predominantly amounts to a lot of running back and forth - a scenario that wouldn’t actually be too bad in a game of this nature if it didn’t do several exasperating things to increase the amount of backtracking far beyond what should be necessary.
Chief among my grievances is how lighting, resource management, and carrying capacity are all balanced in such a way they don’t make progress challenging so much as a tedious chore.
While the Beast is not completely held at bay by light, it’s far less willing to come out when the bunker’s generator is running and the bulbs are all switched on. In order to achieve this and make exploration as relatively safe as possible, a generator in the central safe area needs to be regularly kept fueled via collectible canisters. Being the World’s Worst Generator fueled by the World’s Worst Containers, you’ll need multiple canisters to fill it completely and it’ll burn through anything it has at a ridiculously swift pace. Ferrying fuel to the generator therefore becomes an omnipresent objective - not a particularly enthralling one, either.
To make matters worse, your inventory limit is pathetic, with only six slots used to carry everything including fuel, healing kits, crafting parts, weapons, and key items. Using upgrades dotted throughout the bunker, I was able to boost that number to twelve by the end, and it still wasn’t enough to escape the constant choice of leaving things behind or running back and forth for them. Sixteen items can be stored in the World’s Worst Box found near the generator, which proves far from adequate halfway into proceedings. The only saving grace is that items aren’t despawned when dropped, so you won’t lose things unless you forget where you discarded them.
The generator makes things safer and easier to navigate, but lighting remains inconsistently spread across the bunker so you'll often need to either combine valuable fuel with rags and sticks to craft torches, or rely on the one "permanent" light source at your disposal, the World’s Worst Flashlight.
This flashlight is a necessary companion, even though it too takes up a bloody inventory slot. It can be recharged via a rip cord that must be pulled multiple times to reach maximum strength, and you better get used to pulling that cord because even when fully charged, the thing barely stays lit before it requires more tugs. Hell, if you pull the cord only once, the light you get is so brief it’s as good as doing nothing. Naturally, the cord is noisy, so every pull risks the Beast's attention, and the frequency with which it needs pulling means you’re essentially babysitting your own torch. It’s not tense, it’s not spooky, it’s just a repetitive pain in the ass. Oh, and if you put it away after charging it, the charge still continues to drain.
Should you run completely out of fuel, the Beast can slither into your business practically at random, and the flashlight becomes even more of an albatross as it conflictingly grows more essential. It’s during one such moment that I became so annoyed by the monster’s presence I started to see it as a pest instead of a threat, a problem not helped by the fact the game started to break its own rules - after hours of being able to safely hide under desks and beds, I was suddenly easily detectable and the monster would yank me out for an instant kill without warning. Once I became tired of the Beast, there was no returning it to a position of scariness.
Like I said earlier, familiarity breeds contempt, and despite being a pretty short game, my temper with it had dramatically reduced by the final act.
It’s a shame I left the experience on less positive terms because I genuinely enjoyed most of my time with it. It’s a fairly standard horror game that doesn’t do much to blow one’s mind, but it’s got a great atmosphere with a rarely seen horror setting, and the story teased behind the events is just intriguing enough to make documents worth reading. While I did get tired of the Beast eventually, it can still be a fun creature to outwit, especially when you get it to trigger grenade detonators, or frustrate it by blocking one of its holes.
Funnily enough, the game's achievements/trophies unlock regardless of whether or not you actually did anything to earn them - if the Beast, say, triggers a trap that was randomly generated, you'll get the credit for "luring" it there. I found out several things were possible in-game because I was unlocking achievements for the results of pure happenstance, including something at the end involving a key item I wasn't even holding at the time.
The Bunker's approach to puzzles, while vastly overstated by its own loading screen text, serves to make the whole thing feel just that little more dynamic than the average horror game. There’s a little bit of freedom when it comes to getting around hindrances. A locked door, for example, could simply be blown open with a tossed grenade or an explosive barrel, but it’s also possible to trick the monster into destroying it. Vicious rats serve as a secondary antagonistic presence, and they can be pushed back with a torch, distracted with meat, or be made to stop indefinitely respawning by burning whatever food source they keep gathering around. The options you have are limited by the small pool of item types and even smaller variety of interactions, but while it’s a far cry from Deus Ex, The Bunker’s comparatively thin approach does just enough to create a sense of immersion, to make hindrances feel like natural occurrences with natural solutions instead of a contrived and obvious videogame puzzle.
Visually, Amnesia is both graphically and stylistically comparable to the rest of the series, never pushing the boat out in the graphics department but nonetheless achieving a suitably moody atmosphere. There’s very little voice acting, but what there is remains understatedly solid throughout, and there’s some very nice sound direction, chiefly with the Beast, whose roars and stomps are easily the scariest thing about it.
Amnesia: The Bunker is a pleasant step up from its predecessor Rebirth, but it all too often falls into the problem many horror games have - resource management and monstrous harassment are balanced in such a way as to inspire annoyance more readily than fear. For much of its campaign, The Bunker is an absorbingly gloomy experience with a nice sense of rhythm to its progress and an effective illusion of dynamism in both its monster and environment. This is somewhat offset by enforced backtracking, a piddling inventory, and an embarrassingly rubbish flashlight. If it had expanded its promising ideas and balanced its threat-to-tedium ratio better, this could have been a fantastic experience. But, y’know, it didn’t do that.
It still did well enough though, and for the average horror game these days, well enough is pretty good!