Amnesia: The Bunker Review – Shellshocked
2010’s Amnesia: The Dark Descent altered the horror genre forever as the breakout game made in a particular hide-and-seek style. It’s one which relies on a lack of combat, putting players in horrifying situations they can’t win, and demanding they run and hide instead. Through countless imitators and even a few sequels, Frictional Games has had its formula repeated, but Amnesia: The Bunker is not the latest in that lineage. It plays quite differently, though it still feels like a classic Amnesia game in vital ways, and it’s this combination of old and new that helps make it the studio’s scariest game since The Dark Descent.
Amnesia: The Bunker is, in some ways, the Amnesia you may know already. You’ll play in first-person as a character who is suffering from memory loss and must piece together their own history, as well as that of the unnerving locale in which they inevitably find themselves. In The Bunker, that character is Henri Clement, a French soldier during World War I who loses consciousness while rescuing a fellow soldier from harm’s way, then awakens in the titular bunker seemingly all alone–though he will soon wish that were truly the case.
Through scattered notes, the story of the labyrinthine bunker will come into focus. It’s an entertaining, albeit detail-light, saga that seems to tie directly to other games in deep-cut ways that some players will appreciate. But it’s just as easy to play it and not have any context for the story at all, or take it as a standalone horror story about a man trapped in a maze with a monster. It works well enough in each case, but it does feel like there’s less narrative to unpack than past games in the series.
Amnesia: The Bunker is much less predictable than past games in the series, and even includes variable elements that change across playthroughs. This gives it more replayability than past games from Frictional, and it works really well in that way. Important items such as a wrench for creating shortcuts, a lighter to light torches, and dog tags that reveal locker codes can be found in different spots with each new playthrough. Even locker codes change across playthroughs–sorry, guide writers–meaning each player who enters the bunker is truly on their own, making the game more challenging in an age where answers are usually found online for those lost and scared.
The variable elements are an exciting new wrinkle, but they’re also only an accompaniment to the game’s centerpiece: its monster, which ceaselessly lurks throughout the bunker largely unscripted. This makes every encounter much scarier, as it tends to stay hidden unless you’ve messed up in some way. In this way, the monster is an enforcer to ensure you’re operating at peak performance, and in the bunker that means several different things are happening: You’ll want to keep the generator running, which provides lighting to the many corridors and wings you’ll unlock and explore. You’ll want to keep noise to a minimum, which means no sprinting through the halls, or at least hiding soon after doing so. It also means staying healthy, as you share the dark hallways with hungry rats who bite you and leave you bleeding, which the monster can trace back to you as it hunts.
I absolutely love these systems because they interact so well together. With limited inventory space, the game adds almost a management-sim element to it, where you’ll sometimes need to make runs outside the safe room just to amass a few more canisters of gasoline, even if you happen to know where the next important quest item is, such as a key or a particular note. Whenever the fuel runs out, the lights go off, allowing the monster to roam freely, but with the lights on, the monster mostly only comes out when you’ve made too much noise. You could, in theory, beat the game entirely in the dark with nothing but your hand-cranked flashlight, but good luck to those trying. It is a ruthless, tireless, insatiable beast.
You can add new inventory slots by finding bags around the bunker, but even at max capacity, you won’t have enough room to carry everything you need, which demands sacrifices. Do I take the watch that tells me how much time is left until the fuel is exhausted, or do I take the healing items in case the rats prove hard to evade? Do I throw an empty bottle to create a diversion, or do I bring it to the fuel room to fill up for the generator back in the safe room? There’s no moment in a playthrough in which you won’t be weighing options such as these, making every moment a thoughtful exercise in survival. All resources are finite, so using any of them must come with good reason or else you’re damning yourself to failure.
Solutions have multiple right answers, too, which rewards or punishes smart or thoughtless decisions, respectively. For example, a locked door can be broken open with a thrown brick, shot with a gun, or opened with a key–if you happen to find it. Yes, Amnesia has a gun now, and if you’re worried about it removing the game’s best parts, don’t be. The gun cannot kill the monster, and ammo is extremely limited. At best, it can stun the monster for a moment, giving you a chance to escape around a corner or drag a barrel in front of a door to impede its pursuit. You can merely slow the creature, and doing so only angers it.
I was also surprised to see how well the setting works. In previews, I was worried that the plain hallways would grow stale quickly, but not only does the game diversify its setting in interesting ways, but even those original images of standard military bunker corridors end up feeling interesting because of how shortcuts, hiding spots, and tools are tucked away in each of them. With a centralized supply room full of locked lockers, it’s good to spend time seeking out combinations that unlock them, but as always, these considerations burn fuel and likely make noise, so it’s always a risk. Every room feels very intentionally built and there’s no wasted space in the game.
All of these variable elements combine to put more control in Amnesia players’ hands than they’ve ever had before, and that tension–where you may live or die not because of a tough scripted moment, but because you created a problem for yourself–makes The Bunker the team’s scariest game since 2010. Despite an impressive year of horror games so far, I believe Amnesia: The Bunker is the scariest game of 2023. It works incredibly well in its quiet moments, like when I’d hide under a bed or in a closet, hoping the monster doesn’t spot me, as well as during chase sequences which had my heart in my throat every single time.
That feeling of being chased is so unnerving, especially in first-person through a pitch-black hallway as inhuman snarls close in on you. So often, I’d just barely make it back to the safe room with enough time to slam the door and lock it behind me. It’s intense, and each time I survived, I felt my body loosen up as my heart rate would slowly return to normal. I’ve recently worried I’ve been desensitized to horror games since I’ve been playing them for 25 years. Amnesia: The Bunker helped me find those evasive thrills again. It’s terrifying, and I love it.
The element that ties this all together is the game’s incredible audio design. In such a lonesome and haunted space, Amnesia: The Bunker is the signature play-it-with-headphones experience. Each footstep echoes in such a way that feels betraying. Sometimes the monster may breathe on the other side of a wall as you inch past a group of rats, hoping they don’t bite you. Even cranking the flashlight reverberates through the turn-of-the-century walls, which can be enough to give yourself away if the creature is close by. It’s all so atmospheric that even if you aren’t consuming its somewhat light story details, you’ll be pulled into its world all the same.
Despite those numerous thrills, it’s worth noting that they aren’t all entirely novel. The way in which the monster roams the ceiling and walls around you, emerging unscripted from crawlspaces with the pounce of a lion when you screw up, is comparable to Alien: Isolation. This will make the game, as different from past Amnesia games as it is, a bit familiar to horror aficionados. Still, I feel as though the variable elements built on top of that mechanic, as well as the dizzyingly haunting setting, do elevate The Bunker’s monster to something scarier than that particular xenomorph.
With reasons to return to the game after hitting the credits, Amnesia: The Bunker is the longest-lasting game in the series so far. And thanks to incredible atmosphere, opportunities for player creativity, and an inventory metagame that makes each success or failure entirely your own, Amnesia: The Bunker is proof that Frictional has still got it. This is a team that continues to refine the horror genre, and though I’ve found each of their games intriguing in different ways, they haven’t scared me the way this one does in a long time.
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