In Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, even tutorial tips are played for scares. You're Oswald Mandus, a rich and powerful industrialist on the New Year's Eve before the twentieth century. As you walk through the austere hallways of your mansion, a prompt fades into view and tells you which button makes you run. Run? A sprawling factory space lies under the mansion, and it's not too long before you hear machinery awaken beneath you. You wonder what you'll be running from - and more importantly, when.
As it turns out, you'll have no real need for that run button until quite some time later.
Developer thechineseroom began this uneasy and, at times, disgusting horror game as a brief, experimental aside to Amnesia: The Dark Descent, with original creators Frictional Games on publishing duty. The kernel of that experiment was then expanded into a full-fledged release, A Machine for Pigs. Though the setting and basic flavour of both games are similar, this new game is its own distinct interpretation of the series. Like the developer's previous release, Dear Esther, the main drive of A Machine for Pigs is its tonal palette. That means going ever-deeper into the machine complex and recollecting exactly what horrendous events gave birth to a twentieth century London. It's difficult to unpack playing A Machine for Pigs, for two reasons. Its storyline is highly contingent on mystery, and so any discussion into the origins of the title machine or the minutia of the inhuman reveals along the way would be to the player's detriment. It's no stretch to say that the mystery unfurled in A Machine for Pigs is well and truly alarming in how far it plumbs the depths of human wickedness. The pacing is engrossingly steady, and it tackles issues like mental illness and human trafficking in chilling ways that repulse and entice in equal measure. The circumstances get so dire that you'll dread having to press on, but the promise of horrors unknown around the next corner is great, twisted motivation. That's why it's essential to watch as few videos of A Machine for Pigs as possible if you intend to play it for yourself.
There's also just not a whole lot to discuss when it comes to mechanics. There's no fumbling around in the dark for oil and tinderboxes anymore; Oswald is given a new, ever-lasting lantern. The sanity system that would vary scares in levels between playthroughs is nixed. Inventory management - and puzzles in general - are left by the wayside as well, more or less limiting interaction to movement and the occasional valve or other switch to mess with. The hands-on grisliness of the first game's puzzles is felt less here, and the game can occasionally feel like a horror sideshow that you're minimally interacting with. But as a conduit into the improved plot and thematic exploration, this simplified approach makes total sense. It's not a better or worse road to follow; just different.
Occasionally the creepy pig monsters showcased in the trailer will take it upon themselves to show up and mess up your nerves, to varying affect. Their rough, warped figures and curdling squeals are definitely intimidating, and like the first game, you are completely defenceless against any resistance you run into. But usually, it doesn't really take much to deter them. Switching off your lantern and wedging yourself between some boxes or other barrier for a minute is generally enough to steer clear of the distorted porcine. A few harrowing encounters that force you pivot around and run like hell are much more effective (though things never get quite as rending as the cistern from the original game).
That's not to say the game isn't scary; it most certainly is. It's just that its particular brand of horror is quite different from The Dark Descent, ideologically. A Machine for Pigs is much more interested in propelling the storyline's next sickening debauch than jolting you to attention. It floats all sorts of cryptic and sinister thoughts into the air, and after the tension has slowly ratcheted its way tight, those fears are realized in highly disturbing displays of graphic violence and human misery. It won't be for everyone, but the plot trajectory has large potential to draw in persistent players who can wait for (and psychosomatically handle!) the big payoffs. One particularly neat, subtle effect is how the level design will shift and distort when you're not looking. Those realizations of doubling back through an area and suddenly realizing you're on the path to some new unknown terror were my favourite moments, and a good analog for the prior game's sanity system.
Whether this new and streamlined take on Amnesia is successful or not depends on how close an experience to the original you're expecting. It may not strike out as viciously for big scares, but A Machine for Pigs' effort to streamline the action keeps you far more ensconced in the dark journey. thechineseroom's superb storytelling will shock and disturb patient players in lasting ways. Many horror fans should find that a fine trade-off, even when the visceral thrills of the original are mostly memories.