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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Amnesia: The Bunker Review

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Amnesia: The Dark Descent changed the face of horror games 13 years ago, and 2020's Amnesia: Rebirth seemed to bring the story seeds it planted to a bone-chilling and climactic final bloom. So Amnesia: The Bunker, a smaller and more self-contained chapter, has its work cut out for it in getting me excited about this frightening franchise again. And while a lot of the fundamentals of its stealth and exploration have stayed the same as they were when I woke up as Daniel more than a decade ago, this gloomy, open-ended cat-and-mouse thriller proves you can teach an old hellbeast some new tricks.

Set in a dim, doomed World War I bunker in 1916, we take on the role of a French soldier who is wounded in battle, and wakes to find the exits destroyed and nearly all of his comrades-in-arms slaughtered by something lurking in the dark. The first and biggest shake-up to the usual Amnesia routine is that the entire bunker, which feels bigger than it looks on paper, is available to explore from fairly early on. Similar to Metroid or Resident Evil, you'll have to track down a small arsenal of tools to access certain areas and progress the story, but you're given very little direction in terms of where to go next. This helps to build tension, because every expedition out of the lamp-lit central safe room is a drain on your very limited resources, and probably your resolve, too.

Amnesia: The Bunker Screenshots

Whereas most enemies in other Amnesia games are scripted to patrol a specific area in a specific way, The Bunker takes a refreshing page out of Alien: Isolation’s book and features a single, ever-present threat called the Stalker that lives behind the walls and above the ceiling of your concrete prison. It's attracted to noise, which can be anything from running, to firing off a weapon, to using your hand-cranked flashlight. The fact that its behavior is somewhat unpredictable dials up the dread and adds some much-needed dynamism. And you'll know when you've gotten its attention by scraping and growling that use effective sound design to further fuel your paranoia.

Shoot to Thrill

Amnesia made a name for itself as a horror game with no weapons, so it seemed odd to me at first that The Bunker hands you a pistol and even sometimes grenades. But the joke was really on me as these can, at best, make the Stalker leave you alone for a few minutes. Munitions are situationally useful, but ultimately end up making the foe even scarier. After all, what's worse? A monster you can't fight at all, or one you've seen can take a bullet to the face and merely get a bit annoyed?

Where this beastie failed to impress me, though, was its AI. The alien in Isolation would slowly learn more about you the more times you encountered it, especially if you had a go-to strategy like hiding in lockers. The Stalker, sadly, doesn't seem nearly as savvy. On the default difficulty, in almost all cases, I could simply crouch under a table and it would never find me even if I was practically breathing on its ankles. Figuring that out deflates a good bit of the tension The Bunker worked so hard to build. Luckily, it has another, clever way of making you sweat even if you're an expert at hiding.

See, the whole bunker is powered by a central generator that guzzles down fuel like a thirsty elephant, and there are only so many refills available on the whole map. You can explore without the lights on, but it's… well, it's very bad. The Stalker is free to roam the halls in the darkness, whereas it would normally stay in its tunnels until it detects you. Worse, your only reusable source of light is that stupid flashlight that makes a bunch of noise and alerts it to your position.

What this means is every trip out into the far corners of the bunker comes with a sense of urgency and purpose, embodied by a pocket watch you can sync up to the amount of remaining fuel to know how much time you have before lights out. If you choose to hide every time the Stalker is around, you'll be burning a precious resource, as it can sometimes take a minute or two for it to stop patrolling and go back into the tunnels. This is definitely The Bunker's most effective new trick for making me feel the way the first Amnesia did all over again.

War Stories

The story is a relatively simple one, especially compared to the interdimensional cosmic nightmare that was Rebirth. A timeline of events slowly comes into focus as you find notes written by the various enlisted men and officers who once called this box a home away from home. There is a fairly clever twist toward the end that managed to subvert my expectations as an Amnesia veteran. Whereas the past games have largely been about remembering and coming to terms with your character's sins, that's merely a prelude to what The Bunker actually has in store.

There are certainly some little peeks into the larger Amnesia universe, but I found it refreshing how much smaller and more self-contained this tale is. If you did play Rebirth, you'll be rewarded by understanding the context behind some of the weirder stuff that shows up. And if you didn't, you'll get to be surprised and perplexed by these moments in a way I wasn't. Then you should probably go play Rebirth so you can understand what is actually going on.

I found the ending itself extremely predictable though. If you think about what you're doing throughout The Bunker for even a second, I imagine most people will be aware of what "escape" would actually mean the whole time. But it is still effective, reminding us that we, as humans, can create horrors far worse than any writer's most eldritch imaginings. And knowing where it's going certainly doesn't spoil the journey.

As a final little twist, a lot of stuff in The Bunker, including the monster's behavior, locker codes, and the location of some key items, are semi-randomized on every playthrough. This is supposed to keep things interesting if you decide to replay it. I didn't feel like there were especially compelling reasons to do so, but it's nice to know if I ever get the itch that I won't just be speedrunning through the same route again. A first playthrough ran me about eight hours by Steam's count, but only around five by the in-game clock, which no doubt has something to do with how many times I tabbed out to look at funny animal videos to get my stress under control.

There's also one irritating little technical issue: When transitioning between areas, the screen hangs as it loads in, sometimes for up to a couple seconds and even when installed on a fast SSD. Considering these areas aren't very big, and developer Frictional’s games don't exactly look like Crysis, this seems poorly justified.


I can’t say Amnesia is still a groundbreaking horror franchise like it was at the beginning. The larger story it was building has already been played out with Rebirth. But Amnesia: The Bunker proves that smaller, anthology-style episodes within its universe can still bring the tension and the scares. And Frictional’s bag of tricks is far from exhausted when it comes to getting our hearts pounding and making us carefully consider how to use the limited tools available to us. It’s not an unmissable experience, but as an Amnesia fan, it definitely sated my appetite for some gut-churning horror and moody, bleak storytelling.

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