Halloween is right around the corner, which means it's time for another disappointing horror game that couldn't possibly live up to my high standards nor rouse any ounce of emotion from my cold, blackened heart. This year, it's Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, a sequel of sorts to one of my favorite horror games of all time, Amnesia: The Dark Descent. In an appropriately horrifying twist, however, Frictional Games decided not to handle the sequel themselves, and instead handed the license to the team responsible for the torpidly bland Dear Esther. Now don't get me wrong, the retail release of Dear Esther is a solid artistic expression, but it features no meaningful gameplay whatsoever and left me beyond skeptical that the Chinese Room could pull off a successful Amnesia game.
A Machine for Pigs is, essentially, a shorter version of The Dark Descent but with all of the good stuff taken out. The inventory has been completely removed, and so with it went the game's resource management -- a core element for any survival-horror game worth its salt. You have infinitely regenerating health now, so no need to ration limited healing supplies or worry that you might actually get hurt. There's no tension from limping by, hoping you can make it long enough to find some laudanum. Your lamp has an infinite lifespan now, and can therefore be left on virtually the entire game. There's no more sanity meter, either, so there are no consequences anymore for being in the dark or looking at monsters. Those three things -- managing your health, sanity, and light sources -- are what gave The Dark Descent its incredible tension, because there was always something bad that could happen to you mechanically, which could have lasting effects down the road.
Encountering monsters in The Dark Descent wasn't just a matter of getting past them alive; it was about doing so while limiting the amount of health and sanity you might lose. If you wanted to avoid monsters, you had to hide in the shadows and avoid looking at them, which would make your character steadily go insane (thus making your character more vulnerable to monsters and causing the screen to distort in weird, unsettling ways) while also increasing the tension you felt in real life by not knowing where the monsters were at all times. You might have wanted to leave your lamp on all the time, but you just couldn't because you'd run out of oil, so the game forced you to lower your only defense -- visibility, which also put a tax on your sanity by being in the dark -- and make strategic use of how you'd light the environment with your limited tinder boxes.
With all of this stuff stripped from A Machine for Pigs, there's literally no reason to be worried about anything you might encounter up ahead. There are a few jump scares here and there that I suppose could scare you, if you have the emotional frailty of a five year old girl, but even the psychological side of the game's so-called "horror" falls flat. It takes nearly two whole hours (almost half the game) before the scares even start happening; the mood is sufficiently creepy and atmospheric up until that point, when the fear of the unknown has you imagining worse things than the game will actually throw at you, but the tension and horror takes a nosedive as soon as the monsters start coming for you, because you quickly realize that they're just pigs, and that they don't really pose any threat to you at all.
The pig enemies (both the more traditional ones that walk on four legs and the humanoid monstrosities) move about so slowly on their patrol routes and have such a difficult time noticing you that they're usually pretty easy to avoid. Even when they do spot you, they're so easy to outrun that any panic dissipates in mere seconds. I'm not even sure what's going on with their AI, since they seem to make no notice of noise or light at moderate distances, but could spot me instantly when I was sitting perfectly still in pure darkness just a few feet closer to them. Most of the time, though, they're just harmlessly darting across your path. Pigs aren't inherently frightening, anyway, but given the backstory of where they came from, they almost inspire more pity than fear.
Otherwise, the only scary things really happening in this game are ominous sound effects that seem to randomly play all of the time, to keep you on edge, but they just desensitize you to it because you quickly learn how harmless those are, too, because they're virtually always false alarms. There were only about two or three moments in the entire game when I felt any amount of surprise, and only one when I was actually somewhat fearful of what was going on. One of the game's potentially more terrifying moments was completely ruined for me by being a copy/paste of one of The Dark Descent's most iconic scares; the moment I saw it in A Machine for Pigs, the tension (what little there was) dropped to zero. It doesn't help, either, that your lamp almost always flickers for a few seconds right before something jumps out at you; it's really hard to feel scared or surprised when the game specifically telegraphs that something scary is about to happen.
There's a little bit more actual gameplay in A Machine for Pigs than there is in Dear Esther, but you don't really do much besides walk to each of your destinations and occasionally read a note you find conveniently lying in your path. As usual, I have to question how specific notes got to be in their specific locations, because it completely breaks any suspension of disbelief that this is anything more than a cheap storytelling mechanic. It's even worse with the phonograph audio logs, which show up in random alcoves in the sewers, of all places. But since they took the inventory system out, there's no need to actually explore any of the game's environments because there's never anything worth finding except for the occasional journal page, which are usually placed in obvious spots along the main path. In fact, the whole game is so detrimentally linear that it's basically just a matter of following the one and only pathway until you find your next objective.
Every so often, when you're not just walking in a linear path, or reading a journal page, or engaging in the game's incredibly rudimentary stealth system to get past pigmen, you get to solve "puzzles" in order to advance to the next area. I use the term "puzzle" ironically, here, because they're not even puzzles. Most of the time, when a path is blocked, you simply follow the only other available path, and then you flip a switch or press a button. Presto. The most advanced "puzzle" you ever solve in this game is figuring out that a contraption isn't working because it's missing two of its cogwheels, which just happen to be sitting literally right next to it. You don't even have to puzzle out which one goes where, because each cogwheel automatically slots into the correct spot the moment you move it anywhere remotely close to the mechanism.
But still, the Chinese Room are supposed to be more known for their interesting stories than compelling gameplay, and yet the story in A Machine for Pigs isn't even that interesting. Everything is totally predictable (it's pretty bad when I was able to correctly guess all of the major twists and revelations within the first 30 minutes), and yet the game doesn't really bother to explain much of its own substance. If you actually care about the story, you can find yourself asking a lot of questions that never get concrete answers. You can make educated guesses and fill in the blanks based on the content of the journal entries, but I never found the story's progression all that gripping, and its central premise, for which the title is both literally and metaphorically named after, felt so heavy-handed at times that it made me want to shut my brain off and stop caring.
When it comes down to it, there's just nothing in this game that I can actually praise. Everything is mediocre at best, and downright boring at worst. I kind of expected that A Machine for Pigs would never live up to The Dark Descent, but I was still hoping it would be at least a halfway decent game. I certainly didn't expect that it would be so insufferably boring. To put things in perspective, I blasted Outlast for feeling like only a shadow of the game that The Dark Descent was, and yet, given the choice between having to replay Outlast or A Machine for Pigs, I'd pick Outlast every time. Although, on second thought, I might actually pick A Machine for Pigs in that scenario, just because it's 33% shorter, with a playtime clocking in at a little more than four hours. Really, I should be playing SOMA, Fricitonal Game's newest horror game set underwater with a futuristic sci-fi atmosphere, but, well, I don't feel like spending the money.