Frictional Games has ripped up its horror playbook for Amnesia: The Bunker. Gone are the linear stories and scripted narrative events which the studio came close to perfecting in Soma and Amnesia: Rebirth. What's here instead is a four-hour deadly game of cat and mouse, only the cat is a raging nightmare-fuel beast and the mouse is a shell-shocked French World War One soldier.
Publisher: Frictional Games
Release date: June 6, 2023
Platform(s): PC, PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X, Xbox One
I'll never tire of developers trying something new with an established formula. Without such experimentation we'd never have Resident Evil tearing up its fixed-camera perspectives to go all-in on gonzo shootouts and sassy quips, a creative decision which ultimately helped it become one of the most influential horror franchises of the modern era.
Amnesia: The Bunker starts from a very different perspective than Frictional's past horror tales. This isn't a high-concept story of humans departing their bodies like Soma, but the horror of what mankind does to itself in bloody war. You're grounded immediately on the Western Front as humans tear each other shreds in hails of bullets – it's a different starting point for a Frictional game, but just as terrifying as any bleak sci-fi tale the developer has conjured up to date.
Amnesia: The Bunker begins as you snake down a trench on the Western Front, peeking around corners and ducking bullets from German soldiers overhead to return fire. It's pulse-pounding and adrenaline-pumping action, without losing any of the horror of what's actually going on around you, as allied and enemy troops alike are slaughtered in the hundreds on the battlefields sitting either side of you.
The Bunker constantly puts you in a fight for your life. Waking up after the trench section with not a soul around, you discover you've been left behind by your allies. They fled to the surface, sealing you within the claustrophobic bunker with a mysterious beast. . This is again another huge departure – your soldier is the only character here, so all of Frictional's usual masterful storytelling is done via diary entries, notes, and old photographs.
It's not a shift that entirely pays off. Frictional seems determined for Amnesia: The Bunker's horror to be best represented by the beast, scaling down the human nature of the story. But when I think back to the likes of Soma, it's the human element of the horror that made it so bone-chilling (yes, I'm thinking about that horrific ending). The unfolding horror of Amnesia: The Bunker, told over old documents, is really enthralling, but it's not quite on the same level as Frictional's past works.
The trench segment is also a superb setup for the horrors to come. Amnesia: The Bunker is Frictional's first game to properly arm you – you're handed a clunky pistol and told to shoot any soldiers you come across, each of whom fall with one hit. The pistol feels deliberately powerful in the opening section, but once you're in the bunker proper it's near-worthless in the face of the horrifying beast that stalks you, merely slowing the monster down temporarily while you flee.
This is the overarching theme of Amnesia: The Bunker. You need to evade the monster by any means necessary while exploring, whether that's with grenades, explosive barrels, fiery traps, or just shooting it in the damn face. Scavenging resources and bundling them back to your safe room is key, but with limited inventory space, you're in a constant fight to prioritize items and take only what's necessary. Will you take a grenade, which could slow the monster down should you encounter it, or a tank of gas for the generator, to keep the lights on temporarily and keep the beast at bay?
The Bunker sort of unfolds as one long puzzle. You're told you need dynamite and a detonator handle to escape, but oh, the detonator handle is locked behind a door with a passcode that can only be acquired from the communications broadcast room, and that can only be unlocked with one specific key found elsewhere. The Bunker has you constantly backtracking to areas and traipsing back and forth to pick up key items for proceeding, which is mercifully fine given the game's short run time.
Restrictive by design
Amnesia: The Bunker can, however, get a little frustrating thanks to the somewhat cramped level layout. The space is separated into four key areas: maintenance, quarters, a prison, and admin. You've got relatively little room to work within each – The Bunker is meant to be a claustrophobic place by design, after all – but there's still multiple routes to explore each section. That all changes when you're going from one distinct area to the next though, as you're forced down bottlenecks that severely restrict your creativity.
One bottleneck between areas is a rat-filled tunnel, for example, forcing you to burn your way through or distract them with some meat. There's shortcuts you can unlock to shorten the prolonged journey to another sector from the safe room, but the bottlenecks are still pretty frustrating and restrictive for a game that touts "if you think it's possible, it probably is."
With the monster an ever-present threat, every second and decision is paramount. The aforementioned generator is a stroke of genius from Frictional – it'll only stay on and keep the lights powered while it's got gas to guzzle, and this in turn reduces the beast's awareness of you around the bunker. But if you're sneaking around the bunker and the generator runs dry, you're suddenly stumbling around in the dark with the beast back on the hunt for you. It's utterly thrilling and dread-inducing stuff.
There are some shortcomings with this loop, though. The nature of the beast dictates you'll have at least a few do-overs if/when you're caught, and the more you die and get reset back to the safe room, the more The Bunker chips away at your determination to do things "properly." The fifth time of perishing to the rat-infested tunnel, I just sprinted there and gunned my way through the buggers, probably not what Frictional intended, and definitely something that can take The Bunker's dread-inducing atmosphere down a level.
Amnesia: The Bunker is a massive change in direction for horror masters Frictional, and it works – albeit with some sacrifices. The trench opener is a bold and brilliant new direction, with the horrors afterwards completely disarming the player, and desperately scavenging resources while keeping the power on is sufficiently terrifying. Those pesky bottlenecks work to restrict The Bunker's creative freedom though, and the beast and Frictional's new narrative devices just don't hit the same.
Amnesia: The Bunker was reviewed on PC, with code provided by the publisher.