Amnesia: Rebirth feels like a game out of time. Like a lovingly restored ornamented relic found in the dark corner of a tomb somewhere, it is unmistakably beautiful but bears the marks of history like tiny fractures in stone. Frictional Games, a studio that largely shaped our collective appreciation of modern first-person horror titles (one way or another) fills the role of an archeologist now.
After massive swings with Amnesia trilogy and SOMA, Rebirth sees the studio romanticise their own history with wildly uneven results.
Lessons from their recent successes, and from the genre at large, occasionally present themselves too thankfully but Rebirth is far too concerned with restoring a golden age the sun has long set on.
Amnesia: Rebirth Review
Rebirth’s ambitions seem to be beyond the mechanical, resting on the laurels of Frictional’s past work with its gameplay and attempting an emotional study to rival SOMA’s identity conflicts. I’m not sure I’ve ever played a game as a pregnant woman, let alone one as far along in her pregnancy as protagonist Tasi Trianon is. A French archaeologist travelling with her husband, Tasi finds herself aboard a doomed flight to Algeria in the 1930s. The plane is struck by an interdimensional storm, ripping it apart as it slips between our reality and the next. It’s a stunning sequence, one of many cinematic moments that Rebirth excels at.
Tasi awakens alone in the wreckage, dodging the scorching desert sun until she can find comfort in the dank coolness of a nearby cave system. Inside the titular amnesia rears its ugly head as she finds the remains of the survivors camp, among which there are signs that she herself was with them when they first left the plane. It’s difficult to bristle at the very premise of the series and while Tasi’s slow discovery of the truth provides some halfway decent chills, I can’t help but wonder what Frictional could achieve without the “oops I forgot this cosmic horror” blueprint.
Still, Rebirth is at its best when Tasi is allowed to fully inhabit her narrative and it soon does away with the pretence that things are even remotely okay for the explorer. Some very mild spoiler warnings here. Triggered by a traumatic discovery, Tasi breaks through her amnesia and recalls her unborn child, from which point on she becomes singularly focused on its safety. You’re even prompted to check in on the child, cradling your stomach to calm your nerves by pressing X (an unintentionally hilarious riff on the meme but a sincere attempt at emotional engagement none the less).
What follows is ten or so hour jaunt through a wildly uneven game that successfully grapples with its ambitions as often as it fumbles them. Rebirth draws on some particularly dark parts of the human experience to tell its story and mileage will greatly vary on how much justice it pays to its inspirations. Details are best experienced in the game itself as the cast delivers a harrowing performance despite a shaky script, but Rebirth centres itself around the trauma of loss and even dabbles in colonialism.
Again, how successfully it does either is incredibly difficult for me to tell you as a white man but “dabbles” isn’t exactly the word you want in front of colonialism. Rebirth’s exploration of motherhood is equally distant at times, settling into tropes as often as genuine pathos. For how heavily it leans into Tasi’s interiority it’s also somewhat baffling that it offers players a choice on how the ending of the game will play out but again, Rebirth is often a confusing game. The rest of the narrative, a continuation of the concepts introduced earlier in the Amnesia series is largely inoffensive Lovecraftian theme park ride.
While satisfying for those craving a conclusion to some of the series’ lingering threads, these elements detract from what would have been served better as a stand-alone narrative. Crafting a sequel doesn’t necessitate these kinds of direct links, especially given that both SOMA and A Machine for Pigs deliver thematic throughlines rather than plot ones. The foray into the dark recesses of cosmic horror does allow Rebirth some stellar art direction choices, however, and despite being largely obscured by some awful lighting, the hopping between dimensions is effectively neat.
Back on earth the level design is fantastic too, backed up by an engine that while occasionally delivering Counter-Strike map realness does also deliver some gorgeous views. Daylight horror is a tricky beast to tame and Rebirth manages to imbue its various locations with just enough existential dread and gloomy corners to achieve the right kind of vibe. Most impressive I found was the sparing use of sunlight trying to invade steadfast stone structures, creeping in through boarded up windows and cracks that littered the walls like scars from the war.
Navigating these wonderfully melancholic places is as tight as its ever been in a Frictional game. You’ll wonder about, interacting with countless objects that have perfectly rendered physics but rarely any use – the smooth motion of opening and closing doors, in particular, felt deeply satisfying. There is no combat to speak of, instead, you’ll be battling darkness itself with a dwindling box of matches and a lantern that burns oil faster than the Australian government. Find yourself in the darkness for too long and tendrils will begin to obscure your vision, occasionally flashing up static images of concept art to try and make you jump.
Interestingly enough though, Rebirth is almost completely averse to punishing you for your mistakes and gladly offers assistance for the ones you can make. The dark is oppressive, sure, but not lethal; the only way you can fail is to be caught by one of the roaming ghouls. At which point you’ll awaken with either the monster moved or gone from your path entire, or past whichever area you were struggling with in the first place. It’s an aggressive accessible design choice that I can not decide if I love or loath. SOMA presents players with an option for non-lethal monsters before you begin its journey but Rebirth simply takes your hand when it thinks it needs to and sends you on your way.
Broadly speaking, difficulty is something Rebirth struggles to find a healthy relationship with. The puzzles are varied and occasionally brilliant but not as intuitive as you’d like. I applaud the game for at least sidestepping the usual survival horror fanfare of simply picking something up and putting it back in place but often the extra steps can feel convoluted or easy to miss. Likewise, the short supply of matches and lantern oil is borderline insufferable, actively hampering exploration of intriguing locations. Worse still is you’re meant to just casually ignore the litany of pre-lit torches and candles strewn about the place which Tasi simply refuses to pick up but can, of course, snuff out.
It feels directly at odds with the staples of Frictional’s designs; that ability to pick up most objects is forcibly muted when it comes to anything of value in the world itself. So in turn, on a larger scale, survival in Rebirth feels toothless outside of the puzzles which do at least let you engage with Tasi’s environment. The game whisked me past the harder moments and obscured the dark, stick corners I so desperately wanted to explore. Both of which could be easily mitigated with an options menu that allowed you to tweak your playstyle but I’m not sure Rebirth particularly cares about how you want to play.
I found it was ultimately a game with the trappings of something new but mired in the old ways, which die even harder than Tasi. A stagnant world and lacklustre thematic follow-through are somewhat patched over by an intriguing plot and engaging puzzle mechanics but Rebirth still comes up lacking. It is often gorgeous to look at and Frictional have undoubtedly refined the baseline of their mechanics but failed to design a game around them that feels worthy of the craft.
The genre that Frictional helped establish hasn’t quite moved on without them (SOMA remains a terrific evolution of their work) but Rebirth‘s romanticised version of the genre is perhaps best forgotten.
Amnesia: Rebirth was reviewed on PC using digital code provided by the publisher.