Reviewing Outlast and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs back to back shaved years off my life expectancy, but I would gladly give up my days as a senior citizen to relive both stories for the first time. Outlast is an adrenaline rush of urgency, whereas A Machine for Pigs lets fans live in its world, and breathe in its sights and sounds – not surprising since Frictional Games handed development to The Chinese Room, the team behind Dear Esther. The Dark Descent’s sequel advertises fewer scares alongside simpler mechanics too, which would benefit the narrative if it deviated from the "bad guy tries to right past wrongs" formula.
Mandus is a caring father, or so he thinks. As Mandus faces the viscera of a machine made for pigs, by pigs, his tale of redemption unfolds through numerous narration styles: notes and hallucinations accompany the ongoing search for his children’s whereabouts; gramophones recount back-and-forth interviews and therapy sessions; documents depict Mandus’ madness after a return trip from Mexico; and conversations transpire between he and his enigmatic business partner via antique telephones.
The storytelling almost drowns players in a cascade of character growth, as the stylishly written journals convey what a psychopathic monster Mandus has become, and demonize a faceless villain scheming to make his own ends meet. For anyone not interested in Mandus’ mistakes as a failed leader, visionary, and father, however, the plot delivers a valid analysis of the preciousness of life and what it means to play God, though it never breaks new ground – neither for the genre or the Amnesia series.
Don't grope the grizzly.
The terrors that lie ahead stray from the cold sweat-inducing type as well. The developers never resort to monster closets, and I could count the times I panicked on one hand. A Machine for Pigs is not void of apprehension. The imagery sets up nope-worthy moments; scaring players senseless just isn't the game's first priority. The Chinese Room wants you to experience their story, not stream the final cutscene on YouTube.
Watching the ending online would spoil much of the mystery and atmosphere – two words that have been thrown around a lot this year, what with Slender: The Arrival, Metro: Last Light, The Last of Us, and Outlast. But A Machine for Pigs eclipses them all. Taking place on New Year's Eve, 1899, the steampunk setting combines London's late Industrial Revolution with well-deserved turn-of-the-century paranoia. A mansion hollowed by secret passages, a church basement wrought with iron cages, and a meat processing plant built upon catacombs are a welcome supply of classic Poe and Lovecraftian horror.
The developers also remove certain Amnesia staples. Inventory system? Gone. Healing ointment? Absent. Sanity meter? AWOL. The lantern no longer burns through oil and tinderboxes, either. Now, electricity powers the light's beam – a constant reassurance despite deformed manpigs guarding an abyssal machine below London’s streets. Moreover, progress seldom requires a prolonged search for some miscellaneous MacGuffin. Flip enough switches, mix enough chemicals, pull enough levers, and something is bound to happen. Fans might complain, but puzzles were more often an impedance in The Dark Descent than its monsters.
Let me check my watch. Oh, it's NOPE o' clock.
A Machine for Pigs’ mutants startled me less than the original Amnesia's gimp-ified zombies. Each manpig’s appearance is scripted, removing the tension of happening across the beasts at random. Rather, their origins mean more to the game’s message. These creatures live as victims of twisted philosophies, where men use terms like "swine" and "the poor" interchangeably. What better way for the abominations to soothe their inbred aggression, then, than braining people with a cudgel or goring others on their tusks?
The danger is mitigated, however, once you realize they have not the speed nor the strength to kill Mandus unless cornered – another crack in the game's moody veneer. The manpigs cause lights to flicker, the lantern included. Given this advantage, exploiting the AI's lapses in programming became second nature as they hobbled around basements, their grotesque bodies just inches from my face. I never felt threatened; I only felt intimidated when they loosed their ear-piercing squeals.
A Machine for Pigs is unnerving, sure, though it will not leave the same horrifying impact as The Dark Descent on one’s psyche. Instead, fans can only sit in the dark, watching that exact manpig stagger about his route, and ponder the nightmares that could have been.
Publisher: Frictional Games
Developer: The Chinese Room
Release Date: September 10, 2013
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign)
Platforms: PC (Reviewed), Mac