Though the horror genre has a rich history of using monsters as stand-ins for something truly horrifying, scary video games aren’t always so thematically ambitious. There’s a slew of zombie games, for instance, that trade in sharp social commentary for mindless shooting. That trend always leaves me looking for more cerebral horror games, ones that scratch the same itch as 2010’s psychologically unnerving Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
So perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that the first horror game that would accomplish that for me in 2023 is, in fact, a new Amnesia game. Amnesia: The Bunker, developer Frictional Games’ most ambitious horror title yet, turns an abandoned World War I bunker into a sprawling haunted house. Though I’m terrified of the unkillable monster that’s always stalking me from the shadows, the true horror comes from what Amnesia has to say about wartime PTSD — a vital subject that most proper war games try to keep locked in the dark.
Hiding in the dark
When Amnesia: The Bunker begins, I find myself in a surprisingly cinematic situation. I’m a soldier in World War I running through the trenches, pistol in hand, as bombs and gunfire ring out overhead. It’s the kind of action sequence that I expect from games like Battlefield 1. Though it’s a far cry from anything I’ve seen from Amnesia before, the stressful claustrophobia of it all still fits with Frictional’s atmospheric brand of horror.
That sequence acts as a dark prelude that successfully colors the more traditional Amnesia gameplay that ensues. Shortly after, I wake up in an eerily quiet French bunker. It’s a stark contrast to that chaotic intro, letting the violence I just witnessed soak in. I stumble through the darkness until I find another living soldier, but I don’t get a chance to ask him where I am before a monster devours him. After witnessing that, my goal is simple: get the hell out of here.
What immediately sets The Bunker apart from previous Amnesia games is its more open-ended structure. After finding a way to release the bunker’s emergency locks, I’m free to explore all of its distinct areas – from living quarters to an armory — in any order I want. Scattered notes give me leads as to what the ultimate goal of each area is, but I can tackle the Resident Evil-like puzzle box in any way. It’s a thoughtfully constructed space that turns exploration into a game of constant spatial reasoning.
There are a few major twists. The bunker’s lighting grid runs on a generator that I need to keep fueled at all times. When it runs out of gas, the structure goes completely dark. I do have a handy flashlight to help in those moments, but it’s a noisy antique that needs to be revved up like a chainsaw. And unfortunately for me, any noise will attract the attention of that monster I saw earlier, who persistently roams the halls. After an hour of playing, the loop fully clicks. I fill the generator up with fuel, go on “runs” through the bunker to collect as many resources as I can before the lights go out, and try to make as little sound as I can while doing so. It plays like a scary spin on SteamWorld Dig, and is almost roguelite-esque in its nature.
That loop makes for a strong — though at times frustrating — horror game premise. The stakes are incredibly high, as I can only ever save by returning to a safe room at the center of the bunker. The longer I spend exploring, the more I stand to lose if the monster kills me. It makes the moment when the generator runs out of fuel truly scary; my heart pumps out of my chest anytime the lighting grid goes black. The flip side, though, is that it can be incredibly difficult to make meaningful progress. It doesn’t take much to stir the monster and it’s hard to avoid once it’s on the hunt. After a while, I wasn’t so much scared as I was annoyed by the idea of having to repeat the same route for the fourth time. That’s a killer for a horror game, and it’s something that’s always breathing down The Bunker’s neck.
Despite that inherent frustration, The Bunker still largely works as a piece of video game horror. That’s because it isn’t just delivering scares for the sake of scares. The more I explore, I find notes left behind by soldiers in the bunker. Some give some clues as to where the monster came from, but others are simply from traumatized soldiers working through everything they’ve been through. The bunker isn’t just a clever video game location, but a mental prison that visualizes the inescapable nature of PTSD. It stalks these soldiers, as ever-present as the monster lurking in the shadows. Every time I hear a thump I don’t recognize, it triggers my anxiety as I fear the monster approaches — like hearing a truck backfiring and instinctively ducking for cover. That idea makes for one of the most harrowing psychological horror games I’ve played in years.
If you have the patience to deal with its aggressive risk-reward system, Amnesia: The Bunker is the kind of experience that’ll stick around in the back of your head. It’s a more effective war story than any Call of Duty game I’ve played, focusing less on the loud chaos of battle and more on the unsettling quiet that comes after. It’s not the monster that scares me, but those silent moments between attacks where I’m left wondering when it’ll happen again.
Amnesia: The Bunker launches on June 6 for PlayStation 4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and PC.