We are only a couple of weeks into the New Year, and yet fans of the horror genre have already been subjected to three disappointments this month alone. The Devil Inside marketed itself trying to ride on the coattails of Paranormal Activity, only to quickly earn the nominee for worst film of the year; the Silent Hill HD Collection has been delayed to March, which would have been the one silver lining for fans looking for their next survival horror fix. To top things off, we have Amy, a game of several firsts for developer VectorCell: their first horror game, their first downloadable game, and their first non-handheld console game. If this game is any indication of their quality as a developer, we may hope it’s also their last.
Let’s dispense with the sole positive to be found: the premise. In the not-too-distant future, the world is on the brink of destruction from a mysterious virus that causes humans to mutate into zombie-like horrors. The story focuses on Lana, a young woman who is the caretaker of Amy, the titular 8-year-old who suffers from autism but seemingly possesses several unique talents ranging from the gifted (hacking) to the supernatural (muffling all nearby sound, among other powers), not to mention an immunity to the virus. While attempting to smuggle Amy away from her allegedly abusive doctor, the train boarding the two suddenly crashes, setting the stage for a series of escapes from the nearby infected as well as the military, who are both determined to steal Amy for some unknown, but doubtless sinister, purpose.At its core, Amy’s gameplay is nothing new for gamers who have played a survival horror game in the last two decades; players control Lana in the third perspective as she must push boxes, unlock doors, sneak past enemies and/or clumsily dispatch them with breakable weapons. When Lana sustains damage or lingers too long in a highly contaminated area, she begins to show visible signs of infection including dilated eyes, deteriorating skin, and a trippy camera followed by death. To recover from this, she can use collectible syringes scattered throughout each area, or keep little Amy within arm’s length at all times. Solving puzzles and advancing the story also restores health (which is also tied to her infection rate).
The escorting mechanic with Amy also draws inspiration from Ico; more often than not players must guide the little girl by hand while holding the shoulder button, though there are also puzzles that require cooperation from the mute child, such as crawling through a small duct in order to push a nearby switch, or using one of her otherworldly powers to give the pursuing enemies the slip.
As familiar as the gameplay is, it features enough ideas to keep things interesting. The co-dependency between Lana and Amy also factors into the game in a couple of intriguing ways, such as the controller vibration that simulates Amy’s nervous pulse as she grabs Lana’s hand, or the way both girls hide underneath a desk or inside a locker while hiding from an unbeatable creature looking to deliver a gory end for the both of them.And yet one critical factor keeps gamers from experiencing any enjoyment from Amy: the terrible presentation. Almost every gameplay concept, no matter how intriguing or competent it may seem on paper, fails utterly in nearly every single way due to its glitches, controls, and presentation. The game employs the antiquated tank-like movement found in the old Resident Evil games while featuring a behind-the-shoulder perspective. This in itself could be tolerated were it not for the floaty camera and choppy framerates, followed by a hideous amount of screen tearing and several visual glitches (such as characters’ heads spinning around or spontaneously floating in mid-air). While such effects would work to a horror game’s advantage (and in the case of mind-screw classics like Eternal Darkness, are wholly intentional), they only work against the character models and backdrops that would have otherwise held up as one of the better looking downloadable games.
As for the scant few moments where game isn’t disorienting players with its mechanical hiccups, it only works further to irritate them with some questionable design choices. The biggest offender by far is the checkpoint system; not only will the game not save your progress until you complete an entire act (out of five) in one sitting, the checkpoints within each act are spread so thin that you may end up having to start at the beginning after thirty minutes of trial and error. This is only hampered further by Lana’s paper-thin health, where several creatures can take her out in a single hit, which only results in further mistakes from players frustrated in having to stealth their way around all over again. Even the puzzle solving portions work to make you suffer, either by Amy’s unresponsive AI or the hacking mini-games that require guessing the right pattern for multiple slots with a limited number of tries.And yet all of these technical and mechanical shortcomings could be forgiven if the game’s atmosphere held up its end of the bargain. Unfortunately any general curiosity about the setting or its mysteries are quickly forgotten when exposed to the characters’ poor voice acting (to the point that you can hear their accents slip more than once), hokey reactions (Lana will not react whatsoever to nearby monsters or mutilated corpses, but will completely freak out whenever a nearby light bulb shorts out or an electric cable sparkles) and otherwise un-scary situations (the appearance of a cartoonish monstrosity that would look ridiculous even in a Resident Evil game).
When Deadly Premonition was released in 2010, its developers managed to craft a quirky and likeable setting despite its shoestring budget and below-average visuals. Amy is like the reverse, a game that tries to shoot high with its concept and mechanics, but is hampered miserably by its poorly optimised presentation and practically unplayable gameplay mechanics. If there’s one area in which VectorCell have succeeded, it’s in creating a horror game from which people are warned to stay far away… but for entirely the wrong reasons.