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The RPS Advent Calendar 2023, December 19th

Tunnel vision

A close up of Horace the Endless Bear looking at a big pile of presents with his name on, next to a plate of cookies with a glass of milk. It's the 2023 RPS Advent Calendar!
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun

Advent calendars are all about opening doors in search of wonderful treats, but you should probably leave this one closed.

What that's guttural moaning and scratching? I have no idea what you're talking about, I can't hear a thing. Please don't check - ah, now you've done it. Yep, it's Frictional's splendid horror sim Amnesia: The Bunker, biting your arms and legs off.

Walking down a hallway with an improvised torch in Amnesia: The Bunker
Image credit: Frictional Games

Edwin: In my more grandiose moments when I've had either too little or too much sleep, I feel like calling Amnesia: The Bunker the perfect videogame. That's "perfect" in the sense that the Alien is a "perfect organism", not "perfect" as in "a nice glass of Dalmore 12-year-old single malt is the perfect end to a frosty winter's day". There are no days in The Bunker, and there is no whiskey either. Instead, you're stuck in an underground labyrinth with a wind-up WW1-era flashlight, a pocketful of rags, and a horrible creature that lives in the walls and can hear you winding up said flashlight from several rooms away. Seemingly.

"Seemingly" is one of the key words in The Bunker's lexicon. As you explore the bunker, setting out from the relative security of the metal-doored Adminstration Office near the collapsed entrance, you're given few hard indications of your unkillable adversary's behaviours and state of mind. There's nothing in the way of a Metal Gear-style exclamation mark pop-up when you've been rumbled, though I think this would make for an amusing mod. Instead, you have to piece together how safe you are from an assortment of tiny cues: the flickering of the lights overhead, the muffled intake of breath which suggests the monster is becoming aware of your presence, the very specific kind of growl it makes when it slithers into the open, the horrible, woozy, wobbling background tone that plays when it's actively looking for you.

By extension, you also have to work out what you can do without alerting the beast. Shooting the lock off a door is definitely going to bring merry hell down on your head. But shutting a door a bit too firmly, or dragging a barrel to uncover a hatchway, or annoying some mutant rats? You'll have to find out. It's a game that forces you to weigh every movement with the care of somebody handling a live grenade (definitely save those for times of last resort). Your only real source of guidance are the letters and journals written by the other soldiers stationed in the bunker, who are either fled or dead or worse.

You could say similar things of previous Amnesia enemies, like Rebirth's harvesters, but The Bunker ups the ante by secretly being a kind of immersive sim, based around exploring the roughly circled areas on the Admin Office map, combining objects, following up leads, and trying out different ways of circumventing barricades and traps left behind by your slaughtered comrades. It shines by, essentially, taking the ambiguity inherent to a genre devoted to multiple, player-invented solutions, and turning it into a source of fear.

Leaning to look down a dark hallway in Amnesia: The Bunker, with a fire silhouetting a dead body at the other end
Looking at the (small) inventory in Amnesia: The Bunker
Image credit: Frictional Games

And just to cap things off, it introduces a resourcing element tethered to safety which makes efficient planning and execution a question of life or death. The Admin Office houses a generator, which you can top up with sparingly discovered jerry cans to switch on lights throughout the bunker - around five minutes of illumination per can, during which the beast is less likely to emerge, and during which you must, amongst other things, scavenge more fuel for the next expedition.

The game's semi-random distribution of resources and vital tools strikes a great line between punishing you for getting stranded after dark, and encouraging you to push your luck - you have no idea how much fuel there is in total, so it's always tempting to do more than is advisable every time you switch the generator on. I played it too safe during my first run on normal difficulty, and ended up having to spend an hour in darkness before finally stumbling on another jerry can. The idea of tackling The Bunker on the recently introduced Shellshocked difficulty is... not appealing, in the best of ways.

Alice Bee: I really enjoyed The Bunker for its reduced scope compared to Amnesia: Rebirth. That felt like it was trying to do a lot, whereas The Bunker has a much more focused goal (i.e. scare the piss out of you) in a much more focused location. The titular bunker is large enough to earn the descriptor "warren-like", and to be easy to get lost in even after you've tried to memorise your route on the map, but small enough that you can learn your way around - especially the areas you run through multiple times. It's a claustrophic and panicked horror game as a result, and is a good entry point into Frictional's work in general. As a part of the Amnesia series it's almost entirely stand-alone, divorced from much of the lore that weighed Rebirth down a bit, and thus I have hope for more horrible little capsules of monstering in the future.

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The all-seeing eye of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, the voice of many-as-one.