The only thing scary about Amy is everything that isn’t supposed to be scary.
There are few things I dread more as a professional guy who gets professionally paid to write about games than a good, old-fashioned “is it me or is it the game?” scenario. At some point almost all writers slip up and confuse their own misunderstanding of a game’s mechanics for bad game design. It happened to me just last week. That realization was like a swift punch to the critical gut. Not only might it undermine whatever credibility I have, it also makes me question myself more than I already do, which can only result in either a hangover or far too many hours in bed. Or, most likely, both.
Yes, last week’s review of Super Crate Box is a perfect example. I played the new iOS version for hours and then criticized it for its seemingly random difficulty. The designers reached out and very politely explained that I misunderstood a crucial aspect of the game’s design. Those superfast red enemies don’t appear randomly, but are normal enemies that drop into the pit of fire at the bottom of the screen and come out the other side all riled up. Of course I feel like a total idiot for not realizing that. Is that mistake entirely on me, though? The iOS version of the game doesn’t explain the nature of the red guys at all, using only a slight audio clue to give the player a hint. Based on my twitter feed I’m not the only person who gets paid to write about games who failed to make the connection. Also the designers recognized this was an issue before my review and told me they’re already working on making this more clear to the player. So who’s at fault? Yes, I misunderstood that facet of the game, but then isn’t the game to blame if it doesn’t explain itself well enough?
You’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with Amy, the new downloadable survival horror game from Vector Cell. Playing through Amy made me think of that Super Crate Box review and the “me or the game” conundrum for one reason: everything is clearly Amy’s fault.
Amy aims to scare us. It takes place at the start of a zombie outbreak in the near future. A woman in her twenties is helping a mentally handicapped girl flee an oppressive institution. A sudden explosion derails their train, and the woman comes to in what could theoretically be called a hellish wasteland of twisted steel and bone if the lighting was actually bright enough for us to see anything.
After fiddling with the game’s light sliders we see an abandoned train station decorated with bodies and blood. Lighting fixtures and computer equipment randomly explode right as we walk past them. Zombies hop out from behind boxes and show off their sweet knife-sharp grills before trying to bite us with them. The only way to survive is to hold hands with the title character, a young girl who is inadvertently one of the most frightening characters in video game history. The only thing scary about Amy is everything that isn’t supposed to be scary.
Lana, the playable character, looks like a woman in prime physical condition, but she lumbers about like an old man with gout. She has to directly face an object to pick it up, and since picking stuff up is about 70% of what happens in Amy, that means repeatedly repositioning her until she can grab whatever trinket is shining through the puddles of blood on the floor. She regularly pushes the young Amy into unknown and possibly fatal situations through air vents that she could clearly fit through herself. When the two are separated and Lana finds the frightened child cowering in a cabinet her response is an emotionless “I’m pleased to have found you”. She’s less excited than when I find a french fry in a box of Burger King onion rings.
The main character isn’t just unlikable and a total slug to control. She’s also really horrible at fighting, which is inconvenient considering how often the game expects her to bash a zombie’s head in with a stick. Combat is a complete disaster in Amy. On the 360 we have to hold down the left trigger for Lana to enter her fighting stance, during which one button swings her weapon and another blocks. Everything is so stilted during these scenes that victory seems like pure luck. Lana is slow to respond to our input, swinging or dodging after we’d like her to. Most contact feels completely random, like the game is taking pity on us and letting us get a good lick or two in instead of acknowledging what we’re actually doing. And by the time we’re done with any fight our weapon is ready to fall apart with the slightest bit of pressure. Even when we’re doing well the fights are an incredibly dull nuisance. And guess what: when we die we might have to replay the last thirty minutes, as Amy’s checkpoint system was apparently designed in 1997.
There’s no mistaking it: Amy is a narrative and mechanical disaster. The few interesting aspects, such as how holding Amy’s hand can cure Lana and the central mystery of how Amy is connected to the zombie plague, are swamped by horrible mechanics and trite storytelling. I’d have to absolutely loathe myself to ever seriously wonder if the problem here was with me or with Amy.
Garrett Martin is the videogame and comic book editor for Paste Magazine. He still believes that Sinistar is the scariest videogame ever made. Twitter him, etc.