As gaming evolves to become more intuitive and open itself up to wider audiences, certain genres have almost been streamlined out of existence. The obtuse, slow paced, awkward realm of survival horror has been hit hardest, with mainstay games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill embracing more action-oriented gameplay, moving away from the "survival" style that modern gamers may find alienating.
In this light, AMY's heart is certainly in the right place. It aims to revitalize the survival horror genre, bringing it back to its roots with a focus on environmental puzzles, old fashioned scares, and a protagonist more comfortable running than fighting.
Unfortunately, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and AMY is as close to the concept of eternal, punishing anguish as a game can get.
AMY (PlayStation Network, Xbox Live Arcade [Reviewed])
Publisher: Lexis Numérique
Released: January 11, 2012
MSRP: 800 Microsoft Points, $9.99
AMY is the eponymous story of an autistic little girl, rescued from a mysterious test center by a woman called Lana. Lana and her charge are on a train bound for Silver City when an explosion triggers a chain of horrifying events that traps the two heroines in the middle of a zombie crisis, caught between undead mutants and the private army sent in to slaughter anything that moves.
By all accounts, the story is a Frankenstein's Monster of weary horror tropes and cardboard characters, treading familiar ground as telekinetic little girl avoids conspiracies, soldiers, and the cannibal dead. On its own, that's not such a bad thing -- the plot is at least inoffensive, making it the best thing AMY has going for it. This tendency to liberally pilfer ideas from other horror works, however, is something of a defining trait.
AMY's main method of resurrecting survival horror is to simply copy everything that similar games did ten years ago. Liberally stolen elements include "stalking" enemies that players will need to avoid by hiding in lockers or under tables, rudimentary stealth sections, and an endless litany of tired jump scares. I'm usually a fan of cheap scares when done right, but the cynical implementation found in AMY is almost embarrassing, thrown in without reason, just for the sake of having them. They're so obviously placed and scripted that players see them coming a mile away, not to mention that most of them are repeated several times during the course of the game. You'd think Lana wouldn't be shocked after seeing the third identical pipe hiss out the same identical cloud of gas.
The only truly shocking scare came during a combat sequence -- it was shocking that VectorCell had placed one of its hissing pipes in a combat zone, causing Lana to undergo a forced "yelp in fright" animation while I was trying to fight and giving the enemy a free attack. Needless to say, it was not amusing.
The unoriginal gameplay and shameful spook attempts would be forgivable if not for one simple fact -- AMY is one of the worst games ever made. There is not one gimmick, not one mechanic, not one technical element of AMY that isn't wrong in some way. Even the opening cinematic is choppy, stuttering, poorly animated and badly acted, setting a tone of awfulness that refuses to change.
Although AMY uses modern analog stick controls, Lana still moves with the precision of a PlayStation-era Resident Evil character, behaving more like a lift-truck than a human being. Getting Lana to sprint involves holding one button, mashing another, pushing on the stick, and hoping that the game decides she is allowed to run (sometimes it decides not to). Her walking speed is slower than her crawling speed, and adjusting the camera while moving causes her to stagger with half-animated stumbles.
If the camera is held at an angle, Lana will continue to move at a slower, stuttering speed. This is a problem when trying to be stealthy and manipulating the camera to keep an eye on enemy movement patterns. Even worse is the fact that walls and floors are laden with debris that players can stick to, causing her to run in place until stopped, steered, and repositioned like an old car. Needless to say, such issues are incredibly frustrating during chase sequences, where the slightest wrong move will have players jogging on the spot while slavering beasts close the gap.
Inexplicably for a survival horror game, combat is relied upon a good deal, and it's utterly dreadful. Do you remember the combat system in Silent Hill 4: The Room? It's that one. Yes, a game in the year 2012 is using a combat system lifted almost entirely from a 2004 game famous for bad combat. Using fragile metal bars, players simply hammer one button to attack and one button to dodge. There are no real tactics, as the game itself will decide which attacks connect and which ones don't. Also, Lana's weapon (which breaks after almost every combat sequence) will only appear while attacking, otherwise you wouldn't know she was carrying one without checking the inventory.
A lot of AMY revolves around trial and error, and it's possible to screw yourself over simply by doing things the game allows you to do out of sequence. If you raise an elevator or open the wrong door at the wrong time, you could have unwittingly led yourself to defeat later on. For example, there is one room with two floors. While on the upper floor, I raised an elevator, not realizing I needed it on ground level later. Once I eventually unlocked the lower floor, the door I entered through became blocked by a soldier who had positioned himself outside. I needed to escape via the elevator, but the only button to call it was on the elevator itself -- now raised on the second floor and thus unreachable. The only way to escape was to restart the checkpoint.
Checkpoints are, themselves, another bone of contention. When you're going to rely on trial-and-error gameplay, the absolute worst thing you can do is cultivate an atmosphere where players are afraid to try anything. Unfortunately, AMY's checkpoints are spread so far apart that such an atmosphere permeates the entire experience. If you die (which will happen often), you can expect to replay vast tracts of game, complete with the same canned, lengthy animations, and sluggish environmental puzzles. After replaying the same ten minutes of game several times in a row, the prospect of experimenting (and risking yet more death) becomes utterly abhorrent. Perhaps Vector Cell felt such harsh punishment would make the game more tense, but threatening players with recurrent boredom is perhaps the most pathetic attempt at artificially stimulated horror that a developer can pull.
Even worse is the fact that if you quit the game before completing a chapter, you will lose all your current progress in that chapter. The checkpoints are only good for the session they're unlocked in, because VectorCell simply couldn't be bothered to include a real autosave feature. In fact, the checkpoints don't even save dynamic progress, since your inventory and any environmental changes you've made will be reset according to what the game thinks you should have done up to that point. It's no better than the days before memory cards, when "progress" meant obtaining a password to skip beaten levels. These chapters can take anywhere between thirty and sixty minutes to clear, meaning that once you start playing, you have to truly commit your time. There is a reason why Resident Evil doesn't use a typewriter system for saving anymore, and it is because disrespecting a player's time like this is thoroughly unforgivable.
When players aren't being battered by zombies or sticking to floors, they are attempting to shepherd the titular Amy herself. It would be easy to consider AMY as nothing more than a gigantic escort mission, but to the game's credit, Amy herself usually isn't liable to face harm from enemies. While this mitigates a lot of the frustration usually associated with "babysitting" missions, having to deal with this incredibly stupid secondary character is still a miserable prospect.
The player actually relies on the secondary character to survive, rather than the other way around. If Lana is separated from Amy for too long, she becomes infected and will eventually fall down dead (without much warning, obviously). There are brief, forced moments where this becomes beneficial -- allowing Lana to walk past zombies and pose as one of them -- but for the most part, it's best to stick to the child as much as possible. Unfortunately, that's easier said than done. Pressing down a shoulder button allows players to hold Amy's hand ... unless the player lightly grazes a wall or turns around at too sharp an angle, causing Amy to let go. Likewise, Amy herself is just as liable to get stuck on walls or in doorways as the player character, and it's not uncommon to assume she's following, only to turn around and see her running on the spot like a moron, or simply refusing to move when beckoned. Considering Amy is autistic, the terrible A.I. of the game takes on a questionable, almost offensive new appearance.
Throughout the game, Amy can discover symbols drawn on walls, which unlock her telekinetic potential. She'll access powers allowing her to create a field of silence to muffle loud player noises, or a shockwave that pushes enemies back. Such powers rarely do much to enhance the game, however, usually just adding to the amount of tiring animations that the player must sit through. Also, because the checkpoint system doesn't save a player's real progress, any powers Amy acquires disappears every time you die or start a new chapter. A lot of time is spent watching Amy draw eldritch nonsense from off the wall.
There's a selection wheel to pick Amy's powers, but she rarely ever has more than one available ability because the game does not save a single shred of personal data. There have even been reports of entire chapters becoming unbeatable if a player requires Amy's power to unlock a door but dies, finds the power wheel empty, and discovers that the regenerative symbol is now stuck behind a door that locked behind them. No words can express the sheer depths of lunacy at play.
Every now and then, a puzzle sequence requiring co-operation will appear, and while these sections are remedial and full of repetitive, sluggish animations that bore a player mindless, this is the only time AMY becomes even vaguely tolerable. Sending Amy to press a button so you can use an elevator, or sending Amy to an elevator so you can press a button is about as lazy as environmental puzzling gets, but at least it's not as aggravating as the mid-nineties stealth and combat moments that litter everything else.
Most of the puzzles are just insulting attempts to squeeze as much mileage out of one environment as possible. Such cheap tricks include scanning DNA samples to unlock certain doors (which basically involves a lot of backtracking), or opening paths for Amy by pushing blocks around. It's almost impressive just how long AMY can keep you in a single room, just to draw out the gameplay and save on design costs. Let it not be said that Vector Cell isn't resourceful, even if such resources come at the expense of a player's time and patience.
Naturally, such a poorly designed game is also sloppy on the presentation front. The animation is almost humorously bad, and it's impossible to decide whether the humans or the zombies look scarier -- certainly Lana and Amy are the more disturbing entities, with their uncanny valley faces and staring, dead eyes. The biggest problem, however, is that the game is far too dark, even by horror standards. I turned up the brightness both within the game and on my television, and it was still too gloomy to see anything without squinting. Amy does have a lamp, but that only helps half the time, and the environments are still too drab and grey for it to make too much of a difference. The low framerate and frequent graphical stammers simply serve to put icing on the cake.
AMY is, quite simply, unpleasant to play. It's not just bad, it's mentally and physically uncomfortable. The simple act of getting Lana to walk along a corridor is so archaic and awkward that I actually feel distressed when playing. I'll cheerfully admit that I did not fight to the end of AMY. While I believe I might have gotten some perverse sense of pride from doing so, such twisted self satisfaction is not worth the misery of playing much further beyond the halfway point. Everything about AMY is broken, obsolete, or otherwise upsetting. It is everything bad about survival horror, minus anything that once made the genre enjoyable. One can't even enjoy it ironically, since it's far too po-faced and incommodious to approach anything that could be construed as funny.
If survival horror is to stay alive in future generations, it has to find some way of evolving without sacrificing the elements that make it scary. AMY's answer was to try a straight clone of those games from almost twenty years ago, paying no mind to the countless design and control improvements that we've seen since the nineties. AMY's overall goal is noble -- admirable, even -- but that doesn't excuse the fact that this game actually does harm to the survival horror genre, reminding us of the many flaws inherent in those games that we once loved. AMY sends the message that survival horror is dead, that the old ways of scaring players are rooted in bad ideas, broken controls and antiquated design. I do not believe that's entirely true, but AMY makes a compelling argument otherwise.
Regardless of one's stance on horror games, however, the simple fact is that AMY is a disgusting joke of a videogame. Rare is the time when I feel emotionally compelled to warn gamers against purchasing a game (let alone a ten dollar one), but for me to not use every ounce of strength I have to condemn this piece of software would be socially irresponsible.
There is no justification for releasing a game this unapologetically loathsome.